At a plenary session of the 42nd General Assembly three pastors, each representing a different  age category, described “the state of the PCA” from their perspective. Below is a slightly edited version of the comments Bryan Chapell, a long time pastor, teacher, professor, and former president of Covenant Theological Seminary, made to the Assembly, from his vantage point.

I want to share with you some recent correspondence to a friend. He is the head of a mission agency and has been visiting a PCA church. He was impressed enough to consider membership and asked for my honest assessment of the state of the PCA. Here, with a few edits, is what I shared with him:

My friend, the local church that you are attending is a fine representative of one part of the PCA, but clearly it is not representative of the whole. Your church would be on the “progressive” side of things and would represent a majority of the younger pastors and the churches that are growing. It is hard to tell, however, if that church represents a majority of the PCA as a whole. If it does, it is barely a majority. The denomination, as a whole, is clearly divided between traditionalists, progressives, and neutrals. The traditionalists are highly committed to Confessional fidelity and are often worried about perceived doctrinal drift.

The progressives are frustrated by the perceived cultural isolation of the denomination and the lack of Gospel impact upon the larger culture.

The neutrals are happy (even proud) for the PCA’s biblical fidelity, are at a loss for why their churches are not growing, and perceive that the traditionalists and progressives fuss too much about too little.

Theological zeal and institutional loyalty keep the traditionalists engaged despite their concern about the church. The progressives are increasingly concerned that the church cannot move forward without controversy, and segments of this wing occasionally talk about whether it’s worth staying — even though most votes go their way at the General Assembly level. The neutrals always hold the swing votes at the General Assembly level — they can be frightened into action by the traditionalists but generally are more inspired by, and aligned with, the progressives.

Our Strengths and Weaknesses

The PCA’s best features include its fidelity to Scripture, its spiritually and doctrinally mature leadership, its congregations of highly committed believers, and a strong missional impulse. Weaknesses include its litigious culture, its cultural paranoia, and its blindness to its America-centricity, making it largely unaware or unconcerned about its role in the global Christian community.

An oft-repeated statement about the PCA is that “it’s a mess, but it’s the best mess around.” That statement is usually made by those who don’t know where they would go for greater fidelity to biblical and Reformed distinctives. Attitudinally, many  younger pastors would prefer to be in the EPC or the new Anglican denominations. However, the squishiness of doctrine in those circles, the low likelihood of local churches changing affiliations, and, of course, divergent views on the role of women are concerns that combine to keep most from jumping ship and also keep them trying to contribute to PCA health.

In a curious way, a spate of recent controversies has actually settled down the PCA in recent years. The controversies, while stimulating lots of rhetoric, have actually involved few people, and that has led to an easing of tensions and some better dialogue among leaders.

Despite this relative peace, if more progress is not made in cultural engagement, demographic diversity, and world-Christian involvement, my own children will struggle to stay with the PCA (although all are presently in PCA churches). Still, the only way I know to help her is (1) to work for the Gospel in the corner of the kingdom where God has placed me; (2) to keep trying to help the different strands understand each other; and (3) to work with leaders from the different strands to develop mutual trust that will be needed to work together for Christ’s purposes in our world.

Our Generational Differences and Perspectives

To help the different strands understand one another, I want to repeat previous observations about common (not universal) differences in the generations of our church:

The generation that is 50-plus years old was raised in a time of perceived Christian-majority culture; according to Francis Schaeffer it was the time of “Christian consensus.”

The priority of many evangelical Christians who matured in that cultural context was to mobilize this “silent majority” in order to control the religious and political processes of the nation to halt cultural erosion (e.g., Schaeffer’s “A Day of Sober Rejoicing” delivered at the General Assembly marking the RPCES’s “Joining and Receiving” with the PCA). These dynamics created a “Halt” mission for Christians of that generation. The goals: Halt abortion, pornography, drugs, promiscuity, tree huggers, socialism, liberalism, and illegal immigration.

By contrast, Christians in the generation that is 40-minus years old have never perceived themselves as a majority but always as a minority in a pluralistic culture. As a consequence, this generation’s calling is perceived not as gaining control, but as gaining credibility to deal with an already eroded culture.

The need to win a hearing for a credible faith has resulted in a “Help” mission for this generation’s church leaders. The goals: Help orphans (to counter abortion through adoption), AIDS sufferers (to win a Gospel hearing from gays and a gay-sympathetic culture), sex-trafficking victims, addicts (enslaved by chemical, gambling, gaming, body-image, or sexual brokenness), the environment (to teach the world that we are stewards of God’s creation), and poor and oppressed foreigners within our borders.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates these generational differences than the way many Christian leaders feel about major figures in prior conservative Christian movements. To mention Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim Dobson, James Kennedy, and Chuck Colson is to identify the heroes of the 50-plus generation. Church leaders of that generation are shocked to discover that younger leaders consider these figures exemplars of failure, representing attitudes and approaches that have led to the church’s cultural ineffectiveness.

