Yes we did.


A group of us spent the night in my office, which is located a few blocks away from the mall. We put on layer upon layer of clothing, in order to stay warm while we stood in one place for hours. We were pretty peculiar, a group of pastors, plus my daughter. And we were surrounded by an incredible array of people, white hippies wearing Grateful Dead concert souvenirs, New York liberals wrapped in fur coats, young Latinos with cell phones, older African-American women with hopeful histories. Our hearts lifted as Barack Obama was sworn in and they soared when he spoke.

Change is upon us.

Hopefully, there will be immediate policy changes—like the end of torture, health insurance for children, and an implementation of a wiser foreign policy. And there will be hard changes that will take time—like better education for all children, health care for all Americans, rebuilding of our crumbling infrastructure, and environmental stewardship for our exhausted planet.

This event also marked significant cultural changes—like a move from the greed of the individual to the care of the community. With giant corporations begging for bailouts, and huge banks collapsing, we know that we need to do things differently.

What does all of mean for our congregations? What is changing on our religious landscape? Well, there is a new passion for social justice, for living out the words of Jesus. And I cannot help but notice the Joshua Generation—the young Evangelicals who cannot swear allegiance to Christian Right, who are finding their own way.

Newsweek recently had a portrait of a man who represented so many of my friends, as well as myself. We grew up in conservative Evangelical households, but when we became adults, the political alliances that our parents made no longer made sense. The sexism, homophobia, and (sometimes) racism of the Religious Right did not seem to match the ministry of Jesus.

There are a swarm of young Evangelicals who are wandering right now. Twenty-six percent of young Evangelicals support same-sex marriage. They no longer have a spiritual home in the congregations of their youth. So, how are denominations going to respond? Can we begin to open up our doors to a new generation?

I am a Presbyterian. I have been a PC(USA) pastor for ten years and a member for fifteen. I love my denomination, but I am still uncomfortable in it. Often, when I’m around denominational types, things are said that make our denominations inhospitable for people who grew up Evangelical.

I guess I should just spell it out. Because I love my church, I need to let you know that if we want to reach out to a new generation, we will need to learn to accept Evangelicals or ex-Evangelicals. You may not agree with me, you may not have had the same experience, but still, personally people communicate to me regularly, “You’re not one of us, and you never will be.” Sometimes I don’t know exactly how it’s being said, but I’ll try to put my finger on some of the more pernicious habits of the mainline.

In my denomination, many people say, “Well, they obviously don’t know what it means to be Presbyterian.” Wake up, my friends. No one knows what it means to be Presbyterian. We are a small group that will keep getting smaller if we think that everyone needs to know the Book of Order before being able to sit in a pew.

“Christianity has not been a force in our society since the sixties.” Wrong. Mainline denominationalism has not been a force in our culture since the sixties. Evangelicals have been a strong tradition since the birth of our nation, and they grew tremendously in the ’80s. They have been creating think tanks, educational institutions, and grass-roots political movements. And they are Christians too.

“Evangelicals are dumb.” Whether we say it outright or not, this is often our message. I know. I went to Bible College. And while I have friends who went on to do social work and their degrees were seen as an asset, mine has always been seen as a hindrance in my work as a minister. I have an education that allows me to understand inside-and-out the largest religious movement in our nation, and people in my denomination regularly mock me for it.

I can tell you that there were smart people at Bible college, and not-so-smart people in seminary. So, please, can we get over ourselves? Just because we worship in a denominational church doesn’t mean that our IQ is any higher.

I could go on. But I won’t. I’ll just wrap it up by saying, things are changing. And the biggest change on the religious front is that young Evangelicals are leaving their roots. Can we put aside our elitism? Can we reach out to them? If we can, this could be a time of tremendous growth and renewal for our congregations.


31 thoughts on “Yes we did.

  1. Thanks for this great blog–I read it often. Also I really enjoyed your class at New Hope Presbytery in September. In 8 years of ministry I have been privileged to minister to a lot of folks who “burned out” on fundamentalist and/or evangelical churches, or were even kicked out. I am so grateful that our paths crossed–they have taught me a lot about the search for authenticity and grace. Here’s my problem. Seems like some evangelical churches get people hooked on the idea of a spiritual high, and love to talk about numbers (i.e., we had 500 people dedicate themselves to Christ at the youth retreat, and the music was so amazing, and the speaker was amazing, oh it was totally amazing!) Then they join a Presbyterian church or youth group, and start talking about their old church or their old youth group, and suddenly all the Presbies who thought they were doing just fine feel uncool. You can do great things with 500 starry-eyed people, but you can do different great things with 5 or 10 serving in a soup kitchen. I would love some ideas on how to deal with the mystique of “amazing”….

  2. Tribal,

    This was an intersting post.

