LOUISVILLE — Will Browne described these days as being “a weird twilight zone” for those involved in the mission work of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The denomination is reorganizing — basically reconfiguring the house top-to-bottom. Some top staff members have left, some new leaders are coming aboard.
Groups outside the denomination’s structure are jumping in to international mission in fresh and energetic ways — for example, by using the Internet to link evangelistic partners around the world. A newly-created alliance between Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship and the Outreach Foundation intends to start sending its own missionaries by the summer of 2007. The Presbyterian Global Fellowship will hold its second national gathering Aug. 16-18 in Houston.
And Browne said the denomination’s staff has “probably been guilty of defining mission in too small a circle” — in trying to control too much, and not understanding clearly enough how significantly the grassroots church is involved in international mission work.
Browne, who has been one of the PC(USA)’s top staff members in international mission, was speaking this day to the Association of Presbyterian Mission Pastors, a group of ministers and others dedicated to mission work around the globe. As he stood at the podium, the walls around him were covered with yellow sheet of paper — handwritten lists of places Presbyterians already are working. Iran. Cuba. Uganda. Thailand. And on and on.
In the past, the national staff was “in a role of approving or disapproving what was being done in mission,” Browne said. “That’s not, I do not believe, our role. I think that’s a role for the Holy Spirit, not for us.” As the national staff learns to work more closely with local efforts, “we are going to be overcome by all of the things that God is doing in a wondrous way,” Browne added.
Another theme at this meeting, held in Louisville Nov. 29-Dec. 1, is that congregations concerned about mission are, in some ways, in their own strange new zones. Things aren’t just changing for the denominational bureaucracy. They’re changing for Christians around the world.
For example, evangelicals are getting more deeply involved in social justice issues — in the worldwide response to AIDS, in environmental concerns, in speaking out about poverty.
In the 1970s, “when I went to Fuller School of World Mission, the word ‘justice’ was not used once,” said Tim Dearborn, associate director for faith and development at World Vision International. It was considered a word for liberals. But he’s come to understand that “justice is to make life right,” and that “justice is touching the world with the tender, transforming grace of God.”
Some congregations are beginning to talk about not spreading themselves so thin in mission work — saying they want to focus in fewer places, but make those involvements run deeper. If they do that, they’ll have to decide where to go and where not to go — and in so doing, potentially pulling back support from projects that may matter a lot to some of their own people.
Also, the PC(USA), a mostly-white and affluent denomination, is struggling with how to connect to the rest of the world — a place where Christianity isn’t always practiced in orderly Presbyterian ways.
For example, Bill Young, executive director of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, told of a pastor he met from Laos. The church in his village had grown from 50 believers to 180 in just a year. The pastor told of having visions at night — of receiving messages telling him exactly which homes to visit to tell people about Jesus. After one vision, he went to the home to find a woman with a rope around her neck, preparing to hang herself, Young said. The pastor got there just in time.
Young stressed that stories like this — of amazing and unexpected things happening — are emerging all over the place.
In this new day it’s imperative that congregations become comfortable dealing with new ideas and with multi-ethnicity — seeing diversity as enriching, not a threat, Dearborn said.
“We have got to take seriously that today the church is in virtually every corner of the world, that the mission of the church is from everywhere to everyone,” said Steve Hayner, an associate professor of evangelism and church growth at Columbia Theological Seminary.
The old imperial approaches to mission — go somewhere and solve the problems — don’t work anymore, Hayner said. Instead, people who work in mission need to see their role as networkers, facilitators, transmitters of resources of the global church.
“It’s a massive, global, interconnected, interwoven church that we serve,” Hayner said. The church’s purpose is “to see what God is doing and to join it. It’s not about us.”
In this new reality, mainline denominations are struggling to figure out where they fit in.
Browne described the PC(USA)’s national staff as being “brokers and helpers and consultants” in mission work — assisting congregations and presbyteries — no longer trying to control the process. When congregations work through the PC(USA), “we want you to do it out of choice, not out of obligation,” Browne said.