As a consequence:

Those older feel that younger leaders won’t “put on the uniform” of evangelical courage to protect our children in the “culture wars.”

Those younger feel that those older leaders will not humble themselves enough to understand either their children or their “cultural realities.”

The reality is, despite the concern each group has about the other’s priorities, both are seeking to bring the Bible’s truth to the cultural moment that dominates their own life experience. But they differ in terms of whether the “biblical” priorities that dominate the church’s culture should be directed toward gaining control (the mission of “halt”) or gaining credibility (the mission of “help”).

Generational Separation Leads to Wider Gaps

What often separates the generations by their dominant cultural experience can also separate segments of our church. Those whose main concern is cultural erosion perceive their dominant mission to be protecting the church culture they love and believe is biblical. These genuinely feel the need to combat those inside and outside their immediate church culture who threaten its continuity.

In contrast, there are those whose main concern is cultural impotence; these are also divided into two major subgroups whose main concern is either spiritual conversion or cultural transformation. Despite these differences, both subgroups share the concern that the world has changed, left the church on its own minority island, and death to the church will not come by doctrinal or societal erosion but by sectarian introspection and intramural controversy.

It is important that both main groups understand that the other’s concern is biblical and genuine. We must learn to work for common ends across relational boundaries, loving one another in Christ, believing that the biblical concerns each expresses are genuine, and dealing with one another in integrity even when differences are acute.

We should realize the relational boundaries will likely continue to be defined by doctrinal wrinkles that always create intramural debates in a largely homogenous minority culture. In addition, differences over how to respond to the majority culture’s challenges — particularly related to gender and sexuality — will be seen very differently by those whose views are shaped by either erosion or impotence concerns. I anticipate that social changes challenging our family, gender, and lifestyle traditions will threaten to divide our church for the rest of our lifetimes.

United by a Greater Enemy

What has the possibility to unite us is the recognition that there is a greater enemy on the horizon. The issue that dwarfs our doctrinal squabbles and our persistent concern of how to treat issues of sexuality and gender is the issue of pluralism. Nothing comes close to that issue in being a challenge to our church’s future. The social stigma that is already attached to us for claiming that “Jesus is the only way” will be magnified many times for our children in a society increasingly willing to identify minority opinions as “bigotry” and “hate speech.” Pluralism will threaten not simply our orthodoxy, but the willingness of many to remain in this church.

If we do not see pluralism for the enemy it is, then we will not make appropriate alliances, link arms for necessary purposes, or allocate resources and align priorities for the greater ends required. If we do not recognize how seductive pluralism will be for all of us (and all we love) with its promises of societal approval and acceptance, then we will not embrace the means, manner, and message that will communicate the true beauty of grace that is the power of the Gospel.

Without clear identification of the external enemy’s magnitude, the dynamics of a largely homogenous social and doctrinal association will only make us less patient with our differences. We will also become increasingly insensitive to how much we need one another to maintain a voice for Christ in an increasingly pluralistic culture.

Right now our eyes are not focused on pluralism as our greatest enemy. We are more focused on what others in our ranks are doing or not doing. Debates about charismatic gifts are unlikely to divide us. Discussions about the role of women will continue to marginalize us but probably will not break us. Dealing with changing sexual mores may drive our youth away but will probably not divide us. All these issues are secondary to the challenges of pluralism.

Increasingly it will become unacceptable in this culture to say that Jesus is our only hope. Yet saying this against ridicule, isolation, and persecution will drive us to our fundamentals, to each other, and to our God. This great battle is likely to help us work past our doctrinal differences as we join hearts and minds in the struggle to survive.

Unquestionably, the great battle will cool some of the theological experimentation that times of ease can stimulate. At the same time, the great battle will force us to find new ways to show the beauty of God’s grace to the watching world. By the Spirit, the great battle will lead to new levels of graciousness to each other and dependence upon the grace of our Savior. The need of the hour is to believe the realities of this great battle are real, serious, and near; and that grace and truth are the power of our fight.

Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, and the former chancellor of Covenant Theological Seminary.

27 Responses to The State of the PCA

  1. Jon Price says:

    Dr. Chapell your thoughts remind me of something I was reminded of yesterday, and it fits well with your assessment of the PCA. Some of us tend to want to be light, and others of us tend to want to be salt. But, Jesus said that we need to be both. So, we need each other. Not just for balance, but to help one another either become more salty, or to have more light. If we don’t have both, we will not survive, and even worse, we will not be proclaiming the gospel for what it really is… the very Word of God.

