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Welcome to the Future

by Catherine Neelly Burton

I began this blog series with a working hypothesis: I live in the future of the PCUSA. What’s happening in southern Kansas is where the national church is headed. My conversations over the last five months haven’t entirely proven this as true, but there’s more data to support my hypothesis.

Between 2014 and 2019, the Presbytery of Southern Kansas declined in total membership by 25%. In that same period these presbyteries based in large metropolitan areas declined as well:

  • Mid-Kentucky (Louisville) – 20% decline
  • Heartland (Kansas City) – 17% decline
  • Charlotte – 11% decline
  • Greater Atlanta – 10% decline

I did not contact every presbytery in the PCUSA, but of the ones I contacted, none are growing. Yet, there is still this myth that success equals growth. This myth is particularly detrimental to our rural communities. We know that every year fewer and fewer Americans go to church. If churches in growing cities are in decline, our small shrinking communities have almost no chance by the metric of growth.

In 2009 the PCUSA launched the “For Such a Time as This Initiative.” This program took applicants through at least 2013. According to PCUSA literature the program was “designed to renew and grow small churches and help them to become healthy, missional congregations. The program pairs small, underserved congregations in rural, small town and urban settings with recent seminary graduates for a two-year pastoral-residency relationship, during which they are supported and guided by a cluster of pastor-mentors.”

On one hand I applaud this initiative because the PCUSA tried something new and creative. On the other hand, anyone who looked at the data for rural churches from the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s could have told you that numerical growth in churches in rural and small towns was nearly impossible. This initiative frustrated me because it set churches and pastors up for failure. I’m sure good things came from this initiative, but in the end, the church in my presbytery that had this program was back where it started and maybe even more defeated.

I appreciate the shift in conversation that our national church has made from growth to vitality with the Vital Congregations Initiative, but we’re way behind. The initiative will benefit the churches that participate, those with presbyteries who could staff the initiative. In general though, I think we’re headed for four distinct church models. My hypothesis continues.

The first model is that of the called and installed pastor. It will continue for churches that can afford it. As more and more urban congregations shrink, they’ll move to part time or bi-vocational models for pastoral leadership but (likely) still expect the same work out of their pastors. Because a lot of pastors choose to live in urban areas (for good reasons such as jobs for spouses and community) they’ll (likely) keep doing the work. The Board of Pensions recognizes this and is doing more for part-time pastors. This part-time or bi-vocational structure is model two and is what we’ll continue to see in big cities where there are more pastors than available calls.

In smaller cities, like Wichita, those churches that might get a part time pastor in a larger city like Atlanta, will close. We closed five churches in the city of Wichita between 2014 and 2019. This is model three, let the churches die. It happens in cities, towns, and rural communities.

My hope is that other cities and towns like Wichita, without seminaries or big draws for pastors, will fall into model four. Model four is let the people lead the churches. Several of the churches I got to know in this blog series are doing model four.

There aren’t a lot of pastors interested in moving to small Midwestern towns to be, perhaps, a congregation’s last full-time installed pastor. I don’t blame them. I don’t want that. I serve a church with an amazing staff in a lovely small city. My husband’s vocation means we’ll never live in a rural community. I’m not pointing fingers.

If these small and/or rural churches won’t have full-time installed pastors, what’s left? What’s left are the people, the people of God. What’s left are the people in Chase, KS, who supplement monthly food for 20% of their town. What’s left are commissioned ruling elders who figure out how to get trained despite no guidance and manage to capably lead congregations. What’s left are churches who band together to share resources and serve their communities. What’s left are the people who pray for one another and learn to preach and lead worship.

We don’t lack motivated, called people who love Jesus. We lack care about God’s people who live in small towns and rural communities. Fortunately, many of them haven’t waited for permission from the PCUSA, or presbyteries, or big churches. They’ve gone forward to be the church. With a little help, more could do the same and could teach the rest of us. Otherwise, we are the ones who get left behind.


Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas. 

We Are the Church, for God’s Sake

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Ken Fuquay

“Talk less about Jesus?”

“SERIOUSLY?”

By three o’clock that Sunday afternoon, I had re-read the text message half a dozen times. Each time, discouragement shrouded me like a well-fitted pall expertly knitted together with strong cords of anger. I knew the words were well-intended, but having them appear on the screen of my phone that particular Sunday shook my faith. After all, just a couple hours earlier, I had delivered what I considered to be one of my finer sermons.

The exegesis of the passage was stellar, and the structure was well-crafted. The delivery, equal parts manuscript and extemporaneous, was empowered by the Holy Spirit. If ever there was a sermon meant for a specific group of people on a specific day and time, I felt that sermon, on that day, was it. Yet, the text message called all of that and more in question. I pulled out my phone and read it again, “Pastor Ken, I enjoy our little community. But if we want to attract more people, we need to be more relevant. And I’m certain, to be more relevant, we should talk less about Jesus.”

Talk less about Jesus?

Are you kidding me?

Talk less about Jesus.

The phrase played on repeat in the core of my being.

Talk less about Jesus?

