First Presbyterian happy in new denominational home
When the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) met in Pittsburgh this summer for its 220th General Assembly, approval of “same-gender” marriage, ordination of gay clergy and disinvestment of American corporations that do business with so-called “apartheid” Israel provided many hours of heated discussions.
All three items were narrowly defeated, but, after more study, are expected to return to the agenda of future assemblies, according to the denomination’s news releases.
By contrast, when the much smaller Evangelical Presbyterian Church met at Baton Rouge’s First Presbyterian Church in June for its 32nd General Assembly, the top agenda items were accepting dozens of former PC(USA) churches into the denomination and sending dozens of missionaries to American and foreign mission fields. Such issues as gay marriage and divestment from Israel weren’t on the agenda.
“I look at my former denomination, and I’m thankful not to be there,” said the Rev. Gerrit Dawson, who led First Presbyterian Church of Baton Rouge to leave PC (USA) on Oct. 28, 2007, to escape what he saw as a continuing drift away from traditional Christian orthodoxy and morality.
In the five years since First Presbyterian left the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination, PC(USA) has continued to lose churches and members, the EPC has continued to grow and the Presbytery of South Louisiana has worked to adjust to the loss of its largest congregation and financial contributor.
For First Presbyterian, serving as host for the EPC assembly with about 800 in attendance helped members see why their church had switched denominations, Dawson said. “These people are like us. They love Christ, they love Scripture, they love to worship, they are friendly, they are concerned about outreach and ministry to the world.
“We’re not fighting over the lordship of Christ or the authority of Scripture, because we’ve agreed on that,” he said, adding homosexual ordination “is not even an issue because we believe Scripture is clear on that … We don’t feel the drain on the church’s mission that we had felt having to fight those kind of issues.”
Several PC(USA) pastors in the Presbytery of South Louisiana said that while they aren’t interested in changing denominations, they would like to leave the fighting behind and focus instead on reviving failing churches and planting new ones.
“We have to get back to sharing the mission of the church of Jesus Christ,” said the Rev. Ron Sutto, interim general presbyter and interim stated clerk for the Presbytery of South Louisiana.
Sutto, who is pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church, of Harvey, attended the PC(USA) assembly along with several other Louisiana pastors and church representatives.
“The sensational stuff is what always makes the headlines, but when you clear away the smoke what you have is honest, God-fearing folks trying to discern what the Scripture says,” Sutto said.
“For 2,000 years there have always been profound differences of opinions on certain practices, but I agree with Ron Sutto that we need to be unified on the basics,” said the Rev. John G. Blewitt, senior pastor of Faith Presbyterian of Baton Rouge with an average attendance of 45. “People of deep sincere faith who love the Lord are debating each other, and there is so much pain and so much anger because of those debates. It is painful to see.”
The PC(USA), like many other mainline denominations, is slowly losing membership as older members pass on and young people leave the church.
According to its own latest Summary of Statistics report, the PC(USA) declined from 10,721 churches and 2.1 million members in 2008 to 10,466 churches and 1.9 million members in 2011, or losses of 94 churches and more than 63,800 members.
The Presbytery of South Louisiana has declined from 61 churches listed on its website to 55, Sutto said.
For example, in the New Orleans area, where many churches were wrecked by Hurricane Katrina and members moved away, some churches have closed or merged and others sought new denominational homes.
To staunch the loss of churches, the presbytery has created new committees to study the loss of membership and churches and to find ways to start new “faith communities” in the south Louisiana area,.
“We’ve bottomed out and are starting to move back up,” Sutto said, declining to say anything more about the loss of First Presbyterian Baton Rouge, because that happened before his tenure. “I feel that we have a new spirit blowing through the church, and I’m excited about it.”
Blewitt as chair of the presbytery’s Church Transformation Committee is looking at how “struggling, graying congregations” can be transformed with “some profound shifts from a sense of the church existing for its members to, changing to existing for the sake of those not in the church — for those in the neighborhood.
“Our church — or any church —- isn’t where it is by accident,” Blewitt said. “We need to be paying more attention to who is in our immediate mission field.”
There may also be some “death and resurrection” issues for extremely small Presbyterian churches, Blewitt said, and there may be ways to merge those congregations. One of his ideas, he said, is to use modern technology, such as video-links, to link “satellite” churches, also called “branch” or “campus” churches.
Evangelism will have to become a part of the transformation process, Blewitt said, which may be a difficult thing for some.
“I heard somebody say that, ‘Presbyterians would rather jump out of an airplane without a parachute than share their faith,’” he said with a laugh. “We’re great at all kinds of helpful ministries such as soup kitchens and medical ministries, but we have to share our story with people to bless them also.”
The Rev. James Rollins, pastor of the 70-member Highland Presbyterian Church, in Baton Rouge, is chair of the Presbytery’s New Church Development Committee. He said the PC(USA) has a new program to establish “1,001 New Worshipping Communities.”
“We are looking at ways to reach out to people that current churches are not reaching,” Rollins said. “We need to focus our energy on reaching out as opposed to dividing us up.”
Dawson characterized First Presbyterian Baton Rouge’s relationships with Louisiana PC(USA) churches as “cordial” and added that each week his congregation prays specifically for one of them.
“We went where we needed to go as kindly as we could, and we have the future in front of us,” Dawson said.
First Presbyterian Baton Rouge’s new denomination, the EPC with about 125,000 members and 362 churches, has doubled since the year 2000, according to denomination officials.
And First Presbyterian Baton Rouge with an average weekly attendance of 750 has seen growth since switching to that denomination.
“Our attendance is up by about 100 and we’ve added a fourth service which we didn’t have before; the acoustic communion service — a communion service every Sunday,” Dawson said.
Many of the people joining First Presbyterian, he said, are young families, “who are looking for a church that is strong biblically and theologically but also has a really strong children’s program.”
When First Presbyterian Baton Rouge first joined the EPC, it was part of a “non-geographic” presbytery (district) called the “New Wineskins,” a group of several dozen former PC(USA) congregations scattered across the nation who sought a new denominational home about the same time.
Since then, the EPC has matured to the point there are enough churches to form geographic-based presbyteries.
First Presbyterian is part of the Central South Presbytery, a 63-church group in seven states from Tennessee to Alabama to Texas, including 10 churches in Louisiana.
“First Presbyterian is 185 years old,” Dawson said. “I like to tell our members this move to the EPC does not make us less Presbyterian but more Presbyterian,” Dawson said. “We feel like this is a return to our roots. It has given a joyful spirit to the congregation that we hope to share with the community.”