Living up to our reputation

The class clown keeps telling jokes, and the piano prodigy keeps performing. Then again, a reputation sometimes deludes us into thinking that we are living up to the label. The class clown keeps telling the same, stale jokes, and the pianist keeps performing the same, stale concerto.

We Presbyterians have inherited a reputation for being the thought-leaders of world Christianity. We are known as the people of the book(s) — a single book, the Bible, and the countless other books of scholarship. 

Are we living up to that reputation? Or are we deluding ourselves?

The “thought-leader” label first tagged us five centuries ago by way of the preaching and teaching of John Calvin. The label was bronzed upon his publication of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The reputation spread as his students took such scholarship-in-the-service-of-God to points far flung, even Scotland! Eventually those folks crossed the Atlantic, bringing that name to these shores. 

We’ve been proud to wear such a label, to live up to that reputation. Yes, we’ve known we’re not the best evangelists, but lots of other fellowships’ converts have crossed the street to join our congregations once they have developed a hunger for a deeper understanding of the faith. Yes, we’ve known we’re not the most demonstrative worshipers, but lots of enthusiasts have read our books and studied in our seminaries in order to ground their religious fervor. We have contributed much understanding to the worldwide church.

But are we living up to our reputation? Or, are we deluding ourselves? 

We find ourselves caught in the same dilemma that is catching the whole American church. Folks sitting in the pews one hour on Sunday are planting themselves in front of a TV for about 30 hours each week. Add to that the hours spent playing computer games, Web surfing and/or Internet-working, and it’s plain to see that a miniscule percentage of most folks’ brain stimulation is coming from worship. 

Christian books continue to sell well — evidence The Purpose Driven Life, the Left Behind series, The Shack, Your Best Life Now  — but the substance of such popular books is uneven, to say the least.

And in some churches, the last vestige of Christian formation – the church school hour – operates like a crafts class or a chit-chat session. 

All the while we tout our reputation. In so doing, we may be deluding ourselves.

We can do better. We can reclaim our reputation. We can resolve to renew it, strengthen it, and enlarge it. We can raise the bar of expectations for growing disciples of all ages, so that our churches become the prime source for continuing education. 

Most of our churches have teachers who pour themselves into developing lesson plans that impress the biblical narratives, the promises of the gospel and the claims of faith upon the minds and memories of all in attendance. Most of our churches include folks whose personal Bible study and/or professional education has so captivated their minds that they revel at the opportunity to share what they have learned. Most congregations have the essential ingredients by which we can raise up a new generation of believers who are theologically faithful, biblically literate, ethically informed and socially aware – the thought-leaders for the whole community. 

Together we can fan into flames the gifts we know we have, plus we can cultivate the abilities and possibilities lying fallow. We can train ourselves. We can train one another. We can reinvent the program of Christian education in our churches, organizing home study groups, diversifying the schedule for Presbyterian Women’s circles, restructuring our youth fellowships. The “inactive” elders (an oxymoron) among us can come out of ecclesiastical retirement to share the wisdom they’ve gained through the years.

Toward such an end we present this special teacher training edition of The Presbyterian Outlook; for information on ordering extra copies, see page 11.

We can live into the words of John Calvin himself, as published in his commentary on Zechariah 4:11-14:  “This is our wisdom, to be learners to the end.”


—     JHH

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