ATLANTA — Think of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a lemon-colored rotary phone in a cell-phone world.
Useful in its time. Not working too well now.
That was the image that Vic Pentz, senior pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian church in Atlanta, used to kick off the first-ever gathering of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship (www.presbyterianglobalfellowship.org) — an entity that he acknowledged is brand-new, is still taking shape, that no one is exactly sure how to describe.
But more than 800 people from 42 states came to this meeting at Peachtree August 17-19 — ready for something different, wanting to “move beyond the old model of mission, which is simply sending great gobs of money from the West to the rest,” Pentz told the opening night gathering.
So he thunked down the yellow rotary phone on the pulpit — and there it stayed, a visual clue as to what’s not working with the PC(USA).
Pentz and others announced the creation of the Global Fellowship in May — saying they were not leaving the PC(USA), but want to encourage a new way of connecting congregations that are committed to mission work. The invitation to be involved actually came from more than a dozen “inviting congregations” (www.126.96.36.199/Default.aspx?pg=invitingcongregations).
And Pentz made it clear that the fellowship is trying to “demonstrate a hopeful way of being Presbyterian in the 21st century” — a new approach that some evangelicals who are distressed by the direction of the PC(USA), some of whom are outright embarrassed by their denomination, may consider essential.
Throughout the three days, the participants talked about their frustrations with the PC(USA), about what it means to be involved in mission work, and about what Western Presbyterians still need to learn. They worshipped with exuberance.
And while they were praised for their zeal for mission, those attending also were challenged to consider their shortcomings. Among them:
“¢ The PC(USA) is too white — it doesn’t reflect the world’s racial and ethnic diversity.
“¢ Western Christians — coming generally from affluence — do not truly understand or share in the suffering of people from Latin America, Asia and Africa.
“¢ Congregations are gung-ho for short-term mission trips, but don’t always consider if there’s enough bang for the buck, or whether those trips steal resources away from supporting long-term missionaries.
“¢ Connecting with the “global church” isn’t just “Presbyterian-to-Presbyterian.” Christianity around the planet is more complicated than that.
Roberta Hestenes, a well-known evangelical who has worked with World Vision International, told the gathering that Presbyterians are just one part of “the richness and the diversity” of the global church — a body of believers that also includes Orthodox, Roman Catholic, mainline Protestants, evangelicals, “and I’m going to name it out loud, Pentecostals.”
But Presbyterians don’t always appreciate that. Hestenes told of traveling to Latin America, to a country she did not name. In the morning she met with Pentecostals, who in the previous year had baptized 50,000 adult converts.
In the afternoon, she met with the president of a theological seminary from a mainline denomination, who told her: “We are the best Greek and Hebrew teaching institution in all of Latin America.”
When Hestenes asked the seminary president what the mainline Protestants could learn from the Pentecostals, the president’s answer was: “Absolutely nothing. They have everything to learn from us.”
But “God is at work,” Hestenes told the Global Fellowship. And “his church is bigger than we are.”
Hestenes also said the balance between Presbyterians sending long-term missionaries and congregations supporting short-term mission trips “has reached the tipping point.”
Thousands of congregations are sending people on mission trips, “or their own people are already going whether or not they have permission from any official anybody to be going,” she said.
Hestenes understands why Presbyterians want to do that, but said “we still need to call and to send those whom God has called and gifted, and who will learn languages, learn cultures, build relationships, stay a while as a bridge-builder.”
She sees a danger that the resources used for short-term mission trips could strip away funding from missionaries who stay longer term — and that on short-term trips “we will use the poor for our own spiritual self-fulfillment. That we will in fact redirect resources that God intends us to act as stewards with so that we can go and have a blessed experience which does not in fact end in sacrificial commitment on behalf of the poor.”
Hestenes told of meeting a couple who told of the mission trip they’d just taken, in which they had an “incredible experience,” after which they’d decided to sponsor a child from an orphanage. She added up the cost for the trip — $10,000 — versus the cost of sponsoring the child, $360 a year.
“Oh, church, can we please pray about resources,” Hestenes said. “Can we please be faithful to God?”
New phone, old message
To some extent, the Global Fellowship has been birthed out of frustration with the PC(USA).
It has strong evangelical support, including leaders from several key renewal groups in the denomination. The fellowship has said it “will seek wisdom, support and other resources” from such groups as Presbyterians for Renewal (www.pfrenewal.org/ ), the Outreach Foundation (www.theoutreachfoundation.org/ ), and Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship (www.pff.net/ ).
Its leaders aren’t shy about criticizing the old yellow phone as being inefficient, ineffective, and sometimes theologically off-course.
And they encourage targeted financial giving. A covenant that supporters are being asked to sign asks them “to invest our financial resources only in those local and global mission efforts that we believe are biblically faithful and accountable, within the Presbyterian family and through other partnerships into which the Lord calls us.”
The PC(USA) has in recent decades been “among the most powerless branches of Christendom,” Pentz told the gathering. But churches in places like South Korea and Brazil and East Africa “are on fire in ways we can hardly imagine here in the West,” he said, with some of those churches renting stadiums to find places big enough in which to worship, while in Scotland old Presbyterian churches are being turned into bars and discos.