  2. James Amos says:

    Reason #674 why Brian Chapell is one of the finest, Godliest men alive today. He actually. loves. everybody.

  3. Andrew Belz says:

    This is a clear description of some of the most important dynamics I have observed in our church and denomination. Thank you for thinking this through and writing about it. At the very end of your article, you condemn the coming pluralism. Yet George Marsden, in “The Twilight of the American Enlightenment” says that the coming pluralism will actually clarify what true faith is, and that we will have to engage this new and true pluralism vigorously.

  4. Steve White says:

    What if both focuses are wrong?

    I think the fact that when the average unbeliever is asked what Christians believe, they would probably say something like “They are against abortion, and gay marriage”.

    That’s a problem. But the solution is not to become a social issues, social gospel focused Church thinking that you have to absorb the worlds issues and views on many things in order to be relevant.

    The way to reach the younger world is to be transparent, and honest about our own inability to meet God’s prefect standards , and to preach the good news of Christ’s substitution. That Christ lived a perfect life, and that he gives us his record.

    That’s good news to anyone. Check out http://liberate.org they are teaching this!

    • Bonnie Jones says:

      Steve White, I believe your last paragraph says it all. The gospel of the substitionary death of Christ for our sins (pride, sexual sins, idolatry of every kind and all the rest) and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us by grace through faith must be the focus of our message.

  5. Brian Prentiss says:

    What is our obsession with having an enemy all the time? Why do we need something to oppose to unite us? How about we unite around the person of Jesus and say, traditionalist or progressive, THIS is what we’re FOR?

    Joining forces to oppose pluralism is like a marlin and tuna joining forces to oppose water.

    • Sarah Nisbet says:

      Brian, this is why you have been so great for Portland, Oregon, and what I miss most about your pastoring. The Church as a whole needs more unison, and we Presbyterians are notoriously bad about that.

    • Benjamin Connick says:

      Well, Brian, I agree that we should ultimately be defined by something we’re for but we do have a great Enemy. What do you mean by a Marlin and Tuna being against water? Is it that pluralism is the very substance we swim in, that is live in? Is it in some sense what sustains us? (Not ultimately, of course)

  6. Carson Carrington says:

    Pardon my ignorance, please, but which “pluralism” is Dr. Chapell referring to? The broad, political philosophy or a more refined pluralism, like of the “value” or “religious” category?

  7. Curt Gardner says:

    Excellent evaluation of where the PCA is, but a couple of things I might disagree with. First, I do not see issues of gender and sexuality being an issue of division in the PCA in the future if you mean how those issues are defined morally/doctrinally. If he meant there might be division in 1) how we treat those who differ with us on these issues (cultural enemies or sinners who need the gospel) or 2) in what we should do politically about these issues, then yes there might be division. Secondly, I disagree that pluralism in the culture is the big enemy that must unite us. In fact, I think it will be the lack of pluralism that will pose the greatest threat. We will be bullied to conform to the new fundamentalism.

    • Allen Montgomery says:

      Please help me understand. What is this “new fundamentalism” to which you refer?

      • Sheldon Nordhues says:

        I believe the fundamentalism of a secular, humanist society is what he is referring to. Pluralism implies acceptance of a wide range of beliefs. He is arguing that they will be unaccepting and will approach us as bigots and hateful people. I think both men agree with each other, but have a different classification of what is happening.

  8. Richard Jones says:

    Whether one believes in cultural erosion or cultural impotence, it does not change the fact that the Church is capitulating and surrendering to the surrounding cultural forces with increasing velocity. Syncretism has become the easy way out of the battle that rages against the Church. But there will always be a remnant that will stand and fight for truth, even unto death. We should not fear the one who can kill our bodies, but we should instead fear the One who can send both our body and soul to hell. The Church, in general, has become powerless against the spirit of the age because the leaders in the Church have worried more about marketing, money, and mumbers, rather than training and preparing the Church for war; not against flesh and…

  9. Eric Lahr says:

    To quote Os Guinness, “Pluralism is simply a social fact and one that is inescapable.” Unless we are going to become theonomists, a pluralistic society is the reality in which we exist.

  10. David O Jones says:

    Thank you Dr. Chapell for a clear and concise overview of the “struggles” within the PCA. As long as discussion can be kept in the arena of friendship and Christian humility, then we will all gain the benefit of iron sharpening iron.

  11. Mark Lickliter says:

    “The belief of the Presbyterian Church, for example, is plainly set forth in the Confession of Faith, and the Church will never afford any warmth of communion or engage with any real vigor in her work until her ministers are in whole-hearted agreement with that belief.”-J. Gresham Machen

  12. Tom Howard says:

    “If we do not see pluralism for the enemy it is, then we will not make appropriate alliances,…” Well said, yet we need to decrease, and God increase, John 3:30,31, “He must increase, but I (we) must decrease. He that come’s from above is above all:” When we make Him head (of the Church), pluralism will diminish on its own demise, so to speak.

