Category Archives: commentary

Giving Thanks For The Saints 2017

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

As has become my tradition, on the First of November, celebrated in many Christian branches as the Feast of All Saints, I pause to remember and share with you those in my life who have inspired me and have joined the Church Triumphant in the past year.

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

I remember and give thanks for:

  • Adam – The son of long-time friends of ours who loved life and joined the Church Triumphant at much too young an age
  • Bill – A member of the Greatest Generation who served his country as part of a WWII bomber crew and one I enjoyed catching up with on Sunday mornings.
  • Lois – Oh where do I begin? She is one of those who lived life on her own terms and one to whom God blessed with a full measure of years, living a restricted but vibrant life much longer than many of us expected. She was a strong Christian, and devoted Presbyterian quietly volunteering in our presbytery office for many years. When visiting her in her later years she always asked me for news of the presbytery.
  • Robert – A respected, faithful, energetic and committed leader in the church. A long-time pastor and later para-church worker who had a sense of call to the disadvantaged and the outcast, and to recruiting others to help in these areas along with him. I did not always agree with him in theological matters, but I respected his views and he respected mine. He was a good friend and kindred spirit in our shared quirky sense of humor.
  • Michael – A faithful and hard worker for the church who I knew from synod work. Another who I frequently disagreed with, but in our disagreement we respected each other.
  • Edward – A faithful church worker, active with me at the synod level. His work and resources benefited many racial ethnic pastors, including some well-respected teaching elders in the PC(USA).
  • Garland – A down to earth member of our men’s group, loving husband and faithful in his religious observance
  • Don – A pastor who had to go on disability due to a degenerative illness, but who was as full of life as he could be to the end.
  • Gordon – A faithful and hard working ruling elder in my presbytery and others before he moved here. Another who I differed with on some theological and polity points, but who I worked closely with, and with great mutual respect, on a couple projects for the presbytery.

O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

I will conclude with my uncle, Bob. Not a “religious” man and he held some strong opinions on the institutional church and its historic failings, views that were a road block to him for traditional Christianity. But he was deeply spiritual and believed in something bigger – he was just not certain what. We talked and I prayed for him, and with him, over the years, especially during his final days. He had questions about what was next, and we tried to give answers to those questions. So being the Calvinist that I am I commend his soul to God and give thanks for his life and what I have learned from him. I do hope for his salvation and that the human frailness and failings of the church are overcome and he has eternal life in Jesus Christ through the Grace of God.
[The picture below was taken at sunrise on the day he passed away.]
But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

And so on this day I give grateful thanks to the Lord of All for having each of them in my life at one time or another and the witness and encouragement they have each been to me.

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Last Week In The Presbyterian Church In Ireland: Everyday Disciples And Essentials

Last week was a busy one for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland with their Special Assembly on Everyday Disciples and in that the roll-out of the new Essentials discipleship program. A close look at the Essentials material in a moment, but first a brief review of the Special Assembly.

Beginning on Monday of last week, over 600 people gathered at Ulster University in Coleraine for this Special Assembly around the theme Everyday Disciples and focusing on discipleship. It was not a deliberative assembly but a four-day event to prepare and energize members in their own discipleship walks as well as reaching out to others. In the church’s news article in advance of the Assembly the Moderator of the GA, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Noble McNeely is quoted as saying:

As Christians, Jesus calls us to be His disciples in all aspects of our lives. The title and theme of our Special Assembly is in recognition of the increasing necessity for today’s followers of Jesus to be equipped by the Church to be effective disciple-makers in their various spheres of everyday life.

Many of us however, recognise that we have perhaps concentrated too much on programmes and activities in our churches and have not been as strong on providing the essentials to facilitate making mature disciples.

The daily keynote addresses from our two principal speakers and the range of seminars available will help us to consider seriously the need for daily discipleship. It will also help us to understand better how we can be involved in a 21st century reformation of church and society.

The two principal speakers were pastors from U.S. churches who spoke on the theme of discipleship with an emphasis on a believer’s life and the local church. The first speaker was Rev. Randy Pope, pastor of Perimeter Church (with the PCA) in Atlanta. The second speaker was the Rev. Dr. Ray Ortlund, Jr., pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville. More on the speakers from both the PCI news article as well as one from the Belfast Telegraph.

I saw no indication of a live stream of the event but there was a healthy (OK, one non sequitur has crept in) and helpful Twitter presence so I would encourage you to check out the hashtag #everydaydisciples. And tracking there, from all that I saw the conference had a laser-sharp focus on the topic of discipleship and good quality keynote sessions and workshops. I appreciated the high quality of the stream of tweets but have resisted pasting any in here.

At the end of the Special Assembly a new discipleship program called Essentials was rolled out. I have purchased a copy and am favorably impressed with the focus, quality and helpfulness of this resource.

So, for your £12 you get the eight videos and five participants books with additional books £1 each. There is also a leader’s guide and a preaching plan included. And with the purchase you get access to the videos online for download in a number of different formats.

As you might have guessed it is an eight session program with each session taking the participants through a step in the journey of Jesus with his disciples. Here is a breakdown of the sessions:

  1. Come – COME AND SEE: Discipleship starts with awareness of Jesus before activity for Him
  2. Call – FOLLOW ME: The essential call of discipleship is to follow our Master Jesus
  3. Community – SHARE LIFE: We can’t do discipleship alone. We learn to follow Jesus as part of His church
  4. Culture – STEP OUT: Disciples don’t escape or embrace culture, but engage with it as they follow Jesus
  5. Courage – SPEAK UP: Disciples aren’t just called to live well in culture, but also to speak up for Jesus
  6. Cost – DENY YOURSELF: Following Jesus brings a cost in every area of our lives
  7. Challenge – GO MAKE: The challenge of becoming disciples who make disciples
  8. Continue – LOOK UP: We never graduate from needing Jesus but continue following him in every age and stage of life

I really liked this progression and thought it was a useful and logical way to develop the concept of discipleship. And it should be clear from the progression above that this resource, like the Special Assembly, was about both our own discipleship as well as equipping disciples to make disciples of others. I also liked that this is not a prescribed formula for doing discipleship but a journey and way of life from which helping others develop as disciples is an integral part.

Each session has a Before You Watch opening discussion with some intro questions and the Bible reading. The book gives a basic idea to keep in mind during the video and provides space in the book to jot down thoughts or comments. And in the After You Watch section a time to respond and discuss based on the five concepts of React, Reflect, Apply, Story, and Respond.