I was taken aback by the suggestion.

Talk less about Jesus?

The words seared my soul.

Talk less about Jesus?

I wanted to text back in all caps; “BUT WE ARE A CHURCH, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

In my short tenure as an ordained Minister of Word & Sacrament in the PC(USA) and as a bi-vocational planting pastor of a new worshiping community that gathers in one of Charlotte’s most iconic bar and entertainment venues, I have become keenly aware that the church is engaged in a daily skirmish which pits role against relevancy.

The church I pastor knows the battle well.

When the brewery down the street promotes itself as being “mission-driven,” what is the church to do? When the coffee shop around the corner is crowned the neighborhood’s favorite “third space,” what is the church to do? When atheists’ gatherings and AA meetings tout life-transforming engagement, what is the church to do? And when 7 minute TED Talks garner millions of clicks, views, and shares, what is the church to do?

Here is what we did.

We attempted to become a relevant presence in the neighborhood.

Photo from M2M Charlotte Facebook page

Rather than “church,” we’ve opted for the more seeker-friendly less-offensive phrase “new worshiping community.” We selected an eye-popping logo which translates well on mobile devices. We chose a catchy name that tests well in focus groups and represents the entirety of who we feel called to be. We made sure our website contained all the correct buzzwords. We put up an online giving link and will soon have our very own app.

Contextually, we designate two Sundays each month as non-preaching, community-friendly, outreach experiences. First Sunday is “Fellowship Sunday.” (We sit at table, eat brunch, share stories, sing songs, and get to know one another.) Third Sunday is “Park Bench Sunday.” (We invite community voices to share their work and listen for ways God may be calling us to join.) We’ve had open-mic Sunday, comedy improv Sunday, and concert-for-the-community Sunday. We’ve gathered out of doors for worship.

We practice inclusion at every turn. We invite other faiths to share so that we might understand their religion and beliefs. We march in gay pride parades. We partner with other non-profits to increase our efforts exponentially. We serve dinner to the homeless. We canvas the neighborhood on street clean-up patrol. We gather for discipleship training at a local sandwich shop. We give food and water to immigrants passing through out city. We meld coffee time and worship. We eat together every Sunday. We’re pet-friendly. And…we worship in a bar, for God’s sake.

How much more relevant can we get?

Yet, I worry.

I worry that we’ll idolize the bar rather than worshiping the One who calls us to gather there. I worry that we’ll take pride in our renown as “the church that meets in a bar” rather than following the One whose namesake we are. I worry that we’ll boast about our good works more than boasting in the One who gives us breath. I worry that we’ll elevate our inclusion to the point of being exclusive. I worry that we’ll abdicate our role for the sake of being relevant.

Yes, it is necessary to explore every avenue available to determine where God is calling us to be and how God is calling us to live the gospel in context when we get there. So, we discern: Is it church in a bar? Is it church at a skate-park on Saturday morning? Is it church on a Tuesday night with a calypso band? Is it free coffee and doughnuts on the corner? Is it church in a space where gatherers can bring their dogs? Is it cowboy church, Harley church, or late church? All of these, and more, are worth exploring. But in our quest to become a more relevant presence in the world, we must not sacrifice the role of the church.

After all, it is our role that makes us relevant. (That sentence is worth reading again.)

What is the role of the church?

The role of the church is the same as it was when the gestation period ended and the church was pushed from the womb into the streets of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.

“And you shall be my witnesses…”

The Greek word is μάρτυρ, which means “one who testifies.” Ah shucks. There’s that word we Presbyterians dislike and try to rationalize away. But the word is unavoidable. We are people of the book; a book filled with stories. And the stories are begging to be told over and over again! So, somebody, testify!

The role of the church is to speak a Word that cannot be heard anywhere else in culture.

The role of the church is to proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ;

The role of the church is to announce the nearness of God’s kingdom, good news to all who are impoverished, sight to all who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and declare the Lord’s favor upon all creation.

The role of the church is to participate in the mission of God on earth.

Please understand, I am all about being the church in the context in which we are planted. I’m all about casting a vision that unites and makes us relevant. But if, in our attempts to be the church, we abdicate the role of the church for the sake of being relevant, then we are simply engaged in a kitschy fad, one that will surely fade, and we become nothing more than the next non-profit organization down the street engaged in fundraising alongside our attempt to offer some modicum of good works.

Take heart! Shepherding a congregation through the process of discerning the balance between role and relevance is a necessary skirmish — one that leaves us bruised but beautified; sometimes disappointed but always hopeful; challenged every day but continually invigorated.

And finally, I’ve realized that throughout our discerning and being and doing, we can never speak too much about Jesus. Never! It is our role, and it is that role that makes us relevant.

After all, WE ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST, FOR GOD’S SAKE!


Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is planting pastor at M2M Charlotte, a 1001 New Worshiping Community. Ken is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary and is the CEO of LIFESPAN, a non-profit that serves more than 1,300 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities across 23 North Carolina counties. He and his husband, Terry, live in the Charlotte area with their mini-doodle named Abby-dail.