Over many years, I have been in an on-again, off-again conversation online with a conservative Presbyterian named Joe. As long as I have known him, Joe has been lobbying for his congregation to leave my church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) -- to forsake the mainline for a more clearly conservative Presbyterian denomination.
Joe insists that the days of our denomination are numbered. The last time Joe and I connected, he gave the PCUSA 10 years, maximum, until its death. You hear that comment about a lot of denominations, not just the PCUSA.
I don't think so.
It's true, the church will not look like what we have been in the past. I fully believe, as Paul says to the Corinthians about resurrection, "We shall be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51)." There is a good chance that Joe will not recognize the PCUSA as we rise.
What might this risen church look like? Here are some signs I see of this revival in the Presbyterian Church. I invite you to watch for them in all the mainline American churches. Do you see them too?
1. The Emergent Church Phenomenon
Imaginative efforts to remake the church are everywhere, including among evangelical circles. The aging of members and membership decline is now a constant for conservatives as well as the mainline. We are all trying to reverse this.
In the PCUSA we call the effort 1001 Worshipping Communities: a challenge to the church to establish 1001 new "congregations" in the next decade. These emergent fellowships take a host of different forms. Some are purely virtual, living online. Others meet in bars or coffee shops, gather late at night or once a month, share leadership or have a dedicated "new church development" pastor.
Emergent churches are limited only by their energy and imagination, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And they are springing up everywhere.
2. Vibrant Embrace of Scripture
It is clear that the rising mainline congregation will not have one understanding of Scripture that is required of all. Those who belong to the church do so by attraction and participation more than agreed-upon confession.
The Bible is taken seriously, not literally. Its meaning and wisdom arise from deep conversation within the congregation, based upon a common conviction that no one person knows the mind of God and everyone may contribute to our understanding through inspiration by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Scriptures are an essential guide to living. They offer to us the wisdom distilled from the faith experience of our distant ancestors who, as we do, tried to know and abide by God's will. In this way, it is God's word to us.
3. Happy in the Multi-faith Environment
The thriving church of the future will make its peace with the complex, multi-faith world in which we live. They will plumb each day the mystery of Jesus' declaration that He is "the way, the truth and the life" and that "no one comes to the Father but by me (John 14:6)." They will seek to discover the Christ in all they meet, including those of other faiths (and other wings of Christianity) with whom they work for good in the world.
Mission will be service to the needy. Willing partners in this evangelism, whose faith compels them to heal the sick and lift up the downtrodden, will be treasured, even though they may not declare themselves to be Christian.
Perhaps most alien to Joe will be the capacity of the coming church to learn from devotees of other faiths. This arises from the fact that God often chooses unexpected messengers to reach out to us, including those who know God by other names.
4. Fundamentally Committed to Welcoming All
What we become often arises out of learning from mistakes and failures. One great sin of the church has been the shunning of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. We taught our children to sing, "Jesus, loves me. This I know," and showed our mendacity when we then said, "No, sorry, wait, not you or you." We can try to judge nicely but our children see through that, too.
A hallmark of the rising mainline church is a clear "Welcome to All" sign front and center above the door. If there is a fundamental confession shared by these churches, it is that God loves all God's children. This is a seismic shift from millennia of instilling fear of a judging God to a vision for the church of inspiring relationship with a loving One. Both are in the Bible. Now the second is being lifted up.
Fathoming what God loving all means for us is the wonderful work of the emerging mainline church. I give thanks this can include Joe and his congregation who are earnest in following Jesus.
5. Follow the Youth
What the mainline church is becoming gives new meaning to Isaiah's prophecy, "A little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6)." It is time to let the youth show us the way. I invite all of my generation to step aside with me and let the millennials show us how to be the body of Christ in this world that has so much more in it than we were born into.
Our PCUSA youth share the spirituality of the "Nones" who have forsaken the church (both progressive and evangelical) but have remained out of sheer grace and vision of what we can be but have not been. They see value in "religion," not just our terrible flaws.
They see the strength in spirituality, cultivating a relationship with God. And they appreciate the strength of forging a community so that we may help one another better love and serve God--religion at its best, I'd say.
But the youth will do church differently from what we have known. If we want to continue in the church, we must follow them.
What an exciting time! Not many live in a time of large, structural death and resurrection. We do. I invite you to join me in watching for these signs and, when you see them, flowing with them toward a new day.