Each video is about 15 minutes long (plus or minus about one minute) and are all follow the same pattern, opening with a brief intro, then the Bible passage followed by a couple of individuals commenting and reflecting on the Bible reading. Finally, just under half the video is a member, or in a couple cases two members together, telling a part of their spiritual journey relevant to the topic of that session. The videos are well produced, the timing of them and the segments in them right for the audience and generally interesting to watch. The almost four minute promo video on the web page uses segments from all the videos and gives you a flavour for them.

It is worth saying up front that this series is not intended for a world-wide audience as it is produced for individuals from Ireland with themes and stories that resonate within their cultural setting and experience. For example, near the beginning of video three as the speaker talks about Christian community he makes reference to a number of experiences in that society in saying “Doesn’t Jesus know this is Ireland… We do division really well.” The cultural focus is definitely a benefit in getting the material out to the intended audience. For me it detracted little from the videos but if used in another setting some interpretation may be necessary if viewers are unfamiliar with the cultural themes.

Overall I was very favorably impressed with this resource. High quality and well thought out. I can only say that I went through the whole thing on my own and not with a group but it seems like it should work well. It is not high-pressure and the spiritual journeys shared in the everyday members of the church are well chosen and engaging and would seem to give plenty to talk about in a group discussion.

There were a couple of minor items that did jump out at me: One was that the scripture passages which, while appropriate, were not in chronological order. While session one and session two did come from early in the Gospels, session 3 then jumps to the end of John and the High-Priestly Prayer to talk about community. If the over-arching framework is disciples on their journey being developed by Jesus something more in order might have been more powerful. The second is pretty minor and that is a mention by the person in session 5 in telling his story talking about leading someone to Christ and the Sinners Prayer. It is a quick passing reference and not in the spirit of “this is how its done” but in some Reformed circles that particular prayer is not highly regarded for various reasons. (e.g. Ligonier, TGC)

Finally a couple of nice touches I liked in the series. First, the series is bookended in forming disciples – at the beginning the call to become one and at the end the commission to go and make them. And second, the final session ends in prayer – a good conclusion and reminder of where, as disciples, we are grounded.

Bottom line – I liked the series and found it a good framework and model for such a resource. Clearly some significant thought and testing has gone into designing it and producing it. Yes, it is produced with a particular cultural setting in mind but I think the value of this outweigh’s the downside of portability. And you can’t argue with the cost and I have not figured out if the production budget is depending on volume of sales or subsidy, but I suspect the latter. However, I can say I enjoyed working through the series on my own and can say I was stretched a bit by it.

My thoughts for what they are worth. Your mileage may vary… (to use one of our cultural idioms 😉 )

Presbyterian Presidents

While it was very tempting today to riff on Chesterton (“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”) or Psalm 20 (“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”) I decided on a different path. Instead, we have the potential for another self-identified Presbyterian to be elected the head of the executive branch of the U.S. government so I thought I would take a brief look at other Presbyterians in that position.

There are a number of lists of the religious affiliations of Presidents, including Wikipedia, Pew Research Center, and Adherents.com. From these lists, it is clear that the largest single group is the presidents who were Episcopalian with about eleven total. This is closely followed by the ten-ish Presbyterians. And coming to a fixed number is a bit challenging because of switching in their lifetimes.

But some presidents were life-long Presbyterians and easily identifiable with that denomination. These include:

  • Andrew Jackson, raised and self-identified as one his whole life, although he technically did not join a church until after he was president.
  • James Buchanan, raised and educated (Dickinson College) in a reflection of his Scots-Irish Presbyterian roots, but like Jackson did not officially join until later in life.
  • Grover Cleveland, a son of the manse but with age is reported to have become less devout
  • Benjamin Harrison, a lifelong and active Presbyterian. More on him a but further below.
  • Woodrow Wilson, a son of the manse often held up as a model of Presbyterian presidents. However, being politically and academically active during the fundamentalist/modernist debates, he came down on the modernist side at a time when the PCUSA was still dominated by the conservatives.

Two presidents became notable Presbyterians later in life:

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose upbringing and earlier life included family participation with the River Brethren sect of the Mennonites and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In his presidential years and especially in retirement at Gettysburg Presbyterian Church he was an active member.
  • Ronald Reagan, was raised in his mother’s Disciples of Christ church but after moving to southern California was associated with Bel-Air Presbyterian Church much of his adult life.

And three presidents drifted towards the Methodists:

  • James Knox Polk, whose middle name Knox reflects his mother’s Scottish roots and descent from John Knox’s brother. While raised Presbyterian, later in life he would identify with the Methodist church, although he would regularly attend Presbyterian services with his wife.
  • Ulysses S Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, I am lumping together as, at least according to Adherents.com, their paths are about the same. While accounts are not entirely consistent they both may have had Presbyterian connections early in their lives but they were not the most religiously active later and generally were more visible with their wives’ Methodist traditions.

It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln, while not an adherent to a religious institution, did regularly attend Presbyterian services with his more devout wife Mary.

Another interesting note is that Jame Madison, while never identifying as a Presbyterian, was a student of that great colonial-era Presbyterian scholar and theologian, John Witherspoon, at the College of New Jersey.

And speaking of the College of New Jersey, it is probably worth mentioning that the son and namesake of clergyman and second president of that institution, Aaron Burr, Sr., was a vice-president of the U.S., but these days is better known for a particular incident.

Let me return to Benjamin Harrison and his Presbyterian faith. While Wilson is held up as the Presbyterian scholar and academic, I enjoyed finding out more about Harrison and in the humble, day-to-day faith associated with the Calvinists he may be a better representative for what it means to be an active member of the church. For an interesting read on his faith there is an article by William C. Ringenberg, “Benjamin Harrison: The Religious Thought and Practice of a Presbyterian President.” While his grandfather, President William Henry Harrison, is typically counted as a nominal Episcopalian, it was his grandmother, a strong Presbyterian, who helped raise him and left her mark. Upon graduation from college he considered a career in the ministry and while widely acknowledged as having the gift of oratory, his innate interpersonal skills were lacking and pastoral work would have been more challenging. He chose law, and politics, instead.

Throughout his life he was active in the local church, serving as a ruling elder, Sunday school instructor and other positions. Maybe the most telling statement in that article about his church activity is this:

A long-time usher, Ben passed the collection plate on both the last Sunday before going to Washington for his inauguaration [sic] and the first Sunday after he left office

Need I say more?

So as the first polls are about to close, will we have another self-identified Presbyterian become president? The experts say no, but it ain’t over until the voters have their say. We shall see.

