Presbyterian leaders envision, hope, predict what’s next

Tough question, considering all the things most of us never dreamed of as 2000 rolled around (9/11, the iPhone, a lethal tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina, just for starters). But wanting healing and grace for the world are part of the Christian ethos — as well as an undying hope. So, as the new decade rolls in, the Outlook asked some well-known Presbyterians to describe some of their hopes for the church in the new decade.

Gradye Parsons, stated clerk, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Parsons isn’t making predictions, but he knows some of what he hopes to see in the next 10 years.

“People need to become more comfortable talking about their faith, need to be willing to share the good news with other people,” he said.

The denomination needs to continue to empower and nurture the leadership of elders and deacons, and to experiment with different ways of starting and sustaining churches. “We need to in general just be more experimental and to take more risks,” Parsons said.

The PC(USA) needs to be sensitive to the needs of the world — and to the faith of immigrants. “We need to get past our socioeconomic niche, that we pretty much have followed since the Second World War, and really broaden our horizons and appeal to people of all races, all classes,” Parsons said.

And the denomination needs to put young people in leadership, “at all tables, in all areas, “so we’re not just a church of the 1950s and 1960s,” Parsons said.

But he continues to think that the Presbyterian church, for all its flaws, has something distinctive to offer new generations, including affirming “that God is the initiator of our spiritual lives, that God comes first.” The idea of the priesthood of all believers, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And “part of our ethos is bringing people together to discern the mind of Christ,” Parsons said. “It is not about Lone Rangers.”

Parsons also finds hope in what he’s seen in the faith of his own 20-something daughter and son, and their friends.

“They’re a group of really committed young people,” he said. “They’re committed to each other. They’re committed to the world being better than what they see. … They’re committed to thinking about their faith, thinking deeply about it. … They take it very seriously, and they take caring about each other very seriously. When I’m with them, it’s a very enriching, very powerful experience. When I go to church with those folks, I don’t see anybody nodding off.”  O

Bruce Reyes-Chow, pastor of the multicultural Mission Bay Community Church in San Francisco and moderator of the 218th General Assembly.

Ask Reyes-Chow about the next decade, and he immediately jumps to the realization that the oldest of his three daughters will be 23 in 2020, and the youngest 16.

“I hope there’s still a Presbyterian manifestation of the church for them to be drawn to,” when that time comes, Reyes-Chow said. “That somehow we have listened to them … and have become the church that not only is going to serve them but listen to how they see community and how they see justice” — that the Presbyterian church has made room, in other words, for what comes next.

The PC(USA) needs to learn how to respond to “a fluid culture in a fluid world in a way that we are comfortable with,” he said. … “Now do I think that’s going to happen? If it’s going to happen, clearly God is involved. The realities of the church as I’ve seen it, if it were purely left to human beings, I’m not sure how much longer we would have. If we’re open to how much God will move us, then there’s no limit as to what can happen.”

Some writers, such as the author Phyllis Tickle in the book The Great Emergence, are making the case that Christianity is again at a pivot-point — a time of transformation as profound as that experienced during the Reformation 500 years ago.

“I’m right with many of those who say this is going on,” Reyes-Chow said. “We need to figure out how to keep the best of who we are, and to push on that.” For example, his own congregation is trying to figure out what kind of structure works best in a church where people are always coming and going, and where the sense of community and relationship are not tied to a particular place.

“We are really struggling with how to maintain structure and sustainability in a world and in a lifestyle that doesn’t lend itself to that,” and in a city where “the church has been deconstructed already,” Reyes-Chow said.

”These folks see themselves as rebels going to church,” as people “trying to grab on to some kind of divine truth in their life in the midst of a community that is far more open-ended about it than we would like it to be.” As a result of that, “we really are in a place where they can form people’s understanding of who Jesus is in the world.”

The people from his congregation also view issues of race and diversity far differently than those who may have survived the racial struggles of the civil rights era, Reyes-Chow said. They live in a multicultural environment and “we hardly ever talk about diversity,” he said. “It’s not something we strive to be. It’s something we simply are.”

The future of small congregations is another issue likely to be pivotal for the PC(USA) in the next decade. More than half of the denomination’s congregations have fewer than 100 members, and many of them cannot afford to hire a full-time, seminary-trained pastor.

“I would hate for us to simply write off congregations because they’re small,” Reyes-Chow said. But it’s important for small congregations to ask “what are we supposed to be in this particular community” — to have a clear sense of the work and ministry they are being called to do.

