One challenge that confronts any long-established organization is safeguarding its core values and mission, especially when making a transition from one generation of leadership to the next. The PCA is no exception.
When the PCA was founded in 1973, enfolding some 260 churches and 41,000 members, leaders unanimously agreed on the importance of remaining true to the Scriptures, loyal to the Reformed Faith as defined by the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and obedient to the Great Commission. With the denomination now in its fifth decade, a number of its founding fathers are encouraging the PCA’s new and emerging leaders to retain these same values.
To that end, Dr. Kennedy Smartt has written a letter titled, “As We See It Today — the Perspective of Some of the Founding Fathers.” The letter is signed by 18 members of the PCA’s “founding generation” and endorsed by other longtime teaching elders. It urges leaders to welcome differences of opinion and discourse on various issues, while affirming “the need for our leadership to always be searching for the center so that unity might be maintained and our mission might be accomplished.”
Smartt is a longtime PCA pastor and staff member, an appointee to the original committees that laid the groundwork for creating the PCA, and author of “I Am Reminded,” which chronicles the denomination’s first 25 years. Having that background, he was chosen to draft the 985-word letter.
“Over the past several years,” he said, “veteran leaders have expressed concern about the course the denomination seems to be following, so the letter was composed as ‘a declaration of our commitment to love and respect each other…” Kennedy Smartt
“Over the past several years,” he said, “veteran leaders have expressed concern about the course the denomination seems to be following, so the letter was composed as ‘a declaration of our commitment to love and respect each other and affirm doctrinal orthodoxy without becoming too broad or too narrow in the way we embrace our confessional standards.’”
The Letter’s Signers
E. Crowell Cooley
Frank M. Barker, Jr.
Frederick Curtis Fowler III
Paul B. Fowler
James G. Edwards
Terry L. Gyger
Larry C. Mills
John C. Neville, Jr.
Robert J. Schwanbeck
Paul G. Settle
James B. Sherwood
The primary areas of concern are not theological or doctrinal, according to Smartt, but rather ones of approach and emphasis:
- Bottom-up vs. top-down authority. “We founded this denomination to be bottom up – sessions to presbytery to General Assembly, but we’ve been drifting toward top-down leadership.”
- Evangelism. “Gradually evangelism has been disappearing from the practice of many churches. We’re raising our children well, but not nearly as concerned about winning souls.”
- Role of ruling elders. “Participation by ruling elders at General Assembly has been declining steadily. They are asked to give up personal time to attend, and many are determining it’s not worth it for them.”
Dr. Jim Baird is among the letter’s signers. At age 86, he quips, “Maybe I sound like a cranky old man,” but he doesn’t see this as an attempt to recapture the PCA’s bygone days. “Over the last 20 years we’ve lost a lot of the excitement, and there’s a diminished sense of love for one another,” he said, notably, at General Assembly.
Baird recalled Francis Schaeffer, the esteemed theologian, Presbyterian pastor, and author, addressing the second General Assembly in 1974. “His message was ‘Love One Another,’ and we all came away from there with tremendous enthusiasm and love for each other, along with a great willingness to cooperate” in advancing the cause of Christ.
He said the General Assembly’s overall tone has grown tedious, a reason lay leaders are increasingly reluctant to take part. “We have the same teaching elders going year after year, and now it’s become predominantly pastors, maybe two-thirds. Of the laymen who do attend, most won’t return. We should always have more ruling elders than teaching elders,” because for the local church to have a significant impact, pastors can’t do all the work.
“It used to be each of our General Assembly worship services was exciting; now it’s just business. Our yearly WIC conferences attract 5,000 women. Why can’t we have 5,000 to 10,000 men at each of our General Assemblies — our men’s meetings?
“We are living in a depressed world. We’re carrying the Lord’s Good News. Our worship services should be a celebration,” Baird stated.
Smartt and Baird have been close friends since the PCA’s inception, and he agreed with Baird’s assessment of recent General Assemblies. Lay leaders have become discouraged with wrangling over matters of parliamentary procedure, he said. “They don’t see it necessary for that kind of nitpicking — and I agree with them.”
At age 77, Dr. Charles McGowan is about 10 years younger than Smartt and Baird but shares their concerns. “I can’t be counted as one of the founders but was very much a part of the movement,” McGowan noted. A pastor for nearly 50 years, he now heads McGowan Search, working with pastoral search committees. He is “thrilled with the letter. I’ve even considered taking it to a group of my friends that are not among the founders and having them endorse the letter as well.
“It’s very important for the next generation of emerging leaders to clearly understand the history of the PCA and values by which it was founded, as well as some of the struggles the founders and denomination had early on. They need to be reminded of the faithfulness of God and how He has blessed the PCA from its start.”
During its 40-plus years, the PCA has experienced “a wonderful balance,” according to McGowan, linking theological orthodoxy with aggressive evangelism and outreach. Commitment to theological faithfulness remains, but “we’re not so focused on evangelism. We’re losing our commitment to reach out to a lost and dying world with the Gospel.”
Regarding the General Assembly, McGowan agreed that for many it has become discouraging. “We should want the General Assembly to be an uplifting, inspirational experience. Yes, we need to conduct business, but also should leave the Assembly encouraged by all God is doing in the world through the PCA.”
Leadership from the center was a recurring theme for Smartt, Baird, and McGowan. “In the PCA, we always need to see leadership from the center, not becoming so sectarian we go into a ditch or so progressive we become liberal,” McGowan commented.
“We need people on either end of the spectrum,” Smartt added, “to create the broad middle. If we don’t have some leaders who are extremely strong conservatively, as well as people on the other end, we’re not going to have the necessary tension to establish and maintain the broad middle that should be guiding the PCA.”
Signers and supporters of the letter don’t have grandiose expectations, Smartt said, other than “by reading and thinking about the letter, our ruling elders will get more interested in what’s going on in General Assembly and become more eager to participate in it. Our hope is to create a context for better understanding, giving more prayerful attention to what’s going on — spending more time praying, seeking the mind of the Holy Spirit, than we spend debating.”
Please read the letter here.