Stay tuned
Postscript:

Reading through some of this stuff, it seemed to me that another interesting path to chase down could be Presbyterians who served as U.S. Secretary of State including such interesting political and Presbyterian names as William Jennings Bryan, John Foster Dulles and Condoleezza Rice. But I will leave that for another day.

Wrap Up And Reflection On The Fourth Day Of General Assembly

It was an interesting day at the 222nd General Assembly on a number of levels. Like one of my previous wrap-ups I am going to take this in reverse chronological order.

I write this from the convention center as the hour grows later and Committee 4 – The Way Forward continues their work. In my wrap up from Sunday I was partly right and partly wrong in my assessment. What I got right is that they are working late on Tuesday night – to my knowledge the only committee still working. What I got wrong is that I suggested they might be working through it in a cursory way to get it done. Watching the committee working this evening it is clear that they are taking their job very seriously. They are using parliamentary procedure fairly well, the members of the committee are listening and respecting each other, and they are being very thoughtful and deliberate in what they write. It is a pleasure to watch them work on this, with the exception that the hour grows late. (For the record, they did get to the point where they got the heavy lifting done and could have done some more detailed work but instead did lump a few overtures together to be answered by an earlier action.)

And if you asked about my using the word “writing,” yes they are writing a lot. Part of their deliberative process was to be generative and come up with new ideas to move the church forward. They have discussed some interesting ideas, wrestled with the polity constraints, and will be bringing something interesting to the plenary. I am not going to expand on that at this time since it is not finished yet, but it will be interesting to see what the whole Assembly does with it.

I spent most of the rest of the day observing the Committee on Mid Councils. Today they were dealing with the question of synods. They were instructed early on that the actions of previous Assemblies were not binding on this Assembly. Therefore, if the 221st had asked synods to find a way to restructure themselves, this Assembly did not have to follow through with that. In brief, they did not. After hearing from a lot of people for and against, after discussion in the committee about options, after advice from the ACC they chose to recommend rescinding the actions of the 221st and leave synods alone. There were whispers of “minority report” and we will see what comes to the floor. Both this and their decision on non-geographic presbyteries rub some people the wrong way so it will be interesting to see how the different dynamics of the plenary play out.

On the one hand, a lot of time, effort and money have gone into two Mid Council Commissions over the last five years. I have heard some reaction that after all that work it is being undone. On the other hand, the process of the last two years with the synod consultations has happened, they came back with a recommendation and this committee basically took that recommendation.

The Mid Councils Committee closed their work considering a request for an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) about the inclusive nature of the church and its leadership and whether non-ordained leadership from church plants could be given a seat at the table in presbytery with voice and vote. The original motion from a member of the committee was to do that but when it was explained that if they wanted to have an AI they would have to provide it. No one felt like they had the necessary words, or maybe the time, and without much additional discussion the request for the AI was denied. I bet if that had not been the very last item on the docket a writing team would have put something together for consideration at the end. But so goes business at the GA.

Finally, please allow me to tell my best story of the day – maybe of the whole GA.

Before the Mid Councils Committee began today Jana Blazek from the Outlook and I were setting up at the press table. Todd Freeman, the Moderator of the committee came over and was chatting with us. When I introduced myself he recognized my name but not from this blog. It took him a moment but remembered that I was the author of the Outlook article looking at the overtures related to synods. He explained that he wanted to read from it but left that copy of the Outlook in his hotel room. “We can fix that” we told him and helped him call it up on his tablet. Thanks to Jana for the picture of me and Todd with his table showing the Outlook article.

Comm5Mod

He then proceeded to open today’s meeting by reading to the committee the first paragraph of my Outlook article on synods. I am humbled to say the least. My thanks to the Outlook for the opportunity to write it and for them publishing it.

And with that, I am going to crash. No writing time tomorrow morning as I will be meeting with people but will be back to live blogging as the afternoon plenary begins at 2 PM PDT.

See you then.

 

Portland Between Scylla and Charybdis

MtHoodOutlookOn my return home from work yesterday I was greeted by the cover of the of this week’s issue of the Presbyterian Outlook with a beautiful shot of Mt. Hood from the south. Not often we get a literal active volcano on the cover of the Outlook.

But it serves as a reminder for those of us going to Portland for the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that from a natural hazard point of view Portland lies between Scylla and Charybdis, between a rock and a hard place, or to be geologically specific the Cascades and the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

To be very specific, the geologic hazards are dominated by a chain of active volcanoes on the east and one of the world’s great mega-thrust subduction zones on the west. Think Mt. St. Helens (which is not that far away) and the 2011 Fukushima earthquake. In particular, the Cascadia earthquake potential got a lot of publicity from a New Yorker article almost a year ago.

If you sense a certain amount of interest and enthusiasm on my part it has to do with the fact that these are the types of things I deal with in my day job as a geologist who specializes in seismic hazard analysis.

So what are we looking at? Well, the US Geological Survey has put together a nice little schematic cross-section of the Pacific Northwest that goes right through Portland and Mt. Hood.

subductionBasically, the sea floor is going down under Pacific Northwest and as it goes down the rocks heat up, magma is produced and comes to the surface in the Cascade range. As far as the volcanoes are concerned, they are clearly active. In Mt. Hood’s case it appears that Lewis and Clark missed the last big eruption by a bit over a decade, but reports of smoke and clouds later in that century are considered to be small eruptions from the mountain.

The good news, is that based on the current volcanic hazard assessments for Mt. Hood the mountain is far enough away that the most energetic products of a future eruption – lateral blast, pyroclastic flows, lava flows and lahars – would probably not directly affect Portland. The city would almost certainly get covered in airfall ash however.

And in case you are wondering, Portland is not unique. Here is a diagram of the last 4000 years of volcanic history for the Cascade Range from Wikipedia (and yes, I can say professionally that this chart is pretty good).

Cascade_eruptions_during_the_last_4000_yearsSo that is Scylla – the rock. What about Charybdis? What lurks in the deep blue sea?

The answer is a subduction zone capable of generating great earthquakes and accompanying tsunamis. The zone is long, it is wide and it is shallow – perfect conditions for a giant earthquake of around magnitude 9. We know because, among other reasons, one of these hit in January 1700. The indigenous peoples have legends about the earth shaking and the sea rising and inundating their villages. And while those accounts and geologic evidence give a narrow date range, the exact date of the earthquake on January 26th comes from Japanese records of a surprise tsunami that arrived with no shaking felt on those islands. Overall, there is evidence of seven great earthquakes in the last 3,500 years with a recurrence interval of between 300 and 400 years. And yes, with the last event 316 years ago we have entered that interval.

