Go ahead and guess. Who knows?
A Special Committee on the Nature of the Church for the 21st Century is to report back to the General Assembly in 2012 — and its members have already said they won’t be sprinkling any magic dust to fix the problems of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). They do hope, however, to shine some light on ways the denomination may find new growth and energy in difficult times — if enough Presbyterians are willing to give up the old familiar ways and try something new.
The committee’s conversation, as its members gather data and perspectives for the report they are to write, tells a lot about the challenges of the institutional mainline church, and about the possibilities for creative ministry in the midst of change.
There was discussion at the committee’s most recent meeting, for example, of how larger congregations could support the ministry of small congregations — and how small congregations could close their doors yet continue to make an impact by turning over their endowments or property for others to use in ministry.
“We’re the ecclesiastical sandwich generation,” Marcia Clark Myers, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Vocation, told the committee. Some feel stuck between their parents’ generation — the 1950s and ‘60s builders of churches — and the church of their children and grandchildren care deeply about the world and want to make a difference, “but understand that faith and spirituality are not synonymous with church institutions,” she said.
There was much discussion of how to convince Presbyterians to take risks.
“What we’re doing has an element of danger to it,” said committee member Joseph Lemuel Morrow, a seminary student from Chicago. “This work may not necessarily please everyone. It may not please us. It may rattle and concern us. There’s a craziness to it … Maybe we shouldn’t be afraid to be a little unhinged,” to tap into “the craziness and the danger of the spirit in those first moments of the church.”
The five questions
The committee has been asking Presbyterians to respond in writing to five questions it has posed:
» What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?
» What characteristics will draw the great diversity (racial ethnic, age, gender, etc.) of our country into our community of faith in the 21st century?
» What do you think are the highest priorities and challenges for the church in the 21st century?
» What unique voice do we, as Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition, bring regarding vital ministry in churches and in society?
» How do we move the church past division in theology, evangelism and mission to work toward unity in Christ?
At its meeting in Louisville May 24-26, the committee met with some representatives of the PC(USA)’s national staff to discuss their answers to those questions. Here’s some of what they talked about.
Over and over, committee members and others spoke of the need for the mostly white Presbyterian church to become more racially diverse and multicultural in outlook.
“One of our greatest weaknesses is that we lost touch with the masses,” said Raafat Girgis, the PC(USA)’s associate for multicultural congregational support. Too many Presbyterians think of their denomination as “the church of the elite,” the church of the educated — not the church of all people, Girgis said.
Tony Aja, coordinator for Hispanic/Latino Ministries for Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, described situations he’s encountered where immigrants — some of whose families became Presbyterian because of the work of PC(USA) missionaries abroad — were made to feel unwelcome by Presbyterian congregations in this country, even though some of those same churches had dwindled to very low membership and were struggling to stay alive.
By doing that, the PC(USA) basically communicates that “you’re good enough to be Presbyterian in Africa, but you’re not good enough to be Presbyterian here,” said Gradye Parsons, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk. “That’s sinful.”
During worship, the committee read the account from the second chapter of Acts of the Pentecost church — a multilingual, multiethnic, exuberant, diverse worshipping community. The PC(USA) falls far short of that ideal, Aja said. “To fix what we’re not doing right, we have to name it and claim it,” he said. “We have to talk about racism.”
Carol Howard Merritt, a pastor and writer from Washington, D.C., and the committee’s moderator, spoke of the importance of church being a place where people can be honest about their brokenness and their needs — a place that welcomes the kind of stark honesty often exhibited in 12-step groups meeting in church basements.
“We are part of the dominant culture. We have to recognize that, let go of that,” said Ann Ferguson, program coordinator for Presbyterian Women. The PC(USA), she said, should “let go of our need to maintain our institutional structures,” and “look to the margins for what’s happening there, to know where we are going.”
Sara Lisherness, the PC(USA)’s director of Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministries, spoke of her dream of a church that is successful and vibrant — but not necessarily in the way that society defines those terms. Instead of celebrating large, multi-staff churches, what about the small but energetic congregation that’s deeply connected to a community?
Michael East, a student at Columbia Theological Seminary, said there also are questions of who has authority in today’s churches. Many house churches and emerging churches have shared leadership where pastors may perform the sacraments, others may preach and “everyone has a stake in the authority of the church,” he said.
Think of the changing role of pastor as similar to the difference between a GPS and a compass, East said. The GPS “tells you exactly where to go, where to turn,” while the compass indicates “this is a direction in which we may be headed.”
In so many ways and places, Presbyterian congregations are surrounded by change. More Americans, particularly young adults, say they have no religious preference — they don’t identify with any religious tradition. Many congregations can’t afford to hire full-time pastors. While change can be scary and unsettling, it also can provide doorways into new types of ministry, committee members said.
“Economic insecurity offers an opportunity for the church to be the church,” said Morrow. “It’s a brand-new opportunity to engage people across class lines” — for example, for corporate executives, social workers and minimum-wage employees to support one another and share their faith journeys and struggles.
Congregations, however, sometimes respond to economic stress by cutting ministry. When money gets tight, “you never see the pastor’s salary reduced,” but ministries to the poor and dispossessed do get cut, said committee member Fernando Cascante, who works for the Association for Hispanic Theological Education.
Congregations often limit their mission work to “whatever we can do based on our ability to exist into perpetuity with our finances,” said committee member Richard Pak of Chicago, a graduate of McCormick Theological Seminary. He said Presbyterians tend to hold tight to enough assets to make sure the congregation will survive, with no sense that spending all the money on mission might be a possibility.
Pak spoke of the need for a “theology of the cross,” the idea that “maybe our church needs to die a little bit” for new things to be born. Others described a theology of abundance versus scarcity, or hope versus fear.
“Are we in exile, are we dying, are we being resurrected?” Pak asked. “If our church is dying, to be honest, I welcome the dying. I don’t want the church to completely die, but there is a lot of dying that needs to happen,” in order to make space for new life.
Linda Valentine, executive director of the General Assembly Mission Council, told of the denomination’s drive to start 1,001 new faith communities and to develop a congregational ethos that it’s not good stewardship to stay in a big building with too few people — the money for mission could better be used in other ways.
“We’ve got a choice,” Valentine said of the PC(USA). “We can continue to be a niche European-American denomination, or get serious about reflecting the population around us.” The PC(USA) could grow by 500,000 to 1 million members if it were more open to immigrants, she said, “yet we make it hard, put up hurdles, squirm at different styles of worship … We believe in a gospel of abundance, but we have a mindset of scarcity.”