When Did the Word “Presbyterian” Become a Dirty Word?

The word Presbyterian seems to have become taboo, almost a dirty word in church-growth missiology.

To attract younger couples many churches think they need a name that will send a message that the church is not doctrinaire but mainly therapeutic.  We are not judgmental.  We are not divisive. Much of the modern generation is not particularly looking for the truth about God.  They just want help in living a happier life.  Sadly, I think we have swallowed the lie that you can’t be doctrinal and therapeutic at the same time.

 

It’s very uncommon to hear of a new church plant in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) having the word Presbyterian in its name.  The new varieties of names consist of numerous combinations of words like Covenant, Grace, Community, Ministry, Fellowship, and sometimes Reformed.  Some long-standing churches even change their names after decades for the intentional purpose of removing the word Presbyterian. The word Presbyterian seems to have become taboo — almost a dirty word in church-growth missiology.  This tendency may also be the case in other main-line denominations like the Baptists and Methodists, but I’m not sure.  There is nothing wrong with choosing a name without the word Presbyterian, but I find it interesting to consider why there is this change in our modern era.

Several factors may come into play.  Some PCA churches do not want to be confused with the mainline Presbyterian Church (PCUSA).  The PCUSA is known for ordaining women as elders and for supporting both abortion and homosexual marriage. One PCA pastor told me that his church recently removed the word Presbyterian from its name to avoid being identified with the liberal Presbyterian Church.  They are now just a Community Church.

Another factor is evangelism and church growth.  We need to reach out to millennials.  Millennials as a whole have a distaste for history and do not want to be associated with the past.  They are typical of the youth of every generation.  There is really nothing new here!  The word Presbyterian is a symbol of the Christianity of the past.

To attract younger couples many churches think they need a name that will send a message that the church is not doctrinaire but mainly therapeutic.  We are not judgmental.  We are not divisive. Much of the modern generation is not particularly looking for the truth about God.  They just want help in living a happier life.  Sadly, I think we have swallowed the lie that you can’t be doctrinal and therapeutic at the same time.

Traditional mainline Christianity is associated with old-white men.  Being one of those old-white men myself, it seems that we are guilty of all the corporate sins of traditional America. We perpetrated slavery in the South, Jim Crow Laws, and the mistreatment of Native Americans.  President Donald Trump claims to be a Presbyterian.

You would think that old-white men never did anything good, even though most millennials have been raised with televisions, nice cars, and iPhones.  They have never gone hungry.  Yet they have been taught, I think mostly in college, that historic Christianity is responsible for America’s past sins.

Also, I think that there is something here akin to a “bait and switch” selling technique. There is no need to be upfront about such doctrines as election and predestination.  These doctrines will only drive seekers away.  Elders in the PCA, being men of integrity, do hold to these doctrines, but many of them believe that these truths should be kept locked up somewhere in a dark closet lest we offend people unnecessarily.  Later they may drag them out into the light for consideration.

No doubt in the PCA there are other reasons for omitting the word “Presbyterian” from a church name.  I’m happy to go to a church with the name Presbyterian in it.  You could say that I am proud of it, but I don’t want to be divisive.

Larry E. Ball is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is now a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tennessee.

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