But what are the chances in a one week interval? Pretty low for both.  Doing a rough calculation including not just the mega-thrust but also the local faults around Portland, I get a probability of about one chance in 10,000 of damaging shaking during GA. And yes, one fault, the East Bank Fault, runs very close to the convention center. But if you want to be prepared, the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management does have their Survival Guide to the Big One online.

As for Mt. Hood – enjoy the great view. While there has been some recent new earthquake activity, it is minor and is not accompanied by other signs of impending volcanic eruption. Any critical activity would come with enough warning for us to get out of town before something big happens.

Now, if you want to use any of this natural activity and hazard as an analogy, metaphor or allegory for what might happen at the meeting well that is left as an exercise for the reader.

And if you need a final assurance that major geologic activity has a low probability of occurrence, you can look for me in Portland right there with you.

Have fun!

A First Look At Some New PC(USA) Numbers

Over the last couple of weeks the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has released two sets of data that will be the focus of attention at the upcoming General Assembly. At some point in the next few of months I hope to really drill down into the data some more, but to do that there is a third report that I am waiting for so a detailed analysis will have to wait for its release. But because they will be the focus of attention in a couple of weeks, here are some initial comments.

The first one I will look at is the annual report of the summary statistics for the denomination including the 2015 membership data. To some degree this is either “move along, nothing to see here” or a case of Alfred North Whitehead’s famous quote “It takes a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” But here we go anyways.

The money quote is always the totals so the PC(USA) finished 2015 with 9,642 churches, 20,077 teaching elders and 1,572,660 active members. That is a 1.9% drop in churches, fairly consistent with the 2.1% and 2.2% in the two preceding years. The number of teaching elders declined by 1.5% after declines of 0.9% in 2014 and 1.4% in 2013. The membership decline has been rising slightly with a 4.8% drop in 2013, a 5.3% drop in 2014 and then a 5.7% drop this past year.

Often times the story is “look how many churches and people are leaving the PC(USA) for more conservative denominations.” Now I will not deny that is an issue in these numbers but let’s add a little perspective here. The statistics show that in 2015 the PC(USA) dismissed 104 churches to other denominations. In the same year they dissolved/closed 91 churches. In general, over the last four years the number of churches dismissed has typically been roughly the same as the number closed. (2012: 86 closed, 110 dismissed; 2013: 74 closed, 148 dismissed; 2014: 110 closed, 101 dismissed) Over those four years there have been 13, 24, 15 and 14 churches organized.

It is the same story with membership losses. While the church lost 47,728 members by certificate of transfer in 2015, 27,469 joined the Church Triumphant (death) and 79,002 were lost to “other”, i.e. walking out the door and being dropped from the rolls. In general, the number of members transferred has been about half the number in the other category over the last several years. For perspective, the total gains by profession of faith, transfer, and other over the last year were 59,092.

In case you have not picked up where I am going with this my point is that dismissals are only part – roughly half – of the problem. Even ignoring dismissals of congregations and members the replacement rate in the PC(USA) is still well below the losses to dissolutions, deaths and disappearances.

There is another important component to keep in mind and that is the statistics use an old model and do not reflect a new paradigm. The major development emphasis in the PC(USA) right now is the 1001 New Worshiping Communities and as most of those are not chartered and do not have regular members they are not in these numbers. I could not find a specific current number but the number of 1001 NWCs appears to be between 250 and 300 at this time.

One piece of good news in the numbers is that for 2015 the total giving was up by 0.5%. With the decrease in membership this means that the per member giving rose 6.6% from $1043 to $1112.

The second report that was issued is the final report on The Church In The 21st Century. This resulted from a church-wide consultation and conversation on the denomination’s identity and where the PC(USA) should head. The report itself focuses on an online survey to which over 3000 members responded. There are two versions, a report only version with OGA annotations called When We Gather At The Table, and The Church in the 21st Century report from Research Services that has the appendix with detailed statistics. While the narrative is very similar, and in places identical in the two reports, I will be working from the latter one for the detailed statistics.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about this report is that it is self-reporting and not a random sample. Here are the two important paragraphs printed in both reports (page 6 of the detailed report):

Because this project invited the input of any and all people and entities of the PC(USA) (individuals, congregations, seminaries, mid-councils, and various affiliated groups [e.g. new worshiping communities, immigrant fellowships]) within a short time frame, creating a probability sample to ensure a representative group of Presbyterians was not feasible. Instead, a convenience sample (that is—a sample of volunteers) was used. As such, we cannot calculate a response rate.

Findings from the resulting convenience sample will not be as generalizable as findings would be if they had been taken from a (random) probability sample. However, an analysis of the demographics of those who participated in the study reveals that the sample somewhat matches the known demographics of Presbyterians as a whole. Exceptions are noted in the Demographics section, which follows.

So here is the caution: You can not take the numbers in this survey and say “According to the survey we know X about the PC(USA).” You can say that we know X about those that responded to the survey.

So does this mean that the survey is not useful? μὴ γένοιτο (by no means) But to consider what it does represent let’s take a look at a couple of points about who responded.

The report in Appendix A gives the results of each question. While I wish they would give the raw numbers we can work with the total responses and percentages of each question. To begin with, there were 3,427 responses and 98% were PC(USA) affiliated so that would be about 3358 PC(USA) individuals. Now, 3,055 submitted an answer to the question of whether they were ordained. Of those, 30% said they were teaching elders so that is about 917 meaning the other 2138 are members of churches. Considering those numbers, that means that 4.6% of teaching elders responded (based on the 2015 numbers discussed above) and 0.14% of members responded.

Let’s drill down on those members for a moment. Of the total of 3,055, 41%, or 1253, are ruling elders. Converting that into percent of members of churches, 59% of those who respondents who are not teaching elders self-identified as ruling elders. For comparison to a more controlled sample, in the 2011 demographic profile of the Presbyterian Panel 36% of members surveyed said they were ordained ruling elders.

In the new report participants were asked to rate their social orientation and theological orientation on a scale of 1 to 7. Based on the responses the report categorized 62% of all participants as socially liberal, 9% neutral and 29% conservative. The question was also asked for theological orientation with 54% liberal, 11% neutral and 35% conservative.

