The Coercion of Connectionalism
When I was in high school, in both my junior and senior years, I earned a Varsity Letter in Men’s Gymnastics. Gymnastics was my sport and those years and those teams are some of the great, joyful memories of my life. I was pondering recently that my experience in men’s gymnastics, long ago, has prepared me for this job. I have a very highly developed sense of balance. A sense of balance is a good thing in a time when the ground beneath the church is shifting and moving.
We are living in a time of massive culture change and transformation in our church. Some have called the changes that are happening in the church today as sweeping and comprehensive as those of the Protestant reformation in the 1500s. I agree with that, we are living in the midst of a Modern Reformation.
Possibly the most sweeping change which is shifting the ground and undermining the foundations of our Presbyterian Church is the breaking down of our connectionalism. So much so that a polity of free association has, for many congregations, become the polity of our church. The polity of free association is the American way, and it is very successfully expressed in the Southern Baptist tradition which, of course, is by far the largest of the Protestant Churches. A polity of free association means that each church has a choice, a free choice, about what other congregations you may choose to associate with. This is a very free form, fluid polity. Congregations come and go in their relationship with one another depending on their needs and desires at any given point in their life. This polity of the free association of congregations is both a very old idea in America and a very new idea. The post-modern, emergent church movement which is blossoming all over our country is a free association of congregations. The Willow Creek association, and the Purpose Driven Church association are free associations of congregations. Each congregation decides with which other congregations they want to associate.
Let me be very clear, the Presbyterian Church is very, very different. There is supposed to be, and there has historically always been a fundamental coercion to our connectionalism. Our congregations do not, on any given day, have a choice about our connectionalism. Our connections together are part of the identity of who we are as churches. I call this the coercion of connectionalism because there is not free choice about this decision. Congregations today that choose to break our connectionalism and sever all connections with our Presbyterian Church cause tremendous trauma and pain, often expressed in disciplinary action, legal action and high rancor.
I argue the Presbyterian Church is very unique because our connectionalism binds us together in ways deeper than our own free choice. This is part of our identity and character; it is not a choice on any given day. This is a style of church which is very different from the American cultural emphasis on free choice and free association. But this all begs a very difficult question: Is our connectionalism sustainable in the midst of the modern reformation we are living through? My response is that it depends on what question is being asked when our church leaders are sitting around their session tables planning the ministry and mission of their own congregations.
If the question, “What has the Presbytery done for us?” is on your agenda as you do your session work, I submit that all connectionalism is gone. And I would argue, from my own experience, that this is exactly the question that many church leaders are asking today. “What has the Presbytery done for us?” This question does not reflect our classic Presbyterian connectionalism, but rather is an expression of a polity of Baptist free association. The Presbytery and the General Assembly cannot possibly bring resources and expertise to every one of our churches, to be able to satisfy every session need, every day. If our defining question is simply, “What is in this for me?”, we are done. Shut off the lights and close the door. This question breaks all connectionalism because it presumes that all that really matters is my congregation, my needs, and my well being. This question casts out any vision of the vital importance of being together in ministry.
For connectionalism to be true and deep in our midst we must ask a different question: “How can we participate in and support the connection of the 52 church in our presbytery, and, indeed, the 11,000 churches in our Presbyterian Church.” We must presume a deep connection between us and ponder ways, especially in these challenging times, in which we can participate in our connections. Thus I ask our Elders and church leaders to think carefully about the defining questions that are operating within your congregations. Are your guiding questions presuming that the churches of our presbytery and, indeed, throughout our church are in this together? Or are your guiding questions actually straining the bonds that unite us? I request that our church leaders take very seriously a framework of decision making that unites and builds us up together. Ask and pray and ponder this question: “How can we participate in and support the connection of the 52 churches in our presbytery?”