  13. Connie Burroughs says:

    My spouse and I are under 40- James Dobson is a hero. He was a primary resource for our parents building families that loved God and valued the church and the wisdom he passed to them impacts our parenting and the importance of our faith lived out. When I was less mature, I used to think Dobson was “too political” now I realize I joined his calls to influence our culture for the values of life too late. We left the PCA fairly recently, the prevalence and influence of “radical two kingdoms” theology plays a large role in this. It is progressivism that we “under-40s” find lacking. It is progressivism’s cultural disengagement and accommodation that is the failure. Sadly, James Dobson is a rare courageous voice in the church today.

  14. Bill Burns says:

    I got 99 problems, an’ pluralism ain’t one of ’em.

    Chapell labels the factions very handily, but is there any doubt who’s standing in the way of ‘progress’ for the PCA?

    If the Church hopes to simply ‘survive’ by working ‘past our doctrinal differences,’ we are of all people most miserable. I prefer hope in Jesus’ promise that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against His Church. I prefer to love my real (not my “perceived”) enemies.

    It’s likely the only groups getting ‘past our doctrinal differences’ will be the ones dishing out the ‘ridicule, isolation, and persecution.’ A little exercise: can you tell a Shia, from a Sunni, from a Sufi Muslim by sight? No? Then I have only three more words: Corrie. Ten. Boom.

  15. Steve Froehlich says:

    “Traditional, neutral, & progressive” offer little clarity in helping us become a more mature communion – they are self-referencing categories that merely describe how we compare ourselves to one another. Richard Phillips’ categories, in response, are no more helpful – he suggests that we are defined by our different responses to a common enemy.

    Are we not wrestling with what it means to be the Church? As the PCA don’t we find ourselves along a continuum of being the Church demarcated from the world and being God’s people present in the world as the Church? The former values forming distinct sacred space. The latter values the whole world as ground for sacred work. These are distinct but familial visions of confessional & biblical…

  16. Betsy Musgrave says:

    The Church’s goal should be preaching the gospel. No one else will do that. Non-believers can & will adopt, help orphans, trafficked ppl, addicts, homeless, & poor, build wells, protect the environment, etc. That’s not to say Christians shouldn’t do those things; they should help ppl in ways they feel called by God to help, which might include some or all of these things or others. But those things shouldn’t be the focus of the Church. No one else is commanded nor qualified to preach & live out the gospel except the Church.

  17. Susan Ray says:

    May we precede analysis or criticism of parts of Christ’s Church with prayer for her. It is my prayer that in the PCA our love would abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that we may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

  18. Matthew Roberts says:

    Thank you for your leadership Dr. Chapell. By way of encouragement, the church plant I spearhead is organizing on May 31st with four deacons and three elders. We are located in Germantown, Maryland which is ranked as the second most diverse city in the country behind Jersey City. The church plant reflects the ethnic and economic diversity of the community. The theological thrust of my preaching came from your class at Covenant Seminary. I can’t thank you enough for your service to Christ. With love and respect –

  19. Hank Kenyon says:

    This makes me think of Paul’s words to the Corinthians, ‘But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.’
    Jesus says they will know you are my disciples by the way you love one another. I would interpret love as a desire to truly know the truth and the Word of God being the canon or standard of it and Christ himself ‘The Truth’ rather than our subjective analysis. I am not able to escape the subjective but He can overcome it…

  20. Allen Baldwin says:

    I found this analysis of age class and attending perspectives very helpful. I had not thought of it that way. I fit the profile nicely. I think I began to understand myself in relation to our current cultural attack but I needed (still) help understanding the younger generation. This helps – at least in how I view their response. I still find it very difficult to feel that I am applying God’s word faithfully to the challenges of sexual identity, illegal aliens and diversity. As always, the struggle keeps me on my knees where I might otherwise not be.

    The way you address issue pluralism is a bit confusing to me. The current politically correct intolerance of exclusively Christian views is clear. Pluralism with tolerance could…

  21. Howard Eyrich says:

    Dr. Chapell has provided an interesting analysis. It reminded me of what some intelligent fellow said, “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat history.” Unfortunately over the centuries the church has been doomed to repeating history; in a large part because we have not listened to Jesus and Paul. We all too often make Jesus say what we wish he had said and we fail to garner lessons from Israel as God intended as Paul wrote, “…these things were written for our instruction…” Rather than dividing by generational novelties, let us unite around Jesus’ all inclusive mission while allowing for and learning from generational differences.