Friday, May 17, 2013

This is the PCA - We want to be players.

"We're good enough. We're smart enough.
And doggone it, people like us"

There is a simple way to end any genuine conversation about the brief institutional history and present state of the PCA. 

Actually, there are at least two. 

Just say, "The founders of the PCA fought to establish it because they believed the Bible and now it's under threat by men who do not believe the Bibe sufficiently enough." Or say, "The PCA was started by men who were racist, parochial and contentious, now it's under threat because these things continue to haunt us."

It's not as if those two statements do not carry important issues and ones that may, in fact, be in play. But they (or at least a close approximation of them) are repeated so often, by so many in ways that suggest a comprehensive understanding of our denomination. They don't come close to doing that. Noam Chomsky contends that American history is taught not to arrive at truth but is simplified to teach a "secular theology". Now when Chomsky says that he's trying to preach his own secular theology. But he is correct that over-simplifying history is usually done to protect an agenda. Throwing out either of those statements is more like marking territory than an honest look at who we are.

So as I make some observations about that series of articles surrounding the emergence of the PCA I will not (for now) encourage that. I will get to those issues later. And what I'm raising now is not in strict order of importance, but instead ones that I think are easy to miss.

Observation Number One: We want to be players. We're not a Main Line denomination but we desperately want to be.

Mind you, this is not universally shared in the PCA but it's still a constituent part of who we are. And this is more important than you think. As these articles make plain (and which a growing number of young pastors appear not to know) we didn't start ex nihilo. We gestated in the womb of a large and (at least for a time) culturally influential denomination. By the early 70's the cultural influence of all Main Line denominations had evaporated but the illusion persisted, abetted by still large memberships. And those fingerprints are all over us despite the incontrovertible evidence we are small time.1 For several years we were "North America's fastest growing denomination." For many that was distraction enough from the statistics and provided some reason to think we were headed to Big Church status. Now our numbers have flatlined or teetered on decline. There may be some schadenfreude in seeing Main Line denominations bleed membership but our numbers and trajectory suggest we'll never be in that club. But our big-church-wannabee DNA encoding remains stout. And it shows up in more places than you'd expect.

1 Yes, Tim Keller is a New York Times bestselling author. And doesn't Buster from Arrested Development go to a PCA church? (He did but I'm not sure he does now.) And what about that guy from Missouri who ran for the U.S. Senate? (Never mind, let's move on.) Some argue we had some "mojo" a few years back but lost it to the likes of Mark Driscoll and John Piper. Not so sure about that. What I'm sure about is with 350,000 communicant members we're not in shouting distance of this.

Don't get sidetracked here. I'm not suggesting we shouldn't work to spread the gospel as widely as we can and expect God "to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us." Nor am I saying it's necessarily a good idea to aspire to big-denomination world. And we're nowhere near the discussion on the assumptions of why denominations even matter.

From the beginning and to the present this has contributed to a conflict of identity and cross purpose in moving forward. The planets that lined up at the birth of the PCA included an odd mélange of groups (more than just two as many think) that wanted a "Continuing Presbyterian Church" but couldn't or wouldn't take the time to agree on some basic identity issues beyond wanting out of the PCUS. Just to be clear, I am dead certain I would have not taken the time either. But just gliding past this issue now and instead only rallying around red-meat theological or missiological issues doesn't help.

Here's one way we see this lack of awareness today. There is a large swath of young pastors whose ministry sensibilities have been informed by older men very set in we-should-be-players. They've also cut their teeth on watching and learning from Tim Keller who is indeed (I think for all the right reasons) an influence in and outside the church. Then they show up at General Assembly for the first time and go into an ecclesiastical version of psychogenic shock. As a friend of mine put it, "They canʼt believe they are stuck in this bag of a denomination that keeps them from doing what needs to get done.2 Yes, there are other things that frustrate them. But this is a big one.

A view that Tim Keller has demonstrated he does not share.

Efforts to reshape the PCA very often are part of a code language that's also saying, "We need to be heard and, doggone it, these people over here are preventing it. They need to go or at least sent to the margins." And the impulse for that is part of our history.

I was on sabbatical from Red Mountain Church for the first three months of this year. My wife was providentially needed in South Carolina to care for ailing parents during the same months. I remained in Birmingham for most of that time and needed to find a place to worship and for a lot reasons wanted one where I wouldn't run into people I know. I settled on a Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod). It was a good-sized, active church. The pastor was a young man who was an excellent preacher and a caring shepherd of his flock. As I got to know the church better I noticed something else. Something that he picked up from his church culture. He was moved by doing his job. Word, sacrament and the cure of souls. He was not moved by much else. And he was especially not moved by any need for him or his denomination to be an influential voice in culture or the wider church. I'm not sure it was a category he was even familiar with.

The LCMS has their horror stories too.3 I get that. But I can't tell you how refreshing it was to be around a pastor who grew up and was trained in an environment that really doesn't give two hoots about being considered important in any way. The irony? They have 2.3 million members and serve in a way that is genuinely impressive. They just don't seem to care if you think so or not. It's just a theory, but I can't help think that culture helps them minister the gospel in ways that really are (in the best sense) more important.

3I’ve gotten some feedback from people in other Presbyterian traditions who are taking some pleasure in what may be considered my unsparing look at the PCA. They shouldn’t get too smug. I know the horror stories in their denominations. I still prefer mine.


  1. Here, here. I wish more pastors would focus on their people and their communities rather than trying to make a difference to "the masses" (read, 'people I no nothing about and only care about so far as they are influenced by my ministry').

  2. Tom

    Good article! Tony Hale does not currently attend a PCA church, but a very strong evangelical church in Los Angeles.


  3. Good article, Tom.

    1) I have been told by PCA ministers that the whole Reformed tradition (much more the PCA) is just "sectarian" (for instance, we don't have bishops), and we need to broaden out to be more catholic and relevant. I have also been told that when that happens, the "sectarians" can stay in this broader denomination. That's nice of them.

    2) We were the "fastest growing" denomination in the 1980s because of defections from other denominations, rather than evangelism proper. And because of the faux addition of our Korean presbyteries (which are not meaningfully connected to us -- this is not a slam, just an observation). We should not have boasted about this "growth" in our literature of the time.

    3) FWIW, denominational stats are notoriously inaccurate. Plus mainline churches who don't clean their rolls certainly don't reflect Sunday attendance. So... who cares what they report.

    4) Enjoyed the LCMS did you? Well, that's what you get from hanging out with those Two Kingdom guys -- you just don't care about redeeming our culture. Word, Prayer and Sacrament -- obviously, you are too church centered and just want to withdraw from culture.

  4. Hope all is well, Tom! Just saw this article, as Alan just linked to it. Great insight. Not sure you're aware, but when we moved back to IN, I joined an LCMS church. Been a member over five years now. And you're pretty much might on. I'm trying to change it a bit, but it's like turning the Titanic, and, according to you, maybe for good reason. :)

  5. Indeed, the website alone ( shows they don't care about being considering culturally important. But hey, some pretty nice and caring folks, there.