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Who is Our Neighbor?

As suggested in this column last week, we have an obligation to reach out to those Christian brothers and sisters in our own fold who for whatever reason have become distant or estranged — either by our action, or theirs, or by both — before we go to the Table of our Lord.


The church gathers to worship God — to hear the Word preached and to receive the Sacraments — so that it may be empowered to go out and serve the neighbor in all walks of life, to the ends of the Earth. That’s our commission — the Great Commission — from the Lord. And unless we are united in the Lord, by the Spirit, we cannot fulfill our mission.

But who is our neighbor? One of the great realizations among Presbyterians in the last decade is the fact that we live in a nation whose demographic profile is rapidly changing, to the extent that sometime in this century the Americans of European descent will no longer be in the majority. For a declining church, whose constituency consists 95 percent-plus of that group, this is a highly significant piece of information.

Not so long ago, before this realization had sunk in, we were contemplating such outreach as part of an overall commitment to justice and full inclusion of people of color and other minorities. This commitment is reflected in General Assembly actions committing the PC(USA) to achieving 10 percent racial ethnic membership (as compared with the current roughly 5 percent) by 2005 and 20 percent by 2010.

Perhaps the goals should have been stated in terms of percentage increase from the current racial ethnic base rather than percentage of total membership. Because if, for example, there is a continuing radical shrinkage of the Euro-American base, the goals will be achieved without increasing the number of racial ethnic Presbyterians.

Indeed, a major question which Presbyterians should be asking and answering is: Why are we failing to attract and to hold our traditional constituency, which is either not going to church at all, or is affiliated with some other congregation or denomination?

All Presbyterians want our church to grow, and to reach out to all groups at all times. That’s the meaning of the Great Commission. There is no reason, therefore, to neglect church development among people of our traditional Presbyterian base. This should be strongly encouraged at the same time that we put more resources into evangelism and church development with racial ethic persons, including immigrants.

The growth of Korean Presbyterianism, to name one of our constituent racial ethnic groups, has been awesome and demonstrates the strength of the witness of those whom we once evangelized who are now coming to our country. And there are many other immigrant groups whose needs are being met by Presbyterian congregations and ministries as they make their way into a new world, along with those who have been here for generations. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has set ambitious goals of expanding this segment of our membership by the end of the decade.

Leadership training is critical, and we are adapting our standards and our educational approaches to attempt to meet the need, through such efforts as the office of commissioned lay pastors. Within limits, arrangements will have to be made to provide the pastoral leadership that is critical to starting new churches and ministries in such communities. In time, one would hope that the newer churches would become more inclusive, as also our older churches. And our goal should be to value and celebrate the racial ethnic diversity which God gives us.

Beyond our church development efforts in the United States, Presbyterians will continue to support enthusiastically sister churches and their ministries in more than 80 countries where we have mission partners. The truly exciting development in the last decade or so has been the opening up of most mission opportunities throughout the world to most congregations and presbyteries who desire partnership.

The benefits of such mission outreach do not flow one way: us to them. In most cases American Presbyterians receive far more than they give. Ask any youth group or other congregational group that has gone and served — here or abroad — and you will find this truth affirmed again and again.

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