Nearly 400 Presbyterians turned out at the Oregon Convention Center Saturday morning for the start of what promise to be extensive conversations at the 222nd General Assembly (2016) about the identity and future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The “Riverside Conversations,” held just before the formal convening of the assembly, which runs June 18-25 – centered around a survey of Presbyterians conducted by the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly in the last half of 2015. The resulting report is titled “When We Gather At The Table: A PC(USA) Snapshot.”

The Rev. Eileen Lindner, a New Jersey pastor and professional researcher who led the COGA survey, said: “The root question is, ‘In all the changes in our denomination, who do we perceive ourselves to be? Who do we think we are as Presbyterians?”

Lindner also briefed the Assembly Committee on The Way Forward on the survey during a committee session Friday afternoon. More than 3,000 Presbyterians participated in the survey, Lindner said -- almost double the number COGA had expected to attract. “We tried to create a kind of mirror so people can see who they really are, rather than what they think they are,” she said.

Like a patient getting a first look at the results of cosmetic surgery, Lindner added, “The advice is to always trust the mirror.”

Lindner said COGA found four common threads in the survey responses: 

  • The denomination has experienced an erosion of denominational identity. “Maybe not erosion,” she said, “but definitely a transition in what denominational identity means.”
  • Presbyterians like being Presbyterians. Among the factors that account for their satisfaction, the survey found, are denominational polity, parity between teaching elders and ruling elders, Reformed theology, the fact that the denomination is “a thinking church,” and “many aspects of our program life.”
  • “We  are  a  segmented  church,”  in  Lindner’s  words.  There are “clusters of values” in the PC(USA), from committed social justice advocates, to lifelong Presbyterians apparently unwilling to leave the denomination under any circumstances, to “those who are disappointed and discerning their place in the denomination.” This range of attitudes, she said, “poses great challenges for us.”
  • The PC(USA) is becoming an increasingly “congregational- centric” church – Lindner said “connectional” Presbyterians have long bemoaned “creeping congregationalism,” which she said has become “the default ecclesiology for American Christians, and a serious threat to our historically connectional church.”

 Participants in the Riverside Conversations spent much of the two-hour session – held in the assembly’s cavernous Exhibit Hall – in small-group discussions of two questions:

  • “In what ways do – and could – the common values reflected in ‘When We Gather at the Table’ serve as shared/common ground for the PC(USA)?”
  • “To what extent do disagreements expressed in ‘When We Gather at the Table’ reflect a healthy, robust and inclusive organizational structure and culture?”