Six big tests for “the Church as we have known it”, coming to GA in Pittsburgh
Matthew 13:52: And Jesus said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’
There is a word that we hear in the church almost as often as we hear God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, or prayer. That word is change. PC(USA) congregations and presbyteries have heard that the “old” ways are not working and change is needed. That same message is being presented to the commissioners attending this year’s General Assembly. The basis for this message is the decline in membership and income experienced at all levels of our denomination, and there is good reason for concern and good reason to explore new ways of sharing the gospel message.
The challenge before the General Assembly is not to panic under fear of financial or demographic decline, but to determine carefully a path that combines change and continuity. As Christians, we all seek ways to insure that what we do brings us closer to the “kingdom of God” as we build up disciples of Jesus Christ. As Presbyterians, we seek to do it in ways that build up the community, that allow the Holy Spirit to work through our connectional nature.
It might be a good idea to keep in mind a German proverb that has its 500th birthday this year – “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” or in other words, don’t get rid of what’s important while discarding that which is no longer useful. At a time when everything in the church seems to be “up to grabs,” it is important to “hold fast to that which is good.” In humility and hope, here are six key challenges/decisions which call for caution as much as courage for our church.
The Mid-Councils Report (5-12): Are non-geographic presbyteries actually presbyteries, or are they congregational affinity groups? How has a limited task given by a previous Assembly, of restructuring or removing synods, become a redesign of the denomination? What is the theological basis for entrusting an excess of appointed administrative commissions with the work of elected councils? How much additional change – and how much money—is needed right now when we are just learning our way through a new Form of Government? Is this is an over-reaction to the passage of 10-A in 2010? It seems to take what some have described as an alleged “local option” in discerning candidate qualifications to outright localism in the congregational direction.
Biennial Assemblies Report: Is the General Assembly a deliberative body, or is it a convention, a conference, and a love feast? All of those are good things, but for the good of the church, let’s make sure we have time for deliberating and not simply being a rubber stamp. We have already moved from annual assemblies to biennial meetings, decreasing the opportunities to reexamine our work as Presbyterians. The General Assembly is meant to represent the democratic and representative core of our common life as Presbyterians. Why then restrict overtures from presbyteries and commissioner resolutions so much? We shouldn’t try to restrict the work of the Holy Spirit in our existing structure. Creative thinking needs to be able to bubble up, and each presbytery’s voice should be honored. As for commissioner resolutions, they often allow new and timely business to come before the Assembly.
Special Offerings Report: Are the Special Offerings really broke and “in need of fixin’”? Is this report another over-reach beyond the data, in this case in service of a world mission offering that would displace the peacemaking offering? Frankly, in terms of our nation’s world mission, we wish it had a lot more peacemaking in it. But for our denomination, this proposal could actually make each offering a mask for giving to a re-named Presbyterian Mission Agency whose leadership would determine how the money would be allocated (see the next concern). Peacemaking remains important, maybe more important than it has been in years as we look at the violence in the world. Peacemaking does not exclude world mission, but neither should peacemaking be de-funded by world mission. Peacemaking is, as we have claimed for many years, “the believer’s calling.” Overall, Presbyterians give to what they know and trust. Is this reorganization of the offerings really the antidote to decreased Special Offering giving (at a time of economic decline)? Is it likely to raise giving by another almost 50%, from $13 million to $20 million?
The Presbyterian Mission Agency, Item 10-07: In the revisions to the Manual of the General Assembly Mission Council, along with the centralization of power in the Executive Director’s office, it looks like General Assembly approval is removed for the structure of the Mission Council itself. See under “II. Composition of the Council Board:
“The membership, terms of office, and officers of the General Assembly Mission Council shall be approved by the General Assembly as provided for in the Manual of Operations of the General Assembly Mission Council.” (Book of Order, G-13.0202 Membership)
Does this mean that the new Presbyterian Mission Agency can become more independent from the General Assembly? If so, the new PMA could then structure itself in accord with its own priorities—maybe influenced by the Assembly—but generated by its own process and probably by big donors. In effect, the commissioners to this Assembly seem to be asked to spin off a corporate-style non-profit board. Is this amount of centralization of power and distance from accountability to the whole church wise? The re-naming is not the main event; the separation from the General Assembly could be.
The 1001 new worshipping communities: This looks like an inspirational vision without a lot of game plan. It appears to count on bringing in many new immigrant fellowships, some of which would be Presbyterian in tradition. Other new communities might not be structured with the self-governance of congregations under presbytery oversight, but might be entrepreneurial extensions of large congregations. Yes to innovation and creativity in the Spirit! Yes also to our tradition of fairness in bearing the burdens of ministry and preaching a Gospel based in scripture and the confessions. Since this seems to be the main new idea of the General Assembly Mission Council, what exactly is the understanding of mission that is to be embodied in these new communities, and how will our presbyteries and existing congregations partner with them?
Justice and Evangelism: If we preach love, we must strive to practice it, and that means justice and care for future generations. We see this in the call to divestment for a free Palestine, as requested by brave Christians and Muslims under long Israeli occupation. We see this in inclusive ordination and marriage equality, where much of the church has already changed. This call to love and do justice is also in the need for greater economic equality, and the need to resist violence in all its forms. Justice is key to evangelism among the young—Stephen Colbert is our best TV evangelist. We see love and justice in our Presbyterian DNA—and we know this means changing more than structures. But let’s debate well how much change is good.
~John Witherspoon, practical revolutionary and patriotic Christian, checking in from deep cyberspace.