There is no perfect way to compare these results to the denomination as a whole. The question about social orientation has not been asked in previous surveys but the report makes a comparison to a question about political party affiliation in an earlier, more controlled study. A similar theological question was asked in the 2011 demographic profile with 19% of members saying they were liberal or very liberal, 39% saying they were moderate and 39% saying they were conservative or very conservative. The problem is that the earlier numbers are for members while new survey also includes teaching elders, who – based on that same survey question – are known to identify as more liberal, and there is no cross-tabulation or analysis of variance information to back out member versus ruling elder versus teaching elder groupings like the demographic profile does.

Has the denomination grown more theologically liberal? The departure of conservative congregations has almost certainly made this the case. But by 35%? That seems like a stretch. Similarly, has the middle shrunk by 28%? Maybe, but that is hard to understand as well.

Instead it seems more likely that the respondents to the survey are those that are the most connected and care the most about the PC(USA) — a fact that the survey acknowledges. The high response rate of teaching elders and ruling elders relative to members in general certainly seems to show this. By extension then it would follow that those on the theological ends are also more concerned and interested in being heard and those in the middle did not have as great an interest so they have a smaller response rate.

So what this survey says is that a lot of hard-core PC(USA) folks care about the PC(USA). Is it no wonder that when asked why it was important to a respondent to be part of the PC(USA) the top three answers were Theology (41%), Polity/Governance (29%), and Thinking Church/Educated Clergy (24%).

So that is what well-connected and involved members of the PC(USA) care about and see as the denomination’s identity and strengths.

But let me end this with this caution: While the study is a great snapshot of the identity and thoughts of the PC(USA) at this time it is biased towards those that know and care the most about the church. In one sense that is OK, because they are the ones who will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting related to restructuring in the years to come. But in another sense it is a problem because it reflects the status quo. If the PC(USA) is looking to recover and move forward it needs a close examination, more than can be done in one week at GA, ask some hard questions and make some difficult decisions. It is not just closing ranks around what it knows and understands but challenging some of the strongly held beliefs reflected in this report and possibly develop a new identity.

We will see where this goes. Stay tuned…

Postscript: I do want to acknowledge that there is a lot more material in the new identity reports and if you care it is worth a read. While I found it frustrating that more raw data was not released with it there is a lot of interesting info in there. Due to my intended focus of this article, as well as time constraints, I won’t be diving into it more now I may return to it later, probably in regards to how it is received by the General Assembly.

Thank You Alice

I spent this past weekend with my family back east and when I arrived Friday night I found out that the schedule included a memorial service that my dad was planning to attend at church the next day. Initially I thought that I would probably not go but when I spoke with my dad the next morning and found out the service was for Alice Gabriels there was nothing to decide. I had to be at the service for Alice.

Alice was a friend of mine from growing up in the church. She was always around and involved with the children and youth programs and was a chaperon on our Junior High youth group trip. As I went back and visited each year with my own family Alice was there to greet us and take an interest in my kids. And I looked forward to seeing her and made it a point seek her out. She was a ruling elder, having served on session multiple times as well as many committees and groups within the church.

Professionally, she had been a social worker and upon retirement had actively volunteered in various classrooms around the city as well as for organizations of interest to her. In her spare time, when she was not volunteering one place or another, she enjoyed folk dancing.

At the service the gathered community spent a significant amount of time remembering her as there were many stories to tell. I will tell you one of mine in a minute. But as one of the speakers said, “God made each one of us unique. And then there was Alice.”

You also need to know that Alice grew up in an observant Jewish family in Holland. During the German occupation of the country the family split up and went into hiding. After the war when they reunited Alice found her two siblings had survived but their parents had been betrayed and died in Auschwitz. Alice chose not to remain in Holland but to immigrate to the States sponsored by her uncle who was already living there. While the siblings scattered geographically they remained in close touch through the years and the service included readings from letters written by her sister and nieces.

Needless to say, Alice’s personal experience made her a powerful voice when social justice and human rights issues like immigration, oppression and racism arose. She was not shy about her life story and was glad to tell you if you asked. In those classrooms she volunteered in it was said “she would tell the young children about St. Nicholas and the older children about the Holocaust.”

One of my stories about her begins with the church sponsoring an Indonesian family that immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960’s. The mother of the family spoke at the service about arriving at the airport knowing nobody and not knowing the language. But they did know Dutch, as Indonesia had been a Dutch colony, and Alice was there to greet them and provide one small piece of familiarity in what was otherwise a very confusing situation. Their oldest son was my age and was a friend of mine growing up.

Fast-forward to a few years back at the memorial service for the father of that family. I have a vivid memory of Alice getting up at the service and singing a hymn in Dutch to honor their heritage. I don’t know what she sang but I know the tune was Beecher so it could have been a Dutch version of “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling.” While Alice had no problem speaking in front of groups, singing was a different matter. Talking with her after the service and thanking her for doing that, as she was clearly uncomfortable doing it, she acknowledged that but also expressed her respect for the gentleman being honored and felt that some tie to home should be offered.

Which brings me to the final question for today: What was the journey of an observant Jew to become a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church? From knowing Alice I was aware of two important pieces of this. The first was that when the family went into hiding they were hidden by fellow Dutch Christians and this dangerous act of sacrifice had a profound impression on her. The second was that when she found herself in Rochester, while she did have natural family in the area that had sponsored her, over the years the church became her family and in the community of faith she found support, identity and a sense of belonging. (And as a symbol of that, after the service there was no receiving line as we were all her family and we just gathered around cookies and some of her mementos to share stories.)

But during the service I found out about a third influence. As a young adult she had begun reading the New Testament and the stories of Jesus she found there also raised her interest and started to draw her in.

So on a side note, as we discuss the relative importance of the Proclamation of the Gospel, Nurture and Fellowship of the Children of God and Promotion of Social Righteousness, for Alice it was all three that combined to draw her into the Body of Christ.

Alice will be missed. I have lost a friend and a sister in Christ and look forward to being reunited before the throne of God. And in this week when Americans give thanks for what we have it is only appropriate to say “Thank you Alice” and thanks to God for her life and witness and the opportunity we had to know her.

As an acknowledgement of her heritage and history, a tie to her journey, the service concluded with a reading in Hebrew and then a unison reading in English of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen.)
in the world that He created as He willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon.
..

Amen.

[Ed. note: The title of this piece unapologetically borrowed from the title of Rev. Pat’s meditation at the service.]

