Editor’s Note: At the mid-point of his two years as moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Rick Ufford-Chase issues a call for vision and action to serve God’s kingdom in the 21st century.
January 1, 2006
On the night of my election as Moderator of the General Assembly, I asked Presbyterians several questions. “Are you ready to ‘get in the boat with Jesus?'” “Is the Assembly ready to imitate the disciples as they took the huge risk of leaving behind all they knew to be both comfortable and sacred, and follow Jesus to ‘the other side,’ to the land of the Gentiles, the unclean, and the community with whom Jewish law expressly forbid them to have contact?” I invited Presbyterians to make a leap of faith – to believe that if we let go of our fear and step boldly into the world – God will do remarkable things both in and through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Many Presbyterians have responded to the image of getting in the boat with Jesus. They are excited to share their own stories of “getting in the boat.” I’ve seen clear indications that many of our congregations are tired of “business as usual,” and they’re looking for opportunities to “cross over to the other side.”
As I’ve traveled, I have tried to listen carefully. I have prayed for discernment — for the insight to see “the signs of the times” and the work of God’s spirit in our present life. I’ve asked Presbyterians what they need from our denomination in order to live their faith with courage and conviction.
After eighteen months of an intimate look into the heart of our church, I am convinced that God is calling all of us to become something new. This is our moment to let go and strike out for the other side.
Embracing this moment will not be easy. Few of us can guess what we’ll find as we challenge our old assumptions. Many Presbyterians are fearful of change and anxious about what they perceive to be the loss of the church they have loved and nurtured all of their lives. Though many in our church are weary of some of our dysfunctional patterns, far too often I find they’re not ready to move on because they can’t picture what God intends for them — what they’ll find on “the other side.” Sometimes it almost seems as if we take comfort in our bickering and dysfunction.
But staying on the near, familiar shore is not a good option. Many in our congregations are obviously disaffected and frustrated, fed up with a church they believe has given them little reason to believe in it. Some are convinced the PC(USA) no longer stands for anything. Some have left to seek more meaningful community elsewhere. There is precious little trust on which to build this new creation – the beloved community into which God is beckoning us.
One unifying strength is that most Presbyterians agree on the fundamentals, even in a denomination characterized by a debilitating lack of trust. We all know that it has always been the work of the church to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.” That song has not changed. It has three verses. First, Jesus Christ invites us into a transformative relationship with him. Second, we join with other believers to study God’s word, to worship, and to strengthen and deepen our ties to God and to one another. Finally, we are called to serve God – to live in ways that glorify God and serve the lost, the least and the last. For hundreds of years, Presbyterians have called those three things justification, adoption, and sanctification.
In today’s language, we would say that Jesus Christ offers meaning to people who are adrift – both in our own communities and around the world. We agree that we have a responsibility to share the Good News of Christ with all those whom we meet, and to nurture one another as we strive every day to live more and more faithfully. We know that we are called to respond with Christian love to a world plagued by environmental destruction, broken and violent relationships, and communities of economic desperation.
I sense among Presbyterians the embers of a desire to follow Jesus into the world and to live as if we believe that God is still good news for those who are spiritually empty, and for the poor, the broken and the suffering. Though inspiration is pretty difficult to come by sometimes, many of us have caught little glimpses of just how exciting it would be to risk everything and give all of who we are and what we have to the task of being Christ’s living witness in the world.
Preparing for and making such a journey of commitment will require raising the bar for what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Presbyterians and their churches will have to dedicate more time — not less time — to the work of being Jesus’ witness in the world. Our people’s hunger to respond to that kind of call is evidenced by the immense popularity of Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven” books. This is about becoming, in the words of theologian Darrel Guder, the “missional church.” I’m persuaded by the argument of Darrell and his colleagues in the “Gospel in our Culture Network”:
The church must constantly hear the gospel afresh in order to discern its faithful response. It must constantly examine how it has been shaped by its context and ask God to convert and transform it. But at certain times and places it is particularly urgent that the church both understand the shaping it has inherited from its context and hear the gospel’s work that calls the church to alter its life. We are persuaded that the present is such a time and North America is such a place. Questions like these have been left too long unattended. A radical shift is taking place in the way our society sees the church’s presence and the way that society assigns it a place in the scheme of things. Deep crisis points are now visible in the social order itself, and old rules are up for grabs. (Guder: The Missional Church, p. 14)
What are the characteristics of missional churches and a denomination that is genuinely prepared to support them?