    I think this is another case where something generational is going on.

    I am a 50 year old self described “Refugee from Southern Revivalism.” I made the move from the SBC to being a presbyterian in college in the mid-70’s. If not for the Presbyterian campus minsitry I’m probably an atheist scientist now instead of a presbyterian educator.

    It seems like in any group of babyboomer presbyterians I am in a bunch of them are former baptists.

    I have been wondering why this stream of “refugees” has dried up in the last 15 years.

    I have heard many snarky comments made about evagelicals by presbyterians. Here’s what may be a big differnce between you and me. I have also spoken them. I have little positive to say about the religious tribe in which I was brought up. I admit to being envious of those who get to grow up as a presbyterian.

    Are the younger refugees less hostile towards the tradition they are leaving? And more critical of thioer potential new church home?

  3. Well, there are a few of us, believe it or not, who grew up Presbyterian who still consider ourselves “evangelical.” We’re a strange breed, probably not fitting in well to standard definitions of either “Presbyterian” or “evangelical.”

    For what it’s worth, I’m 34. (And, to be fair, my family didn’t go to church regularly until I was 9. But I still consider myself to have “grown up in” the PC(USA).)

  4. I probably should have not used the word evagelical in my post. May have been better to have stuck with Baptist since that is my own experience.

  5. Kerri said, “I would love some ideas on how to deal with the mystique of ‘amazing’….”

    I often have difficulty with this within my family. My parents have been a part of church plants (and splits, and plants, and splits and plants), but each time the congregations have mushroomed practically overnight.

    On the other hand, I have worked in small churches that have grown little by little. It’s often hard, realizing that the few are doing good and faithful things.

    It’s a real tension, but I don’t think there’s much we can do about it, except realizing our own value and worth. Embrace our uncoolness!

  6. ceemac,

    I’m definitely a refugee. I have serious wounds from growing up Southern Baptist and I’m not always kind about the movement I came from. I am often corrected by Evangelicals on my blog for my caricatures of the movement. Although I’m learning to embrace my past as a part of me. I have found that I can reject where I came from and choose a different path, but if I hate where I came from, then I end up hating a part of myself.

    Sometimes, I just get exhausted from the comments coming from my colleagues. Perhaps it is because the conservative/liberal divide has become so strong, but it seems that we can even be inhospitable to refugees.

  7. Rock it Carol, breakin’ down the walls. Perhaps it might be worth a post by you as to how to reconcile these traveling evangelicals who, though they support society’s prerogative to bless homosexual marriage, and who may even believe in the “inclusion” of gay Christians in the Church, still believe that homosexuality should not be a normative sexual relationship for Christians.

    Simpler put, it seems that some might still believe in a traditional sexual ethic, but are not militants and are unwilling to vilanize gay Christians. How might this help/hurt the Mainline?

  8. Thanks for this Carol. I think one of the things you’ve touched on is the way the mainline has been welcoming to “refugees” who made a clear break with their evangelical past, but the rhetoric of leaving that past turns away people who are not out to play the us-and-them game.

    I see this generationally too. We have aging boomers still working out their feelings about what they felt was a too-rigid upbringing, and at the same time a more unchurched younger generation is drifting a bit because they never had much to react against in the first place. How do you provide a solid place of spiritual “basics” to the latter group when the former group still wants to spend their time de-bunking what their parents taught them?

  9. I kinda think more than elitism it is comfort that is preventing people from reaching out. Shifts require change (which some flat out avoid at all costs and others toe the line without really ever changing) as well as a ton of energy. I am sure it is a “both/and” situation though. In my PC(USA) church, they tried to do a “young adult/college age” group but the time slot that was available (with all the competition for the music ministries, etc.) was NOT a good time for that age group. It seemed to me they were backing the two folks that have vision to reach out to that age group with their words, but they weren’t making physical space for it. It seems as though there is no real heartfelt desire to reach the 20 and 30 somethings. So much emphasis is put on youth. We’ve got children’s ministries out the ya-zoo and a great youth group but then the “youth” graduate high school, go off to college, and there’s very littl for them when they come back “home.” It’s extremely frustrating!!!

  10. Carol,

    This is right on point. Kudos for your blunt honesty!

    The more I dialog with those of differing theological perspectives, the more I become aware of the accepted subtle jabs. It is not always the straight forward comments, but the little side comments and “light-hearted” jokes that have made me most uncomfortable in some recent gatherings of our beloved denomination.

    It is taking me a little while to gain the courage to speak up in these circumstances, but its time we start sticking up for other Christians and differing theological perspectives instead of highlighting the things that separate us.

    Your voice and perspective is needed in our denomination. Keep on talking!

