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.