Presbymergents seek purpose for new, relevant faith expressions

Bottom line: there is no snap answer. Come on — this is a group that took nearly a year to reach agreement on its own logo. Some see Presbymergent, which characterizes itself as “loyal radicals,” as young, cool, high-tech, relevant. Others think the Emerging Church discussion is trendy and “this too shall pass.”

Whatever the preconceptions or misconceptions, however, the conversations in the Presbymergent crowd have implications for ministry for everything from artistic, just-getting-started fellowships to the most buttoned-down, traditional Presbyterian churches.

Why? Because this is a place where people are talking without much varnish about things that matter in ministry: about an intense yearning for connection with God; about relationships that go beyond the surface; about the gifts that each person brings to the table; and the need to be flexible enough to meet people in a culture that’s anything but focused on church.

Some people say, “We’re not going to save the Presbyterian church,” said Ryan Kemp-Pappan, one of the organizers of Presbymergent. “We’re not in it to save the Presbyterian church. We’re in it to live into the Reformed identity of transformation” — to find out what comes next in God’s revolutionary movement.

A few weeks ago, some leaders of the Presbymergent movement gathered for a few days to talk about where they see things moving in the next year or so. It was part a strategy session, part worship, part a steaming cauldron of ideas. It was a chance for folks who’ve become friends and connected in their everyday lives though Facebook and Twitter and other social networking tricks to sit in the same room, pray together, get a sense of what God might have in mind.

“We’re still a very fledgling community, and I say that in the most optimistic, wonderful way,” said Chad Herring, a member of the Presbymergent Coordinating Group and associate pastor of Southminster Church in Prairie Village, Kan.

 At Presbymergent,“ we still consider ourselves very young and very much at the beginning of something that we’re not exactly sure where it’s going,” Herring said. “I think we’re still kind of in the birthing stage. We’re still not sure where we’re going to go from here. But it’s clear to all of us that there’s energy and excitement and hope for what will be coming. Each of us has different visions for what we might achieve. But a common thread is a desire for us to form something, an expression for what it means to minister within a changing cultural context, with authority and passion.”

That idea of a changing cultural context is at the heart of the Emerging Church discussion. And that has implications broadly in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – whether folks identify intuitively with the Presbymergent language or label or not.

“The biggest thing they raise in a sense is a question about what it means to be a Christian in sort of a disestablished church world,” said Charles Wiley, of the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship. “The thing that impresses me most about the Presbymergent folk is the consistent notion that being a Christian affects every area of their lives, 24-7.”

And they are raising questions too about how a mainline denomination — what once was a cherished American institution — can connect and remain vibrant in a visual, technological, fast-changing world.

Carol Howard Merritt, a pastor at Western Church in Washington, D.C., attended the meeting of the Presbymergent Coordinating group. She is also the author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation.

She came away with several themes on her mind.

First, the idea of people nurturing creative energy in the PC(USA) — what some in the discussion group referred to as the “theo-poetic.” In other words, finding ways “to create a space where we can begin to make art and liturgy and song,” to “nurture liturgical creativity in all its expressions,” Merritt said. “It’s really kind of exciting and wonderful.”

Second, finding the flexibility in Presbyterian polity to allow new ventures to flourish, even if they don’t look like churches of old. That means “really rethinking the sustainability of new churches and what they’re going to look like, what people are longing for in a new generation, which tends to be smaller communities, much more spiritually in-tune, a lot more back-and-forth conversation than one-way preaching. … The important elements are making sure that there is space for creativity and community and some spiritual depth.”

How exactly that looks can vary a lot from place to place and the pastors participating in this discussion ranged from those working in traditional church settings to tentmakers nurturing brand-new fellowships, such as the Living Room Fellowship in Atlanta, which its Web site describes as “an unlikely, unexpected, unedited, unfearful, unfunded UN-CHURCH (with our very own un-pastor)”

In the cultural shift to this “wiki world” or a flattened hierarchy, “there’s a lot we can work with,” said Troy Bronsink, a pastor and musician from Atlanta who’s involved with the Neighbors Abbey community. “That everything in a sense is on the table, and how we shape what we’re handed is part of our birthright, is part of this day and age of Presbyterianism.  I think we’re rediscovering order,” rooting new initiatives in a sense of Presbyterian tradition and history.

Near the end of their meeting in Louisville, some Presbymergent leaders went over to the PC(USA)’s national offices for meetings, and the talk there turned to the need for more flexibility in the denomination’s Form of Government and to parallels in the needs of emergent congregations and new immigrant fellowships.

“I really feel hopeful about things,” said Jan Edmiston, the pastor of Fairlington Church in northern Virginia and writer of the blog, A Church of Starving Artists blog. “There are such awesome people out there, some really amazing and creative people out in the field both organically starting new things and people working in Louisville who are very creative and willing to be very permission-giving and will be happy to let people be set free.”

Some spoke during that meeting of “hacking” Presbyterian polity — of finding flexibility within it to allow new and diverse fellowships to flourish.

“In an immigrant fellowship, you’re dealing with people who come from a different culture,” Edmiston said. And in emerging churches, “there are people who are very interested in following Jesus who feel like they speak a different language” from many established churches.

But some more traditional churches also are looking for new ways of doing things as well.

“One of the things I love about the emergent conversation is the incarnational and relational piece of it,” Edmiston said. In her own congregation, “I see that in an established church, with people who want to feel connected … no longer is it OK to sit in a pew with someone for 20 years and have no idea what her children’s names are. People really want to connect. We can do it in lots of different ways.”

Presbymergent also is enduring growing pains. The meeting of its coordinating group in February had a heavy representation of younger, white male pastors — and not nearly enough diversity, some said, in gender, ethnic diversity, or lay leadership.

“We just have to change that,” Merritt said. “If we want to be an organization with any integrity, we have to figure out this diversity thing.”

There’s tension around trying to organize something in a group with “a hesitancy or a reluctance about things that are institutionalized or too structured or too hierarchical,” said Locke, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. So people want an architecture built for efficiency, but definitely not a bureaucracy.

And sometimes the Presbymergent conversation can get arcane — so dense with theological and technological references that, at one point in the meeting, a plea went out to “just say it in English.”

Still, Presbymergent leaders left that meeting having made some specific decisions, which surprised some of them. (“You get 30 strong personalities together and that’s a wonderful mixture to build some sort of explosive thing,” Kemp-Pappan said.)

Their process was definitely open-source; at one point, the walls were covered with sticky notes offering suggestions. Later, they burned the sticky notes symbolizing their willingness to put aside individual wishes to see where God might be leading. The directions that emerged focused around where a group of people seemed to have particular passion or energy.  “The tasks that boiled up became the definition of who Presbymergent is right now,” Bronsink said.

Among those tasks, he said:

•           Start the process of achieving legal status as a nonprofit entity for Presbymergent. Also consider the ways Presbymergent relates in formal and structural ways to the PC(USA).

•           Create “local cohorts,” regional groups of Presbyterians or seminarians who want to talk about how to engage in mission with an emerging culture.

•           Create a creative touring event and establish a “guild of creatives” – getting artists, pastors, poets, and musicians together to create liturgies people could use “to dive into God’s purposes.”


If those things happen, Presbymergent leaders say, who knows where the energy could lead? “Part of our hope is to be like yeast,” Kemp-Pappan said, “to the loaf of the Presbyterian church.”

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