The Lure of Upward Mobility

by Ralph S. Parvin

Ralph S. Parvin is pastor emeritus of the Holly Presbyterian Chruch in Holly, Michigan.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 7, 1990, pp.239-240, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Three failings of mainline denominations are targeted: overemphasis on large-membership churches, inflexible liturgy, and an unfair method of paying clergy.

Henri Nouwen once referred to the incarnation as God’s act of "downward mobility." Scripture assures us that God even exhibits downward mobility within the race -- God is partial to the lowly and downtrodden. God liberated and commissioned the Egyptians’ slaves to be the "chosen" ones, and the "people of the land" -- who believed they were unacceptable to God because they were not religious like the Pharisees -- received special attention from Jesus.

Within the Presbyterian Church the opposite dynamic is at work: "upward mobility." We have become seduced by large numbers, wealth, class and education. As a result, our written materials require a college education to understand, denominational leaders are drawn from large congregations only, seminaries train ministers to work mainly in large churches, and even presbyteries devalue those who work and worship in small-membership churches by rarely making use of their leadership.

Not surprisingly, churches are losing members year after year. The worst part of that is not the fact that the church is Jesus Christ in our society. In aiming our mission at the upper levels of society, to the neglect of the common people, we have become an elitist church.

The upward mobility is evident in three areas: the neglect of small-membership churches, the failure to develop an American reformed liturgy lively and flexible enough to adapt to our pluralistic culture, and the unfair method of paying clergy.

Though most Presbyterians belong to large-membership churches, most of our churches are small -- fewer than 200 members. These are frequently regarded as failures because they do not become large.

In spite of the glory heaped on large-membership churches and the fact that the church draws its denominational leaders from them, these are not self-sustaining churches. They do not reproduce over the long period of time. Rather, they depend upon "feeder churches," which are small churches. When we neglect them or allow them to drift into some other denomination, we cut off our own root system.

Years ago, a study of the four Presbyterian churches in Ann Arbor, Michigan, showed that of all the Presbyterians who moved to the city, 80 percent would attend prestigious First Presbyterian (no matter who the senior minister might be) The three other small churches would divide up the remaining 20 percent -- and recruit new members to survive.

Think of the real purposes of any church: to worship God, to grow in knowledge of God and the human situation, to provide resources to support Christ’s kingdom and to minister to church members, the community and the world in the name of Christ. Small churches perform these vital functions as well as big churches do and frequently much better. On average in a small church the attendance at worship represents a much higher percentage of the membership, the stewardship is better per member, the instruction is in smaller groups and may therefore be more effective, and leadership development is much better because there isn’t pressure to function on a "professional" level.

Seminaries provide very little instruction about the unique ministry required for success in small-membership churches, and no one is inspiring seminarians to aim their work in this direction. Yet at least 60 percent of Presbyterian churches are this size. Seminarians who will be called to serve them would be happier and more productive with specialized training. (Presbyterians can point enthusiastically to the fact that more support for this ministry is developing. James Cushman, author of Beyond Survival and Evangelism in the Small Church, is now working with Tom Deitrick in Louisville with small-membership churches, in particular, through the department of Evangelism and Church Development.)

The frontispiece of any church is its worship service. When tragedy strikes or people feel the need to grow or when they simply yearn for meaning in their lives, they usually start by attending the worship service. The average Presbyterian service these days is "high church" to most Americans, and far too many turn away dissatisfied.

The recent "liturgical renewal" has focused Presbyterians’ attention on what seemed proper in Reformed worship 400 years ago. We went back to John Calvin. The results of that worship in Europe today may well be a demonstration of what we might expect here in the future: church attendance down to 2 percent of the population west of the Iron Curtain. If we must go back to the Reformers, why not go to Ulrich Zwingli, who developed a popular liturgy and led the Reformation over most of Switzerland with great zeal? John Leith, in Introduction to Reformed Tradition, writes: "It is probably impossible today to realize the spiritual excitement of the congregation when [under Zwingli] for the firsttime, believers passed the bread and the wine among themselves using wooden plates and cups."

The "primitive" order of worship developed in the U.S. isn’t the answer either, although it was appropriate for its time and place. Leith writes: "Criticism of American patterns of worship became finally too easy. Those patterns had been created by exposure to the realities of American life. The percentage of American people involved in the church and in worship rose from less than 19 percent before 1800 to above 50 percent by 1950."

To visit many Presbyterian churches on Sunday mornings, as I do, is to discover that the services are about the same -- usually rote-like and dull. Why can’t we develop something that is appropriate, dignified and yet lively, genuine worship in the language of Americans in 1990?

In her book Holy the Firm Annie Dillard writes:

The higher Christian Churches -- where if anywhere, I belong -- come to God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of the liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.

We are a pluralistic church in a large country of many cultures. Let us develop a worship service where we can praise and worship God in dignity, joy and in the language of the common people!

Finally, we seem to agree with our culture that big is better and that a minister’s worth is determined by how much money he or she produces. This seems to be the logic we use to pay our ministers. Furthermore, we hold those clergy who labor for little in low esteem. Some of our clergy are paid four or five times as much as those who work in rural or small-membership churches. When this uncomfortable fact comes up it is usually justified by saying that the highly paid ones are "more skilled." But what is more demanding than the work of a small-church pastor? To be a "general practitioner" of ministry in such a church means that one must do all the preaching, counseling and visitation, teach the teachers, administer the details of the church and be the Presbyterian representative in that community -- and more.

We haven’t taken the trouble to work out a fairer system, so that all ministers will receive enough to get by. Sometimes people say they want the pastor to get about what they, on the average, receive. Yet our General Assembly continues the inequity after retirement, through the pension program, with some minor adjustments. Those who had the most retire with the most.

Scripture advises us not to give special care or attention to those who are well dressed or wealthy. If God is on a journey of downward mobility and we are caught in the throes of upward mobility, aren’t we in danger of passing like ships in the night?