While the mainline churches cling to the past, the global church is thriving — with 27 million people a year converting to Christianity, with more growth in the 20th century than the previous 19 centuries combined, said Steve Hayner, a fellowship organizer who is a professor of evangelism at Columbia Theological Seminary.
What can Presbyterians in the U.S. learn from the global church?
For one, that the purpose of the church is to join God’s mission in the world, not to focus on the institutional church as a clubhouse for insiders, Hayner said.
“The action is out there, it’s not in here,” he said. “God didn’t just stay in heaven and say, ‘Y’all come!’ in his best Southern accent.”
Giving theology feet
Scott Dudley, senior pastor of First Church in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, talked about what it takes to spread that message to Americans for whom church is barely on the radar.
Even in the Bible belt, fewer than half the people go to church, he said. In Seattle, it’s less than 10 percent.
And “what do the unchurched people think of us?” Dudley asked. “They don’t. They don’t think of us at all.”
So what do congregations do to connect with folks? The answer, he’s convinced, lies in dropping the expectation that people will just show up if the church offers enough good programs, and realizing that the church needs to go out to be with the people.
And it doesn’t work to go preach to people or to argue with them, Dudley said. Post-modern people — well-schooled in advertising and spin — are suspicious of mere words. “We have to give them an experience of Jesus.”
Dudley also offered practical suggestions for doing that — as he phrased it, “How do we put feet on this great theology?”
“¢ Go out to demonstrate faith in the neighborhoods, the workplace, the schools. Take a meal to a neighbor. Pray for your co-workers.
“¢ Ask the mayor or a school principal, “What are the crying needs in our community and how can we help?”
“¢ Give people a taste of mission work. Think “easy, one-time service with low commitment,” Dudley said.
“¢ Connect people with mission opportunities and encourage them to think creatively. For example, some men from his church became the “Auto Angels,” holding clinics twice a month to provide free car repairs for low-income families.
“¢ “Remember always to invite people into an adventure rather than guilt them into duty,” Dudley said. Mission work changes people, he said. “God doesn’t use us to get mission done,” Dudley said. “He uses mission to get us done.”
The view from out there
These are good-hearted Presbyterians — people who want to show God’s love to a hurting world. But it’s not as easy as just getting on a plane with a suitcase and a pocket stuffed with dollars, several speakers said.
In a religiously diverse world, in which Americans often enjoy prosperity and peace which others do not share, working in partnership with others can be complicated.
Lucas de Paiva Pina, a Brazilian who is working with immigrant fellowships in Georgia, looked out across the room and said: “We need to put more color here — yellow, black, red, all of them.”
The PC(USA) has pledged to become 20 percent people of color by 2010, but still is more than 92 percent white.
Americans who want to work with the global church need “to change the attitude of we-and-they,” Pina said. “We need to understand that in Christ, we are brothers and sisters. We are a family with different languages, different colors, different cultures, but we are from the same family, saved by the same Savior.”
Maqsood Kamil, executive secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan and a professor of systematic theology at Gujranwala Theological Seminary, said: “You have to be compassionate if you want to be a partner” — and that doesn’t just mean having zeal for mission.
“The Western church does not know the meaning of suffering, which is so essential for Christian life,” Kamil said. Jesus says in the Bible, “deny yourself, lift up your cross, follow me,” but many Americans know prosperity, not suffering, and don’t understand that “if one suffers, the whole body suffers.”
Americans offer money, “but are you going to stand on the ground where we were hit?” Kamil asked. When a church in Pakistan burned, what mattered most, he said, was that Rafaat Zaki, then a regional coordinator with the PC(USA)’s Worldwide Ministries Division, came and stood on the ashes.
“That was so important to us, far more than the money,” Kamil said, calling that “a partnership of suffering.”
Some Christian missionaries “love mission but do not love the people to whom they have been sent,” he said. “I’m telling you real truth.”
Pakistani Christians need partners who think like servants, not colonialists, he said — people who say, “I am here to serve. Not to rule, not to lead, but to serve.”
The Presbyterians also were called to consider where the church has not shown up when it should have.
In Africa, Hestenes said, she has seen firsthand the devastation of AIDS and HIV infection, which has affected 65 million people, many of them Christians, “all of whom are loved by God.” She described standing in a village where every adult between 25 and 40 had died from AIDS.
“And I am heartbroken that the American church is just now beginning to notice,” Hestenes said. “I believe we will stand before God and be asked why the church was so slow to care about AIDS.”
By the time things wound up, there was definite excitement — but not a complete plan for what comes next.
Joan Gray, moderator of the 217th General Assembly, told the crowd she believes people will look back on this Global Fellowship gathering and say, “Something happened here that God used to change not only the church, but the world.”
Gray then gave the fellowship’s organizers a charge as they go forward.
“I charge you to lead from your knees, I charge you not to be satisfied with what you can do from your human strength. … Remember Jesus’ word: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me and you will bear much fruit. Without me, you can do nothing.’ Lead from your knees, and then dream big.”