  11. Carol,

    This is a very good post. I have some in that category of evangelicals (who may still think of themselves as such) coming to the church I serve. Mostly though, my “immigrants” are atheist/agnostic or something other looking for a spiritual approach that fits. Funny, huh?

    I have to admit, I am uneasy and probably my prejudice is showing. Part of my burn is that I was officially investigated for heresy by a colleague who had to leave his evangelical denomination because he got divorced and then found a home in the PCUSA. Then I am not Christian enough for him. He is the emissary for Christ who has come to straighten out the mainline.

    I hope these new evangelicals aren’t that! : )

  12. Perhaps, I wonder, this is a regional thing? I have spent my entire life in PC(USA) churches. My parents have been elders in several. I have been on staff at several. I am Presbyterian through and through, but I am also pretty evangelical.

    But I’m also in SoCal, where most PC(USA) churches have an evangelical bent. I am too “liberal” (perhaps I should say moderate?) for most truly evangelical churches but too evangelical for many of the mainline congregations.

    I am 24. And there are a lot like me. I heard somewhere that there are more PC(USA) folks now at Fuller (where I’m a seminarian) than at Princeton. And seem to be almost entirely in the middle. We interpret like NT Wright and receive Sojourners in our email. I feel at home here in SoCal, but I don’t think I would many other places. Where is the middle-ground?

  13. Greg,

    Great post. It has been good for us to take some pride in our educated clergy, since the boomers fled to the non-denoms. But I wonder if it’s even true. I mean, we have 40% of our churches that are small and many are calling Commissioned Lay Pastors. With so many CLPs, how can we claim an educated clergy?

  14. John,

    “I hope these new evangelicals aren’t that! : )”

    Me too.

    That’s a scary story, and reminds me why people are so suspicious of me. Maybe with all of our tensions, it’s not possible for us to be hospitable. But… I hope we can find a way.

  15. Pastors Carol and John,

    I am myself one of those young boys from the island-of-misfit evangelicals who came into the Mainline. I won’t lie and say that all things about the Mainline are comfortable to me; but I will say, that I came in eyes wide open and I am here to be a Christian with you, not “reform” you. Though, I might add, per my age group, I am compelled to dialogue about religious matters, and that means honest discussion where we might disagree.

    Many of us attempted to “reform” our original denomination(s) before making the journey and have no desire to do so again.

  16. More good comments.

    A couple more thoughts:

    * I have never had to deal with exams by COMs and a CPM like Tribal and some some of you have. I deal mostly with a lot of church members who are “refugeees.” That may account for some differnces in experience.

    * The intellectual eltism/arrogance that some of you reference was actaully a great attraction to older refugees. (That and the drinking if we are really being honest)

    * Pam: Your comments about the “us and them” rhetoric turning off younger folks are helpful. Guilty as charged.

    * That said the lines between groups were much more distinct 30 years ago. There were no Rob Bells back then.

  17. Carol, thanks for this thought-provoking post. Here’s a thought that it provoked in me: this would be a far more accurate analysis if every time you wrote “mainline” or “my denomination,” you instead wrote “liberal churches.” I say this both from experience and from numbers: for the last 16 years I’ve been in PCUSA churches, but never…not even once…have I ever heard anyone say any of the things you attribute to “your denomination.” The reason is obvious: I suspect you run in rather liberal circles of the denomination. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to recognize that at least in 2005, only 19% of PCUSA members self-identified as “very liberal/liberal.” On the other hand, 41% claimed to be “very conservative/conservative” My point: there are thousands of PCUSA churches who don’t need to learn to accept evangelical-types; they already accept them.

    So, is this Presbyterian-elitism something that is far more common in liberal churches? This post, and the comments, lead me to think so. Maybe this is not simply a “pernicious habit of the mainline,” as you suggest. Maybe it’s not the whole mainline that is so elitist. My experience and these numbers indicate to me that the denomination as a whole is not nearly as off put by evangelicalism as your experience might lead you to believe.

    My blog-comments sometimes have a way of communicating a harsh tone I don’t intend…sorry if this one does, I don’t mean it to!

  18. Carol,

    I am thrilled you are in the PCUSA. I truly appreciate your post and your presence.

    As far as who is in and who is out, I don’t care what anyone believes. Everyone is welcome. My only rule is that you can’t say you can’t play. I am thrilled to have all kinds of conversations about theology and politics.

    I think it is an exciting time in the church regarding what it means to be Christian.

    I don’t even mind if people don’t think I am a Christian or even tell me as much. Thinking even saying it is OK.

    Even snotty “career advice” by my PCUSA colleagues to become a UU minister are fine.

    But when the ecclesiastical machinery or other bullying attempts are used to purify the church, I consider that an invasion of personal space.

    Frankly, that has come, in my experience, from evangelicals. It is not just about gays but theological issues too.

