Fewer and fewer people I encounter have any idea what “Presbyterian” means. When, upon meeting someone, I am asked, “What do you do?” I usually say, “I am a Presbyterian pastor.” If they ask follow-up questions I go into more detail with words like “editor” or “religious magazine.” Most of the time all the person hears is “pastor” and then attaches to that whatever baggage they associate with the term. I confess – and this is a confession of sin – that I use the qualifier “Presbyterian” because, at least to me, it puts me in a category separate from television evangelists or fundamental literalists. To me, “Presbyterian” means educated, thoughtful and – yes, let me just speak it plain – intellectual and unlikely to hold up signs with “John 3:16” at the ballpark. (I told you this was a confession of sin.)
I have come to understand, however, that “Presbyterian” does not carry those connotations for many anymore. I might as well skip the “Presbyterian” part and just say, “I am a pastor.” For most this role is still within the realm of their personal understanding. Even if they don’t have a pastor or know one well enough to have coffee with, they still recognize that I am connected to the church. They also assume some character traits they associate with the person of “pastor.”
The young woman who cut my hair admonished me for reading People Magazine while I waited. “You work in the church, you aren’t supposed to be reading that trash!” (It was only because I’d left Calvin’s Institutes in my car, really.) A trainer at the gym where I box (sort of) marveled at my level of aggression given my profession. The sales person helping me choose potential clothing for work put some of what she’d pulled back on the rack once she learned I am a pastor. Apparently, sleeveless dresses are not appropriate in the pulpit.
“Presbyterian” rarely registers with people, but pastor, broadly (and often strangely) defined, still does. Apparently, my sinful snobbery has met its match and it’s called postmodernity. I think, on the main, this is good news. I lament that Presbyterianism has lost its cache because, as I confessed, I still value the values it used to carry. However, I also find it freeing to fly under the radar of assumptions and perhaps redefine Presbyterian and maybe upend some ideas about being a pastor, too. Not that there aren’t many good things affiliated with both terms, but to many they are terms from some bygone era, relics or curiosities that were once the vanguard of technology, but now are woefully outdated and useless.
“Presbyterian” and “pastor” aren’t the only terms relegated to the printed dictionary collecting dust on the shelf. In many places “Christian” can be found there, too. My kids get the same reaction when they tell a friend they can’t sleep over on a Saturday night because they have church on Sunday morning. “You are religious?” “Yes.” “And you go to church?” “Yes.” “Do you like it?” “Mostly.” “How do you feel about gay people?” “Umm, fine.” This very exchange happened to my daughter earlier this year. Those outside our sanctuaries have no idea what “Presbyterian” means, but they have ideas about pastors and church and Christians, many of which have little to do with our own sense of identity or beliefs.
The mystery, the assumptions, the half-truths or down right falsehoods may give way to opportunity for – hold on… wait for it – evangelism. The unknowns, the what-others-think-they-know may break open the possibility of a conversation that could lead to another and another and another if we are willing to enter those spaces with honesty and openness and humility. Are we willing to be vulnerable and take that risk?
My husband, via email, invited a couple he met through work to attend church with us. Shortly after clicking send he wondered if he’d crossed a boundary he shouldn’t have crossed. He sent a quick follow-up message apologizing if he’d offended. Their reply? “Of course not! Any invitation to community is welcomed!” And any opportunity to get past assumptions and learn from each other is an opportunity to share good news and, yes, the Good News too.
Grace and peace,