First, the congregations I’ve seen that have energy and spirit are the ones that are re-orienting their worship and their work around mission, and not around the maintenance of their churches. Small or large, conservative or liberal, old or new: vibrant congregations that embody the joy and enthusiasm of the earliest Christian communities are the ones that start with the gospel, read their culture, transform themselves by putting meaningful worship and study at the center of their life together, and push their members to become involved in sharing and living the good news of Christ in the world.
There is strong evidence that local congregations provide the fundamental building blocks to transform our church and the world. Local congregations are doing some of the best work in new church development when they see opportunities and move quickly to plant new churches where those opportunities exist. New Immigrant Fellowships are another place in which God’s spirit is moving in our denomination at the grassroots level – in ways we can’t control – to create new churches and make a new thing of our denomination.
In world missions, many local churches and presbyteries are forming and sending mission teams all over the world, and they find themselves reinvigorated in the process of living God’s missional call. Advances in our ability to travel easily and the ability to communicate quickly and cheaply have made it possible for our members to maintain mission relationships in personal ways over long periods of time. In fact, I would say that the role of “mission-worker” at the national level of the denomination is increasingly one of building bridges and nurturing those healthy relationships as our churches strike out to find partners in mission around the world.
In their own programming, many of those same local churches are discovering that they are far-more effective when they empower their lay people to provide the leadership they need. For the next generation of “doers” in the United States, those opportunities for “hands-on” leadership are engaging them in ways that inspire everyone involved.
Ecumenical and interfaith relationships are another good example of the energy that is coming from local congregations. In communities that are increasingly multicultural and diverse, Presbyterians are discovering that they can work on their own relationships with other Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and Jews. It doesn’t erase the need for our denominational leaders to be speaking with one another, especially in an age of violence when we all face troubling attempts by extremists to hijack our traditions, but the dialogue has far more depth when it is carried out by individuals in their own communities.
The bottom line is that we must trust our congregations to do God’s work.
If we were to follow this path, it would mean an entirely new way of structuring our work together as presbyteries, synods, and national agencies of the General Assembly.
A growing number of presbyteries are embracing this reality and are reorienting all of their work together around that fundamental idea. Increasingly I hear the leaders in our presbyteries insist that the presbytery’s role is to simple — to encourage healthy churches. I’ve even seen a few presbyteries that have adopted the “missional” model themselves, agreeing to put “first things first” by building their time together around worship, study, prayer and encouragement. In order to do so, they’ve trusted God and one another to let go of many of the administrative details that have traditionally determined their priorities with one another. Further, they allow themselves to be drawn into specific program or mission initiatives only when the energy for those projects is clearly initiated by and supported by their member churches, and only when they offer unique ways to help churches connect with one another to carry out Christ’s work.
Some synods are also catching this vision, redesigning all of their work around the question, “What do our presbyteries need from us in order to more effectively nurture their churches?” In many instances, that means they are cutting traditional, beloved programs in order to follow God’s spirit in new directions. Again, their role is connectional, helping creative churches to find support from one another as they do God’s work in their communities and in the world.
As moderator, I’ve spent many hours thinking about what the national agencies of our denomination would look like if we were to genuinely support this movement to “get in the boat with Jesus.” The answer is challenging. Living into this God-given opportunity will demand an entirely new way of being church.
The organizational patterns and expectations that have governed our denomination for almost a century are not the ones that will carry us into the next fifty or one hundred years. As a friend of mine put it, “The corporate, top-down model of denominationalism that took shape after World War II has largely outlived its usefulness.” This same friend, who works a lot with recovering alcoholics, reminds me that just as individuals get addicted to substances, organizations get addicted to structures, policies, procedures and worldviews. The treatment for organizations is not dissimilar to that of an alcoholic — an intervention to bring awareness that we need to change, a belief that God opens us to a new way of being church, and the sharing of this new behavior with all those who love, pray and work for the health and vitality of the church.