Remembering All The Saints

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Once again it is the day of the year when I look back, reflect on those around me that have joined the Church Triumphant and have been an inspiration to me. Probably the best known hymn for All Saints Day is based on the poetry of William W. How. It is commonly sung to Ralph Vaughan Williams tune Sine Nomine (Latin for “without a name”), a term sometimes used for a new hymn tune for no previous words. It also strikes me as appropriate for the association with celebrating all the saints, some of whose names we may never know.

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

In the list of those who went on to their eternal reward one of my friends may be known to some of you. I worked closely with Ruling Elder Margy Wentz for a number of years at the synod level where she served for an extended period as the stated clerk and for a while doubled up and served as the executive as well. We have sometimes been on the same side of the table and sometimes on opposite sides of the table, but always at the table and I deeply respected her faith, sincerity and faithfulness. For as much as a polity wonk as I am, Margy had me beat by a mile and sometimes in discussing synod business she would say that I was the ardor to her order. She is one of the few people who can say that of me. I will miss her.

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

In addition, I have lost several other friends and models this past year. For the following saints I give thanks for their witness and faithfulness:

  • David – whose wife Beth was my last entry a year ago. They were partners in ministry and an example to us all as they grew old together.
  • Pat and Jack – another couple whose faithfulness in looking after each other, and the church’s gardens, and many of the other details around the church, were an inspiration. They also had a long history of helping out in civic organizations here in town.
  • Beth – who lived to see more than a century and was a fixture in the community throughout that time. An example that Christians get out there and make things happen for the greater good.
  • Horace – a member of the Greatest Generation who saw and practiced the active linkage of his faith with community involvement.
  • Hi – Someone who did so many things quietly and with great love. He was a mentor to many, a tremendous example of faithfulness in marriage for better or for worse, and for many years the calm and knowledgeable voice hosting our church’s radio broadcasts each Sunday morning worship.
  • Wayne – another hard worker around the church with a quiet faith and a big heart.
  • Helen – who for many years faithfully attended worship, sitting across the aisle from my family, and even in her decline these past few years was regularly there in spite of the effort required to put on her Sunday best and the help she required to get her in her seat each week.

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For all these saints we give thanks to God for God’s influence in their lives and I thank and remember them for what they have done and for the inspiration and witness they have been to me. Well done good and faithful servants. May you enter into your eternal reward.

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

The Discussion of PC(USA) Identity And Musings On An “Ecclesiastical Hackathon”

About a month ago the Moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Heath Rada, issued a “Call to the Church” to rethink what the PC(USA) should look like and in doing so build trust within the church.  This started the wheels in motion for a discussion in the denomination about what the identity of the PC(USA) is now and what it should be. Specifically he said in his remarks:

It became apparent [within a small task force on mission funding] that we all believed a painful situation existed [in the PC(USA)] and for anything significant to be accomplished we must find ways for that trust to be restored. It was felt that our denomination needed to explore these matters in depth and that I should announce a CALL TO THE CHURCH to help in addressing them.

The statement goes on to list five areas of importance, from the church’s changing place in the wider culture to the theological institutions to the urgent need for action. And with that the statement outlines five steps to take but at multiple points emphasizing the need to involve all levels of the church.

In a follow-up article in the Presbyterian Outlook he updates us on the response he has gotten and what next steps might be. While some are a bit further off – specifically part of the preparation for the 222nd General Assembly – other steps were being implemented quickly. This past week we saw the first of those and that is a survey opened up by Research Services to gather input from the full breadth of the PC(USA). You are encouraged to “Join the Conversation” and you have until November 13 to respond on that survey.

Another step is the announcement of two Twitter chats with the Vice-Moderator of the 221st General Assembly, Larissa Kwong Abazia (@LarissaLKA). The first chat begins this afternoon at 6 PM EDT (3 PM PDT) and will use the hashtag #pcusaidentity. The second chat is on Thursday November 12 at 9 PM EST (7 PM MST).

In reading that follow-up article a few things jump out at me. One is that the responses include “groups…wanting to be part of the conversation.” So must a group come forward to be included? Another is that Office of the General Assembly and Research Services will be the ones surveying the church and figuring out how to initiate discussions. It struck me that groups and offices in the national church seem to be headlining what looks like an institutional response. This is no surprise since at one point in the initial Call Moderator Rada wrote:

Again let me state the obvious. Someone has to take a lead. I am asking that the denomination affirm and actively participate in the COGA process which is getting ready to be unveiled and which will undertake the massive task of assessing the church’s will (in accordance with God’s will) concerning who and what we need to be as a denomination.

An interesting article three weeks ago takes a very different approach…

The Presbyterian Outlook published an op-ed piece by Deborah Wright and Jim Kitchens titled “An Open Letter to Moderator Heath Rada: What if . . . we held an ecclesiastical hackathon?

As Presbyterians you have to love the idea, but more on that in a moment.

Their idea is an open call and competition where people form teams of six individuals and come up with their ideas about what the PC(USA) should look like or be doing. As they say:

Game theorists radically believe that the solutions to tough social problems reside in the players. Adaptive Change theorists believe deep challenges of uncharted territories must find solutions in unknown corners. Positive Deviance theorists act on the notion that the village has the answers, if one only looks to the fringes. What if this once – instead of committees and task forces and hired expert consultants – what if . . . we bucked up our Reformed theology and went looking for our unheralded prophets out there, trusting God to provide!

The idea is that a set of “rules and tools” would be issued by the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) and any group of six members of the PC(USA) would have a few months to assemble a team and present a plan, solution, strategy, what ever was being asked for.

A number of theological and polity positives jump out at me here. As the authors emphasize, we are a priesthood of all believers. Why should we let the brains at OGA and PMAB have all the fun with this. The Reformed community should be the specialists at crowd sourcing as we believe decision making and the corresponding mission are to be done at the lowest applicable level and our structure is supposed to allow the most people and those with particular gifts for the situation to be involved.

It is arguable whether groups of six are theologically supported here – seven is a more spiritual number or we could just think of two groups of six making twelve. But in our church history it was the group of the “Six Johns“, led by John Knox, that over four days wrote the Scottish Confession of Faith of 1560. Not exactly a hackathon since they were the only group working on it but still a model of a group of six that worked quickly to produce a product that changed history.

Now looking at this proposal I do cringe a little bit to see that the process is directed by the agencies at the top. They are the existing coordinating bodies after all and in a position to be able to do this so there is a solid rational for this. But let’s think a bit outside the box here.