Looking ahead, Reyes-Chow also does not see the debate over homosexuality continuing to prick mainline churches as sharply as it has in the past. “I can’t imagine that it’s going to last at this level” for another decade, he said. “It’s going to land somewhere, and eventually a group that can’t live with wherever the denomination finally lands is going to move into a different kind of denominational relationship.”

He also agrees that “this is the last one” — the last big fight in the mainline churches over gender and sexuality, after decades of wrangling over women’s ordination, divorce, and homosexuality.

What will the new hot topics be?

“Whatever it’s going to be, it will come out of the next generation of people,” Reyes-Chow said. “Is there a divisive thing for the Y generation? And if there is, what is that going to be?” O

Linda Valentine, executive director, General Assembly Mission Council

Looking ahead, Valentine uses as her starting spot the commitment the General Assembly Mission Council already has made to grow the PC(USA) “deep and wide” — meaning in service, diversity, discipleship, and evangelism.

Valentine said she wants to see a church that looks outside itself, to the needs of communities in this country and around the world. “Time and time again we see congregations that are healthy, that are growing and thriving” and are outwardly-focused – a model of what the church could be, she said.

Some time back the PC(USA) set a goal of becoming at least 20 percent people of color by 2010, a goal it clearly will fall well short of meeting. “Certainly the hope is for a church that is more diverse” in the next decade, Valentine said. The U.S. now is about 30 percent non-white. Within 30 years, people of color will be the majority in the country. And with a denomination that’s still more than 90 percent white, “that has to change,” Valentine said.

She also looks for a church that “reaches beyond itself, shares the good news which brought us here in the first place. … We are facing huge issues going into this next decade of the environment, of this growing disparity between rich and poor. The good news is we have the means to solve these issues now, if we have the will to solve them.”

In that endeavor, “there’s a magnificent role for the church,” Valentine said.

A lawyer, Valentine came to her current job bringing decades of experience in the corporate world. She sees both distinctions and similarities between the business and the church worlds — with the PC(USA) dealing with budgets and staff and buildings, but also being “Spirit-led,” and with a responsibility to be stewards of the gifts with which Presbyterians have been blessed.

“The wonderful thing about working in the church for me has been you’ve got all those pieces of accountability and in addition you’ve got the prayer, the discernment, the Spirit-led parts of it,” Valentine said. “I think we need both.”

Valentine sees both in the church and the business worlds that “the boundaries of institutions are much more permeable.” The PC(USA) is moving towards ministry built through collaboration, networks, and partnerships. “So in some sense organizations can become smaller themselves and yet have a bigger impact or be connected into a bigger arena of resources.” O

Barbara Wheeler, director of the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary.

Wheeler hopes for real change in the denomination – although is not certain whether it will really come.

“The Presbyterian church in the United States currently operates by what could be called a laissez faire market model,” she said. “Where there’s money and people, we have churches. Where we’re demographically weak or where the people who gravitate to the Presbyterian church don’t have resources, we either let churches die or we make second-level arrangements for them, including pastoral leadership that’s not trained in the way that we require pastoral leaders of larger and financially-stronger churches to be trained.

“My hope is that we move from a laissez faire market model to a missional model that asks Where are we needed? Where are we needed because there’s nothing like the kind of worship and religious teaching and nurture that a Presbyterian church provides? Where are we needed because there isn’t any mainline Protestant presence at all? Where are we needed to serve because there aren’t churches that are meeting critical and desperate needs of people?”

Then, having made those assessments, “we allocate our resources according to need rather than where our markets are naturally strong,” Wheeler said. “That would mean that stronger churches would help to support weaker ones, which was part of our pattern in the 19th century.”

The denomination would have an expected standard for well-formed, well-educated leadership for all congregations – and would provide the resources to make that possible, Wheeler said. Why does that matter so much?

The best thing about seminary education is “it shakes people up,” she said. “When they come back down to earth they’ve got something really firm to stand on. They’ve been challenged and tried and tested. Local leaders including elders like me can do a lot of good. But the kind of training seminary offers adds value to what’s already there. And in the Reformed tradition it also brings depth.”

So is there the will in the PC(USA) to make those kinds of changes?

“I worry there isn’t,” Wheeler said.

And she has seen proposals “basically for palliative care of churches that aren’t going to make it. They’re urged to become fellowships, decommissioned as congregations.”

But as Wheeler sees it, “if we’re needed there, we should have a congregation. If we’re not, and there’s another religious community that can fill the gap, then our members in that locale should be urged to become fully active members of that. But keeping little groups with the name Presbyterian on them that don’t have a future, there’s no value in that. I don’t see enough of the will to do this. I hope we find it. It’s the means for our renewal.”

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