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'Tsunami' Hits Presbyterians; Dramatic Changes Ahead

'Tsunami' Hits Presbyterians; Dramatic Changes Ahead

Top officials of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have come to the conclusion that they cannot continue "doing church" the way they have been.

Churches within the PC(USA), the nation's largest Presbyterian body, have "hit the wall" and "come to the end of the string," seeking new directions amid a growing exodus from the denomination.

"It is as if a tsunami of change has hit us," said Joan Gray, moderator of the General Assembly during a Sept. 17-21 GAC (General Assembly Council) meeting in Louisville, Ky., according to the Presbyterian News Service. "I recently spent time in the Midwest, and these areas are drying up. The people are not there any more. In Detroit, 3,000 people a day are leaving to emigrate elsewhere. That is just the tip of the iceberg."

The PC(USA) has suffered continual losses in membership and now claims a little less than 2.3 million. More dissident Presbyterians and some historic congregations have voted to split from the PC(USA), citing that the denomination is not consistent with written theology in such areas as the singular saving Lordship of Jesus Christ and homosexual ordination.

Many are moving into the smaller and more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

"Much of our discomfort is really about our coming to grips with the overwhelming change that is coming at us from all sides. The bottom line is that we simply cannot continue doing church the way we have been," said Gray, according to PNS.

"One thing I am seeing is that some of those churches and presbyteries who have come to the end of the string are making a choice," she added. "They are letting go of what they had been doing and opening the way to what God is doing."

The PC(USA) is set to undergo some dramatic changes.

One major change includes the re-writing of the denomination's Form of Government, a major portion of the PC(USA) constitution, that hasn't been changed since 1983, according to Mark Pammen, director of Constitutional Services for the General Assembly.

The new Form of Government would be a major change in the way the church conducts its ecclesiastical business, as PC(USA) head the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick said at the meeting.

"We may move away from a somewhat over-regulated polity to one that frees us up to be a more flexible General Assembly," said Kirkpatrick, who announced recently that he will not seek a third term next year as stated clerk.

Breakaway Presbyterians have expressed their discontent with the PC(USA)'s "bureaucratic, centralized authority, and hierarchical top-down leadership" that doesn't work anymore in the postmodern era, the Rev. Dr. D. Dean Weaver, senior pastor of Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, which recently voted to leave the PC(USA), said previously.

Following Christ faithfully into the next millennium relates to a paradigm shift in polity, said Weaver.

Kirkpatrick compared the PC(USA) to a recent flight he took in which the plane was having a few problems.

"The pilot says, 'You really can't expect a 40-year old plane not to have a few problems,'" Kirkpatrick said as he told the story.

"Then the pilot and flight attendants leave and another crew comes onboard. Then, first thing you know, you are heading down the runway and on your way and will perhaps arrive ahead of time. It's like that in the church."

A change in PC(USA)'s Form of Government would focus more directly on local congregations and provide more flexibility. If the new Form of Government is adopted when the General Assembly considers it next year in June, it would be a "significant change," according to Pammen.

Weaver, however, isn't optimistic that he would see any major changes take effect in the PC(USA) any time soon.

"Big ships turn slowly," he had said.

Baptisms have decreased in the PC(USA) in recent years along with the largest membership dip of 2.05 percent in 2005.

Although concerned about the exodus from the denomination, Kirkpatrick has expressed optimism for growth and said the church is in a "potential tipping point of renewed growth and vitality."

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