What if we thought about this a bit more as a crowd sourced or grassroots project and tried to find another point to run this from. What if the responsibility were devolved to someplace in the church that is actively doing something like this, such as the 1001 New Worshiping Communities group? Or maybe an existing recognized affiliated body like the NEXT Church group or the Presbyterian Outlook board. Or maybe something completely different like a joint steering group made up of members of the Covenant Network and the Fellowship Community? Or a really radical thought: Just go for it!

The idea would be for groups that wanted to get involved to brainstorm changes and then send it to the next General Assembly from the bottom up. Get your group together and then take the idea to your two or three nearest presbyteries for endorsement as ascending overtures so they will be considered as business in Portland. If this hackathon concept is taken seriously maybe one of the commissioner committees at GA could have the responsibility for reviewing these and helping the Assembly to think in new ways. And remember, the deadline for proposed Book of Order changes is February 19, 2016, and for overtures with financial implications it is April 19, 2016.

So there you have my riff on the hackathon idea. I don’t think this is too far off from the ideas Landon Whitsitt discussed in his book Open Source Church. And remember, the hackathon – or whatever you want to call it – concept has two purposes: One is discussed above as a model for drawing more fully from the wisdom and knowledge of the whole group. The other is to involve more people in seriously visioning and thinking about the problem and empowering them to do something about it so they have ownership of situation. This is not answer a survey or participate in a guided discussion sort of thing. The idea is to empower any interested member to dive into the details, inner working and think about the problem at the deepest levels. Where it may go we don’t know so this certainly could be a “stay tuned” moment for the PC(USA).

The Latest US Religion Demographic Data

Ah, the Siren Song of new data…

In case you were not on social media yesterday the Pew Research Center released their new report on American’s Changing Religious Landscape and it is all over the interwebs from national mainstream media, to local news outlets, to the religious news sources to bloggers to the people in the pew. And don’t worry if you have missed it because it probably only quantifies what you already know. I like the way Derek Rishmanwy put it on Twitter:

The cool thing about Pew numbers is how versatile they are; bloggers can wear them with triumph, grief, & multiple shades of schadenfreude!

And a nod to Andrew Wilson and his tweeted observation:

Ironic, a few days after the UK discovered just how inaccurate polls can be, to see so much excitement / distress in the US over … a poll.

All that to say, I initially thought I would just look at it and say “Nothing to see here. Move along folks.”

But remember that my mantra is “I never met a data set I didn’t like,” so casting caution to the wind I jumped into the fray. Now join me as I drill down into a very small piece of the data released with this report.

First, in the event you have not taken a look, let me give you the bullet points everyone else is focusing on. Between the last survey in 2007 and this one in 2014:

  • The proportion of the population identified as part of mainline denominations has dropped 3.4% from 18.1% to 14.7% of the population
  • At the same time those classified as part of evangelical Protestant churches has dropped 0.9% from 26.3% to 25.4%
  • There was a 1.2% gain in non-Christian faiths (now 5.9% of the total population) and a 6.7% gain in what they identify as Unaffiliated which has grown to 22.8% of the population.

Now, Pew favors reporting in percentages since they are most interested in the proportional interplay of groups. But it is instructive in this case to convert this into absolute numbers. So in 2007 the estimated population of the U.S. was about 301.6 million. By 2014 it had grown to 318.9 million. Using the above numbers that means that the mainline decreased from 54.6 million to 46.9 million. However, in an absolute sense the number of evangelical Protestants grew from 79.3 million to 81.0 million.

OK, now my two biggest pet peeves about this data set. (Yes, this data set pushes the limits of meeting data sets I didn’t like).

  • The basic categories for Protestants are mainline, evangelical and historically black. In other words, if you are not the first or the last you must be evangelical – that mushy category that is tough to define. So, for example, you are combining into a single group those that subscribe to the Westminster Standards with those that have “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no name but the name Christian.” I think this classification could be a bit more granular.
  • The category Unaffiliated is similarly a catch-all, at least at least as I look at it. The category includes Atheists (3.1% of the population), Agnostics (4.0%) and Nothing In Particular (15.8%). Furthermore, the Nothing In Particular are further divided into Religion Not Important (8.8%) and Religion Important (6.9%). Jack Jenkins over at Think Progress dissects this corner of the classification a bit more.

Specific to that first bullet point though, Appendix B says:

Protestant respondents who gave a vague answer to denominational questions (e.g., “I am just a Baptist” or “I know I am Methodist but don’t know which specific Methodist denomination I belong to”) were placed into one of the three Protestant traditions based on their race and/or their response to a question that asked if they would describe themselves as a “born-again or evangelical Christian.”

OK, so if I am PC(USA), but don’t know or admit that I am PC(USA) and acknowledge to being born again, I get placed in the Evangelical Presbyterian category. Likewise, someone in another Presbyterian tradition that does not identify which one but does not consider regeneration to be technically the same as being born again, they would be placed in the mainline. To this point the report goes on:

Overall, 38% of Protestants (including 36% of evangelical Protestants, 35% of mainline Protestants and 53% of those in the historically black Protestant tradition) gave a vague denominational identity, necessitating the use of their race or their born-again status (or sometimes both) to categorize them into one of the three major Protestant traditions.

That appendix does list 16 different Evangelical Presbyterian categories that were reported, some of which were specific (exempli gratia: Presbyterian Church in America, Cumberland Presbyterian, Bible Presbyterian), some of which are ambiguous (does Reformed Presbyterian refer to the RPCNA or to the Hanover Presbytery?) and some are general catch-all categories like Ethnic Presbyterian and “Presbyterian, ambiguous affiliation.”

[I will note that the main report does have a two page section (beginning on page 30) on identifying evangelicals and they discuss how it can be by denomination (so Presbyterians are never evangelical), by the born-again test, or by a more detailed analysis of their beliefs. The latter is outside the scope of this report but they expect another report on that later.]

So in the report of data they group Presbyterians into three categories: the mainline PC(USA) and two Evangelical categories: PCA and everyone else. I found it interesting that in the population numbers reported in that appendix the size of the PC(USA) and the size of the Evangelical everyone else was the same with each being 1.1% of the population in 2007 and 0.9% in 2014. The PCA held steady at 0.4% of the population. For comparison purposes, if the PC(USA) had about 1.7 million members in 2014 and the US population was 318.9 million that means that only 0.5% of the population of the US was a member of the PC(USA). So based on the Pew results the adherents, or those who identify with the PC(USA), almost doubles when you consider how people self-identify or the survey classifies ambiguous answers.

