The mission-partner-in-residence, as the job developed for me, is an itinerant, wandering preacher and presenter. In the period of one year I have traveled more than 28,000 miles by air and approximately an additional 2,500 miles by land. I preached, taught and spoke in 14 states in more than 20 churches, and attended and presented at another six church and mission conferences. Any description of a living community can only be a temporary one and is greatly endangered by partiality and tendentiousness. Being asked to submit such a description, I will not try to do the impossible (to draw an objective picture); rather I can submit only a personal, partial and tendentious picture of the Presbyterian Church.
I can describe only that which I saw, heard and discovered during my stay and travels. So I will write about the PC(USA) churches and Presbyterians I visited last year. These individuals, groups and church congregations were, by the very fact that they invited me, a non-representative set — they had to be at least internationally and ecumenically open. Nevertheless, those congregations were large as well as small, they were in different regions with very differing social, cultural and religious settings. I was astounded by the broad diversity in their nature, astonished by diversity in their theology, overwhelmed by diversity in their liturgy, amazed by diversity in their ethos, impressed by diversity in their struggles, struck by diversity in their programs. This wide diversity is evidently one of the strongest facets of Presbyterianism in the United States.
This diversity is only possible because of the very nature of the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church is not any more defined by nationality. Evidently there was a Scottish era of Presbyterianism in America, but the Presbyterian Church has not been Scottish for some decades. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not defined by theology or liturgy either.
Broadly speaking, it is a Reformed church, with Reformed theology and Reformed liturgy, at the same time enjoying increasingly Lutheran or even Roman Catholic elements in its liturgical life to the extent that it could be considered a negation of Reformed theology. In fact, the pre-eminence of activism in church life sometimes leads to strange ways of spiritual and liturgical seeking. Liturgical, spiritual and religious seeking is seldom a matter of cultivated self-awareness and growth and development of inherited Reform tradition; more often it is instinctive “seekism” and ecumenical experimentation.
The already mentioned points only prove that Presbyterian identity is predominantly based upon its unique church administration and government. Presbyterians are those who form task forces and boards and committees; but not only that, they are those who are actually happily meeting in these task forces and boards and committees, who are eagerly discussing and voting, approving and disapproving. Only afterwards do they engage, do they reach out and do many good things for their neighbors and strangers, the needy and helpless. Spiritual life consists of a brief opening prayer or devotion and then submersion into earthly concerns, needs and care.
I must say I admire this inveterate concern regarding worldly affairs; it certainly and nicely chimes with the Reformed tradition. But there is the other side of the message. The predominant part of the sermons I have heard, and a vast part of Presbyterian Church theology are of ethical or moralistic tailoring. Regardless of the orientation to and regardless of the affiliation with the liberal or conservative camps, sermons admonish, reprove and correct, challenge, encourage and charge; something was done and is good or bad, something should not be repeated; or something should be done and should happen.
And thus, the Presbyterian Church is deeply divided and absorbed in bitter trench warfare around/about moralistic issues. The church is shaken by exactly the same problems which are predominant in the national discourse. The bitter, hot part of the racial struggle is now over. The PC(USA), like the government and a vast part of society officially and intentionally embraces racial and cultural diversity. In church life and theology you can still feel some aftershocks of the feminist movement, but this is certainly not the hottest theme. The PC(USA) is now shaken by the struggle around gay and lesbian rights. In fact this struggle (about sexual purity and impurity, sexual conduct and misconduct) is shaking and dividing the entire American society. In this respect, the PC(USA) is neither pioneer/forerunner nor reactionary/obscurantist.
There are two ways I can understand this involvement of the church in those national discourses. Looking at it from the positive angle, one can express joy: the PC(USA) is certainly not isolated from the rest of society (this is a good sign). Even such a proportionally small church (approximately 1 percent of the general population) is not hiding in its ghetto but is actively involved in the discussion which is shaking and shaping the whole nation, and the PC(USA) is certainly not the most rigid and conservative part of that dialogue; on the contrary, there are strong progressive streams in the church.
But you can exercise a more critical approach also: the PC(USA) is not active — in fact it is reactive — in respect to those large national discourses. The church is not detecting, digging up and naming the hidden tensions and traumas in social and national life; neither is the church the vanguard of new arrangements and rules. Very often it is barely catching a departing train. In this respect the PC(USA) (and I am speaking about the whole church and its official administration and government, not about individuals or small groups) is not fulfilling the noble role of prophetic voice in society. Prophetic voices (e.g., cultural, social, ecological, theological-ecological) can be heard (if you pay attention), but are effectively drowned out by the thunder of sexual clashes.
The PC(USA) is a church with activist approaches, thus it is very active in home mission as well as in foreign mission. Mission in the home setting is usually described as “outreach.” There are many projects and activities, one of the most dominant being Habitat for Humanity. Foreign mission is also high on the agenda in the PC(USA) — many congregations have a mission committee or board and are somehow involved in mission and partnership in other countries.
The officially adopted mission policy of the PC(USA) is a progressive one: to promote partnership and ecumenical and interreligious contacts and dialogue. Proselytizing by manipulation or bribery in pursuit of converts is officially refused/rejected and presbyteries, local churches and individuals are admonished to witness, pray and help without patronizing. I consider the programs of mission trips and “Mission to the USA,” together with establishing official partner relationships of presbyteries and congregations, to be excellent tools for essential heightening of Christian global awareness and broadening of faith horizons within the PC(USA).
Learning about others, learning there are other cultures and nations besides America and learning respectful and non-imperialistic approaches to mission are always important. Human nature inclines us to ignore others (knowing only our own nearest neighbors) and with affluence and strength we may tend to look upon other, poorer cultures with different kinds of disrespect.
Given the size, power and affluence of the United States, this is extremely important. (Unfortunately, there are other groups within the American Christian community more in need of this kind of global introduction and education than members of the PC(USA). As part of the “Mission to the USA” program, and finishing up my year as mission-partner-in-residence, I very often had the strong feeling that I was “preaching to the choir.”) And let me mention some other observations. Even though the Presbyterian way of observing the sacrificial meal (the Lord’s Supper) is extremely minimalist and individualistic in nature, any other Presbyterian celebration or happening would scarcely occur without at least some small snack, or even be accompanied by a real culinary feast. Presbyterians simply do like to eat and they eat a lot.
Similarly Presbyterianism (together with other American churches) was strongly influenced by the American Puritan movement, thus the Lord’s Supper is always celebrated with grape juice and with grape juice only (with some exceptions in seminary worship). Not a drop of alcohol in a holy place — it’ll mean sacrilege! But in their homes or somewhere else it is a totally different story: Presbyterians simply like beer as well as real wine and they enjoy it and indulge in it. (I am certainly no Puritan and I consider this to be a healthy sign of the corporeality of Presbyterian faith.) Sometimes I had the feeling that I was hanging out with a group of teen-agers trying drinking for the very first time and enjoying the excitement of something forbidden.
Presbyterians struggle to be faithful to the Lord. In church life as well as in the secular one they prefer clear rules and a fair game; they enjoy thorough planning and are active rather than contemplative. In general they are friendly, open-hearted and frank. I am happy I had the opportunity to meet them and I wish them a good flight.
“The cabin doors are now closing, and I would like to ask you to discontinue using cellular telephones and any portable electronics.” See you next time in Europe, in the Czech Republic, in Prague. All the best, dear friends.
ANDREW STEHLIK is a minister of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren in Prague.