During the past few years it has been fashionable to be openly critical of the Christian church in general and the Presbyterian Church in particular. People from every theological persuasion have felt free to voice their criticism in public.
My experience shows me how easy it is to make charges against the institutional church. Many of them are on the mark and we must take them seriously. It is also clear, however, that there is much to be positive about. Think about your own church, for example. What is happening that keeps your congregation strong? Instead of focusing on your church’s faults, think about the factors that make it right.
What is right with the church? Many years ago when I was doing student fieldwork at Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, New Jersey, the senior pastor, Robert Stephens, preached a powerful sermon that addressed that question. His message sustained me for the rest of my ministry.
If your church, Stephens preached, is committed to Jesus Christ and considers him as the foundation for all it does and says, then that church is right. It was founded by him and bears his name. It is his church and not ours. It is based on the power of his resurrection and because he is alive and active in the world, the church also has vitality and is right.
What else could be right with your church? If your mission is directed by God’s Holy Spirit, we know that it will be right because the Spirit is right. The Holy Spirit was sent by Christ when he returned to the Father and comes primarily to assure the church of God’s presence in a torn and troubled world. The Spirit is our counselor, our comforter, the director of our way to God. The Holy Spirit provides us with a wireless connection to God and it is through this Spirit that God communicates with us and empowers us and gives us what the famous New York City preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick called “faith for tough times.” The Spirit is our morale booster, our constant link with God. The Holy Spirit helps us witness to Christ in a skeptical and cynical world – and because the Spirit is present, the church is right.
A third thing that could be right with your church: If you are preaching God’s Word and administering the sacraments, then you are, as John Calvin argued, part of the true, universal church (“Institutes,” 4.1.9). We know that the message of the church is right and it is especially needed today. Society is often a tense and violent place and you only have to look at the Internet to see the terrible things going in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. All kinds of people, especially young ones, are yearning for fulfillment and searching for solutions to their troubled existence. Many are trying desperately to change themselves and are even willing to give their lives to make it happen. In our country we see the depression experienced by many young adults who are finding it difficult to get jobs, who cannot afford to pay for a good college education. We see those who are demonstrating in city streets because they feel oppressed and overlooked.
Consider another area in which your church may be right. If you are meeting the personal needs of members and nonmembers, if you are providing a place for confession, healing and restoration, your church has to be right.
Sometimes we need to be reminded what a tremendous opportunity churches have to meet the needs of people around us who have family problems, addictions to alcohol, drugs and gambling, or are faced with difficult financial and health situations. Where else in our communities do organizations have the opportunity, the privilege, to go into people’s homes to help them? How many groups have pastors, elders, deacons, Stephen Ministers who are allowed into hospital rooms and funeral homes to pray with people in times of greatest need?
Your congregation can also be right if it is one of few institutions that consistently, insistently and powerfully encourages people to live ethically and work for peace and justice. It can refuse to give up the critical effort to protect God’s creation and labor tirelessly to reduce violence in our communities and the world. Not everyone wants to hear these critical messages but people around us still want guidance from the church, if the ministry of Pope Francis is any indication. Maybe members of our community need to consider churches as more than quiet, safe havens and look at us Ahab viewed Elijah and said, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” (1 Kings 17:18; 20:7). The church can be right even when it functions as troublemakers in the name of Christ and articulate and visualize God’s relentless prodding for justice and fairness.
What is right with the church? I have listed a few of the reasons why I think that your church may be right today. In future issues of the Outlook, we will provide a new forum that will enable us to encourage each other and share exciting ideas and ministries that can make our congregations more vital and relevant.
This hope for the church rests on the same fact that makes it right. God sent the unique Son into the world and promised that whoever believes in him will be put right with God and receive new life, both now and in the age to come. If we as members of Christ are right with God (1 John 2:29) then the church also has to be right.
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired teaching elder and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College. If you have information to share about aspects of your ministry that are right, please email the Outlook at [email protected].