(By Jana Blazek, Presbyterian Outlook). J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), spoke to participants in a workshop session at Big Tent July 8 about his vision for the denomination and what he sees in its future.
Referencing his response to the PCUSA 2016 denominational statistics indicating membership loss of nearly 90,000 members from 2015, Nelson said the denomination is “not dying but reforming,” and that Presbyterians need to continue believing that is true.
“What I’m seeing is change. Things shift,” Nelson said. And he enumerated three factors that he wants Presbyterians to consider:
- Reformation takes time. “The Reformation was a long period of time,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t just 95 theses tacked on a door,” as Martin Luther did at the church in Wittenberg, Germany, “and then everything changed.” As Christians prepare to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Nelson described the debates and internal struggles that burdened the church during that time of Reformation. He also referenced his sermon at the beginning of the Big Tent conference, in which he contended that the time is right for another reformation in the church.
- The past is competing with the future. Nelson said there is a tension between “the history we carry and bring with us versus the significant changes of the current age.” The church is struggling to keep up with changes in the world such as technology and globalization, he said, but the most significant changes are found in the perspective, hopes and expectations of church members’ children and grandchildren.
- Who is the PCUSA? “We’ve been through a lot,” Nelson said. As churches have departed for other more conservative denominations, there is a fear and anxiety among some who remain, he said, about what’s left and what’s next. As the denomination tries to regain its footing, it needs to have a sense of its core. Nelson said Quakers have peace as a major focus – but what about Presbyterians? “There’s no answer,” Nelson said. “We have snapshots of who we are all over the place, but we have no centering point about who we are and about our theology.”
In order to live into the 21st century, Nelson said, Presbyterians need to reflect on “what is our identity as Presbyterians in North American” – as a denomination that has endured a significant split over slavery, a meaningful reunification, and which now is searching for a new way forward.