    It is true that we old school liberals are elitist, arrogant, irreverent sots. We are really inept in reaching out to the generation you represent. Perhaps we have been defensive for so long we don’t know an ally when we meet one.

    But, you know, it is at least partially because of us liberals that there is a place where evangelicals who are willing to grow can go.

    Perhaps you and your tribe are the bridge to a new way of moving past old divides as our new president put it.

    Thanks again, for your honesty and I am truly sorry that “my kind” has been inhospitable. We liberals need to put away our childish ways.

  19. Andy asked, “So, is this Presbyterian-elitism something that is far more common in liberal churches?”

    Good question. I scanned my memory banks for an answer… and I would say yes and no. I did hear them a lot when Presbyterianism was a clear minority voice (in South Louisiana, where everyone was Catholic or Baptist, and Presbyterians were working very hard to be Presbyterian). Or, when there was a gatekeeper involved (in COM/CPM meetings). Definitely in academic circles. I hear suspicion about my education the most when I’m looking for a call.

    I don’t have to be in the denominational church to hear that Evangelicals are dumb. That’s pretty much everywhere in our culture–except for in Evangelical circles.

    Western is the first progressive church that I’ve served, and we are filled with refugees, so I don’t hear these things from them. We laugh about our past, and work hard to heal from it, but I don’t generally hear general snarkiness there.

    There are definitely different shades of Evangelicals, aren’t there? When I was growing up, we didn’t think Presbyterians were going to heaven. We thought all the denoms were purely social, like the country club. The thought of an Evangelical Presbyterian would have blown my mind.

  20. John,

    Thanks for you kind words.

    I agree. I like having people more conservative than me in the church. It keeps me sharp, keeps me thinking. I like the discourse. But, I don’t like the intimidation to people in the ordination process. I don’t like that many of my friends have almost been stopped from transferring Presbyteries. I hate the mission to purify. It causes too much harm to our unity as Christians.

    One of the main problems with our denominational culture is that we’re too ingrown, we don’t have enough fresh, new blood.

  21. Carol, thanks for the response. I think you are so right when you point out that this elitism happens when we are “working very hard to be Presbyterian” i.e. not-Catholic, not-Baptist, not-evangelical.

    I also didn’t mention in my previous comment how much I appreciated your fair-mindedness in this post. Thanks for writing this.

  22. Pingback: “I am an Elitist Presbyterian” | Oregon Mountaineer

  23. Hi Carol,

    Thanks for this post…I have followed your blog for some time now and until reading this one tonight I have not felt compelled to comment, but I just want to say thanks for taking note of a shift that is happening in our “mainline” denominations. You’ve managed to put into words many of my feelings and thoughts about how difficult it is to have grown up more evangelical and still lean more moderate (though I don’t use the “e” word around most of my seminary friends because I don’t want the reactions you have just listed) but be a card-carrying, *very* involved Presbyterian.

    Perhaps I really appreciate it because in the line for religious views on Facebook mine says: “evangelical Presbyterian. no really, it’s true.” That’s me in a nutshell, so for all of those closet evangelicals out there, thanks.

    Just one other thing, to Andy: for all those thousands of Presbyterian churches who accept evangelicals there are thousands more that shun, ignore, or worse, degrade them. And while this goes the other way too, I know, dialogue, collaboration, and compassion cannot be opened up from just one side. Besides, evangelical is not the same as fundamentalist.

  24. As Mike said above,

    “I am too “liberal” (perhaps I should say moderate?) for most truly evangelical churches but too evangelical for many of the mainline congregations.”

    My husband and I are both staff at PCUSA churches. We purposely sought out PCUSA because we thought it would be a good fit for us. However, we are finding the evangelical parts of us are not so welcome in the PCUSA. Any thought or wording that may have an evangelical slant is looked down upon. I asked my pastor why the church is so accepting of everyone except evangelicals. He replied “We are intolerant of the intolerant.” However, if you are evangelical does that make you intolerant? I want to share the gospel/good news of Jesus Christ our Lord – with love and acceptance.

  25. ambly,

    “If you are evangelical does that make you intolerant?”

    I think that some people (especially post-evangelicals, not just non-evangelicals) have come to believe so with very good reason. That doesn’t make it so (at least, I hope not!), but I think the reality of this perception needs recognizing.

    Incidentally, I’m reminded of someone (I forget who) who pointed out that to be “tolerant” is specifically to accept the existence of, and to choose not to fight the existence of, those with whom you differ. That is to say, it is precisely because we have differences, and continue to hold them, that tolerance is possible in the first place. Without differences, there’d be no definition of “tolerance” that made a whit of sense!

  26. Pingback: "I am an Elitist Presbyterian" | BendFP Youth Blog

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