Our focus will have to be on the movement of God’s spirit instead of on maintaining the institution of church. I suppose our task isn’t so dissimilar from the one that Jesus put to his disciples as he encouraged them to break some of the most important institutional mores of the people of Israel and “cross over to the other side.” Our challenge will be huge, because institutional maintenance and movement building demand different orientations and different skills.
Institutions have a high need to control the message; movement loves messiness. Institutions are about structure and flow charts and staying on task; movement building is about nurturing creative and unique communities and celebrating their diversity as they follow God in different directions. Faithfulness to the institution of church demands care for the institution itself; attentiveness to the movement will focus on getting every Presbyterian directly involved in Christ’s work in the world.
For many of us, this moment will require a new way of understanding our polity and how our church develops it’s public voice and witness in the world. Many of us have prided ourselves on the democratic nature of our governance. However, we’ve been so focused on using the General Assembly to govern one another’s behavior or to make pronouncements about our beliefs to the rest of the world that we have lost the ability to shape any kind of genuine consensus among our own people in the pews.
Crafting that bold and visionary consensus isn’t rocket science, but it won’t be easy. It will demand that we take up the hard work of listening carefully to one another, trusting that we really are sisters and brothers in Christ, and organizing to fashion old-fashioned, grass-roots movement on the things that most concern us. This will require a new generation of pastoral and lay leaders who are willing to live what they believe with passion and inspire that passion in others, even when it may not be a carbon copy of their own.
So do we give up on the institution of the church? No, but we can’t allow our institutional habits to impede this moment for movement. We must go to Scripture and our confessions and recover the fundamental principles of our Reformed faith. We must get on our knees together and pray that God will make us a new thing. Then, we must get up and invite everyone we know into this exciting task. And we must constantly encourage one another to live faithfully into this wonderful moment to which God has called us.
Those of us who feel connected to the national level of the church are too often caught up in an entitlement mentality that leads nowhere. Many of us have a pet agenda, cause, ethnic or gender identity or theological doctrine, and we are accustomed to fighting tooth and nail to protect the staff person or the program initiative that supports our agenda. Slowly, it’s dawning on us that we are fighting to keep a piece of a pie that is getting smaller and smaller every year. We’re so focused on not losing what we have that we fail to see that God has moved on and is working on an entirely new project. If we don’t let go soon and follow God, we’ll discover that there is nothing left to fight over.
So what will be the hallmarks of our work at the national level of the church if we are to follow the energy of our missional churches and nurture a movement of God’s spirit?
“¢ Our first act should be to listen to our churches and partners in mission. The second is to support the emergence of a shared sense of vision across the church that is scripturally grounded. Then, we need to get out of the way, trust God and each other, and let our churches go to work.
“¢ Our emphasis at every level and in every agency of the denomination must be to empower rather than to regulate and to take risks rather than to protect the status quo.
“¢ We will no longer be program agencies. Instead, our focus will be on linking creative grassroots and congregational ministries and helping them to share their best practices and resources with one another.
“¢ There are likely to be far fewer paid staff, but they will be supported by a renewed culture of volunteerism. We’ll need to depend far more on Presbyterians to step up and take responsibility for our common and connectional life together.
“¢ We will have to be fast and responsive to a changing world and the shifting winds of the Holy Spirit. It will take creative use of the Internet and other emerging technologies to help us completely redefine our relationships with one another and with the people of God around the world.
“¢ We’ll all need to commit to use the Books of Order and Confessions not as devices for gate-keeping or the objects of bickering, but instead to ground Presbyterians and our faith communities in the reformed tradition as we take bold risks and embark on the new and mysterious adventure to which God is calling us. That kind of trust means that not all of our mission efforts will look the same, but Gamaliel reminds us in Acts 5 – that which is “of God” will endure.
“¢ Our mission personnel will become far more important as churches become more empowered. Their job, like that of all leaders in our church, will be to invite all Presbyterians into the boat, and to calm the storms our members will inevitably encounter as they take greater and greater risks in the world.
My friends, I believe that we have everything we need to get in the boat.
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was (Mark 4:35-36a).
This is no moment for passivity. Jesus put the idea out there for his disciples, but they had to take responsibility for the journey themselves.
I pray for the courage of the disciples in this hour of opportunity for our church.