“If we start spending time with them, we’ll eventually be able to gain some influence and have a say.”– Said Every Presbyterian Wanting to Be Liked By the Cool Kids Ever Remember when the PCA used that oft-repeated claim “fastest growing denomination in the United States?” I am not sure if that applies any longer, but I still see it on many websites. I wish I’d never seen that phrase but I did use it to justify to concerned friends and family that I was not joining a cult when I left my Baptist roots to join with the “baby sprinklers.” There is something about the PCA when it comes to its relationship to American Evangelicalism, though. Our denomination seems to really crave the acceptance of Evangelicals. But, no matter how hard we try, we never seem to gain full admission.
A few not-meant-to-be-comprehensive examples:
Dr. David Nicholas, of Spanish River PCA, was the co-founder of Acts29. Any idea what PCA pastor is on the executive leadership of America’s sexiest church planting network? No one.
I remember when the Gospel Coalition began while I was in seminary. I thought to myself, “Finally people will see how right we Presbies are and we’ll attract more people into the PCA!” Then, the GC launches its New City Catechism and its ecclesiology is so weak that Baptists and Presby-lites can both agree on baptism and communion. (Yes, I just tied ecclesiology to sacraments like the Reformers.) Furthermore, the Gospel Coalition blogs, which are great resources to many, have become seemingly less PCA and more TULIPy Evangelical.
In my own time as a PCA minister, I cannot begin to think of how many times I’ve gone to the meeting, made the connection and attended the “joint” event thinking that my PCA credentials would give me better access and influence. So far, I’m still waiting to see if anyone cares about what I have to say – even when I’m the most credentialed (Rev’d, BS, MDiv, MA, PhD ABD!!!) person in the room.
From where does that mindset come? I think the fact that PCA pastors have to seek credentials, obtain formal training, continually have our theology pillaged by others (see: Trueman’s review of Hart’s excellent Calvinism: A History), and our Book of Church Order with the Confession and Catechisms give us a mindset that people will want to learn from us. The truth is, they do! But only as far as the market will take them. Gospel-centered is great as long as sacraments aren’t involved! American Evangelicalism is a market-driven movement. The founding of the NAE in the early 1940s reshaped Bible-believing American Protestantism from its connection to the Reformation and placed it in the hands of the market. That sounds very harsh, I know, but I am swayed by R. Lawrence Moore’s arguments in Selling God as well as Wuthnow’s Restructuring of American Religion. Both of these works show how the relationship between religion and markets extrapolated through interest-based, attractional Christianity, especially in the post-World War II era. Since the Great Awakening, many American Protestants have allowed market forces to dictate how Christianity is presented to the watching world. That faith once delivered to the saints was repackaged for the Second Great Awakening, kicked up a notch for the great Revivals that followed the U.S. Civil War, found the radio waves and big-tents for the cultural Fundamentalists and, finally, came Evangelicalism with its managerial principles, organization, gurus and color TV. Presbyterianism is not rooted in the revivalist tradition. We don’t think we need Tim Tebow, Duck Dynasty, pithy Jesus t-shirts, or guitars with lots of delay to “win people to Christ.” Confessionalism is at odds with the market. Historically, Presbyterians have sought to be faithful to our ecclesiology and what we believe the Scriptures teach. That is one reason our churches are not as adaptive to the market as our Evangelical friends. We would never think of having a communion service on Thursdays like some megachurches because we believe in the importance of the Lord’s Day. We would never let “just anyone” speak in a worship service. We do not bestow the title “Pastor” to the guitar (or piano) player guiding the congregation in singing. We would never have video only “campuses,” cracker and wine juice stations in the back of the sanctuary, or theatre lighting that reminds you of an intimate club show where you saw Wilco last week. Yet many of those things get numbers. They get you the sermon-series-turned-latest-must-have-book deal that comes with the tour bus. They get you the conference invites, the twitter followers, the cash and the building that looks like Wal-Mart on the outside and IMAX on the inside (with a cool children’s environment!). In the Presbyterian world, the pastor of the thirty worshipper church has just as much right to the Assembly and Presbytery floor as Tim Keller or Ligon Duncan. In Evangelicalism, numbers give you the right to speak. The market is your credentialing body, not a church court. But we enter into that world thinking that armed with our degrees, formal training, knowledge of the history of the church, command of the Scriptures, “better” theology and so forth – that we will be asked to weigh in on an important issue. We seem stodgy and our carefulness just saps the “joy, joy, joy” right out of their hearts. Then, as the market dictates, our answer falls upon the pragmatic ears of Evangelicalism….to which we are told “well, that won’t work.” Then, predictably, the spate of articles will come every decade about how Generation L, M, N, O, or P is “leaving the Church,” which is code for market-driven Evangelicalism and, then, the movement will reinvent itself to adjust to market conditions. For all the talk of let’s “be the Church” there is little about order, offices and ordinary means of grace. We are at odds with these friends. We’re the weird engineer uncle who still drives the trusty 1970s Buick and they’re the marketeers dream who trade in for the latest model with the flashy extras just as the car is almost paid off.The notion of gaining influence in the Evangelical world is just as much folly as when Evangelicals copy broader culture to make their praxis seem more “with it” to the rest of the world. Let’s be Presbyterian and let the cool kids be cool. It will save on doctor bills after the skinny jeans and tight Affliction shirts take their toll on the body. And, besides, I hear there is a hair gel shortage and those bright lights are hard on the eyes.