The theme for this week’s second biennial Big Tent event here is “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” But for the more than 1,000 Presbyterians who will gather here, the challenge from Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders will be a decade-long push to grow the shrinking denomination deeper and wider than most of them have probably ever imagined.

The goal: 1,001 new Presbyterian worshiping communities in the next 10 years.

The dramatic proposal ― for a denomination that has been gradually declining in membership since the mid-1960s ― was first floated publicly at the spring meeting of the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) by Deputy Executive Director for Mission Roger Dermody.

“I want to acknowledge the obvious,” he said. “In our changing world, as we wrestle with the shape of our common life together, we need to have tough conversations about this critical moment in time, and about our life together as Presbyterians. What I and your other leaders are hearing over and over again … is that it’s all about our congregations.”

The PC(USA) will get healthy, Dermody emphasized, “because the local church is getting healthy.”

Calling the “1001 in 10” a “bold new vision,” Dermody said, “I believe that our work has got to be focused primarily on creating the conditions that will allow our existing worshipping communities to flourish, and engages them in giving birth to over 1000 new communities of faith within the next ten years.”  

Acknowledging the changing landscape of religious life in America, Dermody emphasized that he’s not talking about formal congregations, but about Presbyterian worshiping communities. “We need to acknowledge that many of our faith communities are in the process of becoming. I believe we need openness to fresh movements of God’s Holy Spirit, where people are gathering in sushi bars, tattoo parlors, dorm rooms, living rooms and boardrooms.

“If we truly hope to reach the next generation with the Good News of Christ,” Dermody sais, “we not only need our existing churches to flourish, but we also need brand new places for people to gather and worship and grow and be sent out to change their communities.”

Assessing existing congregations

The Rev. Eric Hoey, the GAMC’s program director for Evangelism and Church Growth, and the Rev. Philip Lotspeich, coordinator for church growth and transformation, introduced a new program to help existing congregations assess their potential called “New Beginnings.”

Developed in partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the program “helps congregations that have been struggling with sustainability make a bold decision about their future,” Hoey said, adding that the four-phase, six-eight month assessment “helps congregations get ‘unstuck’ about their future ― to choose their future instead of having the choice made for them.”  

“New Beginnings,” Lotspeich said, measures such attributes as demographics, participant tenure, historical trends in attendance and giving, financial data, building condition, visitor attractiveness, energy level of congregants, community needs and the strengths of the congregation.

“Healthy congregational life is about sharing Good News rather than institutional survival,” he said. The program “helps leaders make compelling case for change without imposing change but creating an atmosphere for change to be discussed and adopted by the church.”

Lotspeich said congregational self-assessment seeks to produce three shifts:

  • from making good church members to making disciples of Jesus Christ;
  • from church growth to community transformation; and
  • from preserving the institution to making missionaries.

Transforming assets

About one in four congregations that go through some assessment process determine that their life as a congregation in its current form is over. What then?

The Rev. Tom Taylor, president and CEO of the Presbyterian Foundation, said “every presbytery has at least one congregation facing severe financial challenges. Middle governing body leaders are reluctant to challenge seriously troubled congregations, but would really liked to start new churches and ministries but feel they lack the resources to do so.”

To break this Gordian knot, the Foundation has begun to work with churches and presbyteries to “creatively transform, reorient or restructure existing assets in ways that allow congregations to use their assets to give birth to whatever comes next.”

If a congregational assessment such as “New Beginnings” leads to a decision by a congregation that it’s time to wind down its existing ministry, church, presbytery and Foundation leaders work together to determine “asset transition.”

A variety of possibilities are available, Taylor said ― a renewal of the existing church, starting a new church, establishing a creative ministry fund to provide financial assistance to other ministries, establishing an endowment to support mission locally or overseas.

The point, he said, is for congregations and presbyteries “to be intentional and creative in the use of the assets they have. The question all Presbyterians should be asking is ‘What’s the best use of the resources God has given us?’”

Growth opportunities

Probably the greatest area for growth in the PC(USA) is within racial-ethnic and immigrant communities, said the Rev. Rhashell Hunter, director of Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministries, and the Rev. Sterling Morse, coordinator for racial ethnic and cross-cultural ministries.

Twelve percent of PC(USA) congregations and 15 percent of worshiping communities are racial ethnic or immigrant groups, Hunter said. Moreover, it is in these communities that many forms of the “1001 in 10” vision are evident.

Those worshiping communities, Hunter and Morse said, include formally chartered congregations; Bible study groups with no structure or ordained leadership; fellowships, which meet regularly with some structure but which may never develop into formal congregations; New Church Developments, which have designated leadership and a formal relationship with a presbytery; and networks, groups that are organized around a particular interest or ministry.  

Buying in

Dermody said that Presbyterians from all across the wide theological spectrum are responding positively to “1001 in 10.”

“Since we’ve begun to float this idea,” he said, “we already have lead commitments that have gotten almost half-way to our goal.” Second generation Korean Presbyterian leaders have pledged to start 100 new worshiping communities, as has a mission pastor in Los Angeles, he said.

Leaders of the fledgling Presbyterian Fellowship ― who began their existence by declaring the PC(USA) “deathly ill” ― “are in for 250,” Dermody said, and leaders of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians are excited by the challenge, he added.

“Indeed, there are many questions,” Dermody acknowledged, mentioning polity, ordination, theological and institutional issues that will need to be addressed.

“But I think we can answer them. This is do-able!”

At the Big Tent, denominational leaders are counting on many more Presbyterians capturing the “2001 in 10” vision.