That the 2.9 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) is losing members (40,000 last year) has been well documented. Why it is happening is a topic of debate within the PCUSA.

Some emphasize demographic factors, noting, for example, that death occurs oftener among Presbyterians than birth. Others note critically that Presbyterians have historically isolated themselves from the working class and that, as a result, people moving up the social ladder no longer turn instinctively to Presbyterianism.

But Presbyterians within the denomination’s renewal movement maintain that the problem has less to do with too few being born than with too few being born again. The premise of the renewal movement is that the denomination, in its positions and programs, has emphasized politics and social action while the work of establishing and developing personal relationships with Jesus Christ has suffered.

It was with these concerns that nearly 1,000 renewal-minded Presbyterians met April 20–22 in St. Louis. One major purpose of the meeting was to launch the organization Presbyterians for Renewal (PFR).

More Than A Merger

In part, PFR represents a merger of two pre-existent renewal organizations, Presbyterians for Biblical Concerns (PBC) and Covenant Fellowship of Presbyterians (CFP). PBC has its roots in the denomination’s northern stream; CFP emerged within the southern stream. North and South merged in 1983 to form the PCUSA.

However, PFR’s newly elected president, J. Murray Marshall, said the group will appeal to a far broader base than that represented by PBC and CFP. Marshall, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Seattle, noted that half of PFR’s 60 board members had no association with either of the pre-existing groups.

According to renewal leaders, a high percentage of those who leave the PCUSA do not affiliate with another denomination, but leave the Christian church altogether. At the St. Louis conference, Kenneth Hall said he has tried in his one-year term as moderator of the PCUSA General Assembly to address this “hemorrhaging out the back door.”

The problem, Hall said, is that the church is “not confronting people with the claims of Jesus Christ when they join.” He added, “We feel if we get too theological, people will get turned off. But if we don’t get theological, they will never get turned on.”

Denominational Loyalists?

In his address at the conference, Stated Clerk James Andrews, the church’s highest elected officer, warned that in the past the formation of organizations like PFR has, without exception, resulted in schism. “You’re one of the great hopes of the church,” said Andrews. “But may God constantly remind you that you’re potentially one of the great dangers.”

As of now, PFR’s leaders, as well as its statement of purpose, testify to a solid commitment to remain in the denomination.

Perhaps the new organization’s biggest challenge will be to deal with the question of whether and to what extent it should take clear stands on specific issues. A statement produced by 73 renewal leaders who met last year in Dallas specifically repudiated homosexuality. In contrast, the statement “A Covenant of Renewal,” signed by most of those who gathered in St. Louis, does not directly address any specific issue.

Paul Watermulder, who chaired the steering committee for the St. Louis conference, said PFR has “refused to become linked to individual causes” such as abortion, South Africa, and homosexual ordination. “Our cause,” he said, “is the cause of Christ, of bringing people into a relationship with him.”

Clayton Bell, a long-time leader in Presbyterian renewal circles, said this does not mean PFR will not take stands “somewhere down the line on particular issues.” Bell, senior pastor at Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, said there are some issues on which virtually all evangelicals are united.

Generally, however, renewal leaders agree the primary purpose of the organization is not to lobby on issues, but to work for spiritual renewal. They acknowledge there are some within the movement who may be uncomfortable with this stance, particularly when it comes to abortion.

Board member John Huffman, pastor of Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California, stressed the importance of acting responsibly if the organization does address specific issues. Referring to the issue of homosexuality, for example, he cautioned against “dehumanizing and antibiblical” attitudes.

Huffman added that, despite conservatives’ general dissatisfaction in recent decades with the direction of the PCUSA, denominational leadership on some issues has removed evangelicals’ “blinders.” Said Huffman, “I believe we have been renewed in some ways by the very movement we [are trying] to renew.”

By Randy Frame, in St. Louis.

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