Moving on to the detailed data, I will focus only on Presbyterians and refer only to the breakout pages for Presbyterians. There is one for Mainline Presbyterians generally and a subset for the PC(USA). Similarly, there is one for Evangelical Presbyterians and the subset for the PCA. So keep in mind that for the the general evangelical numbers, about half are the PCA. In addition, since I am not sure what a mainline Presbyterian who is not in the PC(USA) is I will simply focus on the PC(USA) data. But there is another 0.5% of the population that they classify as being mainline without being PC(USA).

And as I start this drill-down let me add this warning: I will be looking at small changes in some of the categories but my interest must be tempered with caution, or even skepticism, because the table of Margins of Error shows that for these sample sizes the margin is between +/-7% and +/-5.5%. That means that while many of the differences between the numbers below are interesting, very few of them are statistically significant.

So let’s start with Age.

I find it interesting that differences between all the Presbyterian categories were so similar in the 2007 survey. In general, they all had about 10% in the 18-29 age group, and 30% in each of the other age groups – 30-49, 50-64 and 65+. Yes, there are some slight differences but the pattern looks solid and there are uncertainty ranges (and the ambiguous classifications) to consider so I don’t get too concerned about that range.

Between 2007 and 2014 the PC(USA) and the PCA show very similar patterns of change in the age ranges. The youngest range stays the same, the 30-49 range decreases markedly ( -11% for the PCA and -9% for the PC(USA) ), the 50-64 range also remains the same and the 65+ range increases markedly ( +12% for the PCA and +6% for the PC(USA) ). The general evangelical as a whole shows less change in each category except that there is a marked increase in the 50-64 range ( +6%).

Gender composition

In terms of gender composition the PC(USA) remained steady at 45%/55% men to women. The PCA and the overall general evangelical both had a 5% shift from men to women.

Racial composition

Each of the groups became more diverse over the last five years with the PC(USA) dropping from 91% to 88% white, the PCA from 86% to 80% white and the general group from 88% to 81%.

For the PC(USA) the change was distributed over all the other categories with Black respondents increasing from 4% to 5%, Asian from 2% to 3% and Latino from 2% to 4%.

In the PCA it was a similar pattern for Black adherents with an increase of 5% to 6%. Asian members decreased from 4% to 3%. The biggest increase was in the Other/Mixed category jumping from 1% to 5% and a noticeable increase in the Latino category from 4% to 6%.

For the combined general evangelical category the Black percentage increased from 4% to 6%, the Asian from 3% to 5%, Other/Mixed from 1% to 4% and Latino was constant at 4%.

Income and Education

These two demographic measures appear to have some correlation as you might expect. For the PC(USA) the peak in annual household income shifted from the $50,000-$99,999 group in 2007 (37%) to the $100,000+ group in 2014. Actually, considering the margin of error the two bins are pretty close in 2014 with that lower bin having 29%. For education, the distribution is pretty flat in 2014 with just about 25% in each of the categories – High School or less, Some College, College, Post-graduate.

The interesting thing across all three classifications of Presbyterians for income is that it is bi-modal as they have binned it. In all the cases there is a lower peak in the <$30,000 bin. For 2014 the PC(USA) it is 24%, for the PC it is 27% and for the general evangelical it is 28%.

For the PCA and general evangelical the income distributions have their primary peak in the $50,000-$99,999 range with 31% in the PCA and 21% in the general. Likewise, the education peak for both groups is in the Some College bracket with 37% of the PCA and 35% of the general.

I suggested the income/education correlation, but another one comes to mind. Is the apparent correlation age reflecting the higher incomes in the PC(USA) does an older demographic with higher earning power or with more two-wage earner households account for that result.

Switching and Retention

The last set of data I want to look at is the information on individuals switching denominations and the retention of members. For this we need to turn to the section in the full report beginning on page 32. Overall, 19.0% of the country grew up in the mainline Protestant church. In the survey the measurement is that 10.4% of the population has left, 6.1% have switch into the mainline giving 14.7% now in the mainline. For evangelical Protestants the numbers are 23.9% that grew up in it, 8.4% left, 9.8% joined and now 25.4% are in that category.

Looking at all Presbyterians, 3.0% of the population grew up in a Presbyterian church of some flavor. Those who have left make up 2.0% of the US population and those that have joined make up 1.1% for a current total of 2.2% of the population.

Now, returning back to that margin of error stuff – in compiling all this data is struck me that there are some interesting differences between these three groups, but based on the demographic data in the report these three groups of Presbyterians are not that different after all.

So where do we go from here?

One thing that struck me was the “the sky is falling” response. As I said in the early discussion there is nothing new about these demographic changes. A lot of attention is being paid to the Unaffiliated growth but this group comes in a number of flavors and I am not sure combining them gives much insight. Looking at the data my interpretation is that the Nothing in Particular category has now become the point for loosely or barely affiliated individuals to now identify with. As Ed Stetzer puts it in his helpful analysis

One of the primary reasons it appears as though “American Christianity” is experiencing a sharp decline is because the nominals that once made up (disproportionately) Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism are now checking “none” on religious affiliation surveys.

In the long view what is happening now is more of a pruning or consolidation. A vital core is still there for the church to move forward.

However, this consolidation does not seem to favor the mainline. There are enough theories as to why that is the case that I won’t go there now. But I think the same principle applies — there is pruning and consolidation going on with that branch. The key will be finding a central core and shared vision to organize around in the years ahead.

Can the mainline do that? It will be interesting to see. There is certainly a lot of pruning going on in the PC(USA) although you will get significant discussion as to whether there the mainline is the core that needs to be pruned or the part that is being shed in the consolidation. But with the Split-P’s the divisions come and reunion later comes as well. We will have to see which groups can develop strong cores or whether the declines will overtake them before they can.

I also wanted to add that for purposes of forecasting future trends grouping and reporting the data a bit differently would be useful. The primary example is the age data where the ranges are large enough that having a report with shifted age ranges so that individuals in the 2007 report are in the same group in the 2014 report would be useful. Even better, maybe a report with the age ranges reflecting the customary demographic groups – Builders, Boomers, Gen X and Millennials – could be considered. The purpose of course is to isolate the groups to see if they fit the oft-reported trends. Similarly, when dealing with something like household income it would be helpful to not just see it in the bins but also report the quartiles of the data.

So there are a few of the things I was chasing here. A couple other items jump out at me but this close to the opening of the Church of Scotland General Assembly convening that I want to chase those any further. Lots to think about here so something to return to later if times get slow. And there is always that report on Evangelical Protestants. But for now…

… On to Edinburgh