Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The 21st Century: American Presbyterian Churches Today

Mt.  Zion A.R. Presbyterian Church
“Presbyterians have been an important part of American life and culture for a very long time. With roots planted deep in the English and Scottish Reformations, growing numbers of Presbyterian families began to settle throughout the American colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, bringing with them a deep respect for the Bible, a yearning for spiritual renewal and spread of the gospel, a theological seriousness, and a desire for a society transformed by Christian principles.” 
(Reformed & Evangelical across Four Centuries: The Presbyterian Story in America, 2022)
In my final lesson on American Presbyterian history, I summarized this history in three parts:

1700s - Foundations. This period saw the church organized (Makemie, first presbytery in 1706, first general assembly in 1789), confessional subscription established (adopting act, Hemphill case), the work of evangelism and church planting (the Great Awakening), and contributions to the American founding (Witherspoon, pastoral guidance, and patriotic application by members).

1800s - Maturation. This period saw expansion, especially westward (plan of union, revivals, home missions), the work of education (seminary, theologians, children), defense of orthodoxy (old vs. new school, evolution, inerrancy), internal debates (worship, sacraments, status of children, polity, slavery, church-state relations), foreign missions, and contributions and applications to society (the vision of a Christian nation).

1900s - Realignment. This period comes in three parts: the fundamentalist-modernist controversy (1910-1936), conflict in the mainline churches (1960s-1970s), and realignments in the aftermath (1980s-present). This period saw the rise of liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, the rise of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, a resurgence of interest in Reformed theology and confessional Presbyterianism, and the progressive decline (numerically and spiritually) of the mainline church.

The Present

Formerly, the mainline churches (including the PCUSA) acted as an informally established church in American society. The decline of the mainline churches, including the PCUSA, numerically and spiritually, has had disastrous consequences for the USA, leaving it without a Christian religious center. Roman Catholics and evangelicals have attempted to fill in the gap, with mixed results. The witness of the church in America is divided. Nearly every major tradition has a liberal and conservative branch(es).

With the decline of the PCUSA, will the other Presbyterian denominations become a new mainline? Confessional churches have their work cut out for themselves: rebuilding what was lost as well as continuing the work of the church.

Presbyterians have also shrunk as a proportion of the American population and of the American Christian population since the colonial period. Presbyterians have often punched above their weight with an influence beyond their numbers, but it is worth noting that we are a minority even among Bible-believing Protestants in America. 

Yet besides these challenges, there are reasons for hope as well. Following the realignments of the 20th century, churches like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Presbyterian Church in America have a self-consciously confessional identity. We are in a better place than we were in the early or middle 20th century, when most confessional Presbyterians were either in organizations compromised with unbelief or new organizations that were poor and starting from scratch. Now that we have realigned on the basis of biblical authority and confessional faithfulness, and in the case of the OPC have nearly a century of work to build upon, we are better set up to go forward with the mission of the church. Each church in NAPARC has its own respective gifts and strengths. In recent decades there has also been an increased interest in Reformed theology and a more historically-rooted and doctrinally-rich manifestation of the church, while liberal Christianity and lesser errors like classic Dispensationalism no longer have the power they once had.

The Task Ahead of Us

Here is a goal: that the whole visible church be organized on a confessional Presbyterian basis and that everyone in America (and the world) comes to Christ and his church. Even this would not be an end goal, but the start of discipleship. A more immediate goal for us would be to contribute, as a branch of the visible church, to the discipleship of the nations, and especially this people, the American people, through the conversion of the lost and the perfecting of the saints in Christ.

The church faces its task in America today while its own ranks are in disorder. We have a twofold task, the reform of the church and the fulfillment of its mission. We must rebuild the progress that was lost with the falling away of the mainline (and other major departures from the faith). We must gain lost ground, planting or reforming churches and reaching abandoned communities. We must also press forward with the gospel and the Great Commission, with the church’s ministries of word, sacrament, prayer, and with the faithfulness of each member in this fellowship and in each one’s calling in the world.

We should think of both individuals and communities, both population and geography. Each church is an outpost in the advance of Christ’s kingdom, and we want every person in the country to have access. We want a healthy gospel church in every community in the USA (to adapt a slogan from the Free Church of Scotland). We want a confessional Reformed church in every community in the USA. And we want to build up and maintain a healthy church here that will continue to send missionaries abroad, missionaries that will export a sound gospel and establish healthy churches. 

The work ahead of us includes:
  • Replace (or reform) liberal churches, a new work in the aftermath of the previous century. 
  • Gather the scattered flock (de-churched Christians), a task as old as the colonial era. 
  • Evangelize the lost.
  • Disciple, shepherd, edify, equip, and catechize the saints, including our children.
  • Keep the faith and God’s ordinances pure and entire, keeping watch over ourselves. 
  • Work with and for other faithful churches and Christians, contributing to the edification of the larger body of Christ and seeking greater reform and agreement.
In this work, we should not be sectarian on the one hand nor embarrassed about our distinctives on the other hand, but building up the body of Christ in the fullness of the faith and the whole counsel of God. The Presbyterian church is well set up for this, receiving as members of our church the members of the visible church - those who profess the true religion and their children - while requiring confessional subscription of its officers. Baptism is the beginning of a process of discipleship, not the end. It is important to be “catholic” (not in the Roman sense) and serious about discipleship and catechizing. This depth should include both doctrinal depth and a breadth of application, teaching Christians a biblical worldview that they might serve the Lord in every area of life. This is all the more important today as we live amid modern secularism. 

Let us press onward with the mission to the American people and church, while not going astray ourselves. May we keep the faith, keep our kids, and keep advancing, in breadth and depth, following Christ the King.

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