People are watching closely to see whether that kind of change in attitude will be enough to change the way the denomination actually works — whether it can move a bureaucracy that many Presbyterians view as outdated and out-of-touch.
Browne emphasized that the restructuring in no way indicates a reduction in the PC(USA)’s commitment to international mission. The denomination still has relationships with more than 160 partner churches around the world, has missionaries working in more than 80 countries, he said. The PC(USA) is planning a missions conference October 3-4 in Louisville, held in conjunction with gatherings of more than 25 mission networks that have been developed by Presbyterians involved in work in particular countries or regions. And 30 PC(USA) missionaries will travel to 120 presbyteries next fall, sharing what’s happening in their part of the world.
“In spite of the challenges, I have great hope for the church,” Linda Valentine, executive director of the General Assembly Council, told the gathering. And mission “is something that everybody in the PC(USA) can get jazzed about,” said Tom Taylor, a California pastor who will begin work in January as the denomination’s deputy executive director for mission.
Asked about his response to Presbyterian Global Fellowship, Brown acknowledged that at first he felt “a little threatened by the idea.” But he attended the fellowship’s first meeting in August 2006 (where the person sitting next to him booed when it was announced that General Assembly Council staff members were attending), and came away impressed with the passion people showed there for mission.
Browne said he sees the fellowship and the PC(USA) not as competitors, but as doing complimentary work. “We can work together as we go ahead,” he said. The Global Fellowship’s articulation of what mission means and how it’s changing “is going to help us perfect what we do as your servants in the General Assembly Council,” Browne said.
That emerging discussion of what it means to be involved in mission is a challenge for congregations as well. Too often, “we have turned the gospel into set a of programs, we have turned mission into a set of activities” — with success measured in dollars, by the size of the mission budget, Dearborn said.
He travels a lot — and when he rides in taxis, he talks to the drivers. “Taxi drivers are the world’s best sociologists,” Dearborn said. In the United States, “they come from all over the world,” so he typically asks: “How is the America of your experience different from the America of your dreams?”
One Ethiopian told him, after being pressed a little: “We would have thought the gospel would have made a deeper impact on American life than it has.”
Many Presbyterian congregations are ethnically one-tone. Even when there is some diversity in the pews, there may not be in leadership.
Mark Labberton, pastor-head-of-staff at First Church in Berkeley, Calif., spoke of looking out and realizing that most of the Asians in his congregation were sitting in the balcony week after week. Gradually, he said, they are getting more comfortable and coming down to the main floor — often, it’s their first experience in participating in a church that’s not predominantly Asian.
And conversations are beginning to happen in his church — uncomfortable ones, sometimes — about who has the power and who does not, and how people feel about that.
Sometimes, congregations see the increasing diversity around them but aren’t sure how to respond.
“There are probably 60,000 Hispanic people in central Indiana,” said one participant. New relationships are developing — in some cases, evangelists from Latin America are coming to the United States to work among the Hispanics here.
But the PC(USA) structure still has trouble dealing with diversity. Experienced pastors who come from other countries sometimes can’t get credentials from the PC(USA) — their educational requirements are different, so they may not meet the denomination’s particular requirements.
Conference participants discussed how Americans are perceived by Christians in the southern hemisphere.
Dearborn spends about a third of each month overseas. He travels to places where people routinely speak of “the American empire,” seeing the United States as an imperial force. “We don’t like it, but they speak like that,” he said. A challenge for Americans is to determine “how do we do mission as citizens of the kingdom (of God) but as residents of the empire, which is not an easy question. Because the world sees us as citizens of the empire,” Dearborn said.
Christians from the “majority world” also challenge the American church to consider the role of suffering in faith, Labberton said. “The American church seems to be so interested in its safety and comfort” that it is unwilling to suffer, as Jesus did and as people all over the majority world routinely do, lacking food and shelter and medical care and education, he said.
“Our congregations are being renewed by the faith and faithfulness of the global church,” said Rob Weingartner, executive director of the Presbyterian Outreach Foundation.