LOUISVILLE — In a denomination that is losing members and cutting budgets, what does it mean to be a “connectional church?” Why does being part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) matter?
For Carolyn Crawford, congregational life pastor at Bel Air Church in Los Angeles, that’s sometimes hard to answer. Hers is a fast-growing congregation — with about 100 folks showing up for new-member classes four times a year.
“I can count it on one hand, if that,” the number of people who say they’ve come to Bel Air specifically because it’s Presbyterian, Crawford said at the national Moderator’s Conference Nov. 17.
“What would you tell me to tell those new members, or people in the pews” about why being Presbyterian matters, she asked.
For congregations big and small, that’s an important question. Smaller churches — and in the PC(USA), nearly half the congregations have 100 members or fewer — may be financially unable to afford to hire a full-time Presbyterian pastor. Some small churches find strength in sharing resources with other local congregations that might be Lutheran or United Church of Christ, not Presbyterian at all.
Linda Valentine, executive director of the General Assembly Council, said a 2005 survey showed that most Presbyterians have no idea what their national church is doing. So even when the denomination does work on their behalf, they don’t know about it, Valentine said.
Yet there are benefits in being connected — in being involved outside of just the local church, said some who are attending the Moderator’s Conference, a leadership event for moderators of presbyteries and synods, convened in Louisville Nov. 17-19 by Joan Gray, moderator of the 217th General Assembly.
The PC(USA)’s stated clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick, was out of the country on business for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, of which he is president. But Kirkpatrick spoke in videotaped remarks played for the gathering of the “wonderful shared mission vision” that Presbyterians have, and of their “uncontrollable passion” to make a difference in the lives of people around the world.
A pastor from rural Kansas says she tells her congregation, when news comes of an earthquake or flood, that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is on the scene, and that because of their giving to One Great Hour of Sharing, “you are a part of this, you are doing this.”
And several people spoke of the value of congregations looking beyond themselves — to reach out to their communities and to people outside of organized religion.
David Norton, from Genesee Valley presbytery in New York state, said half of his presbytery’s congregations have fewer than 100 members, “and half the people who live in our area are completely unchurched.”
Perhaps the real question to be asked is not how to make small churches stronger, but why Presbyterian churches aren’t meeting the spiritual needs of the people, Norton said.
Sue Montgomery, from Lake Erie presbytery, said Presbyterians are missing opportunities for evangelism with those who are deaf and with people who are disabled.
Montgomery told of one family, in which the parents of a frail son with multiple disabilities repeatedly asked for the church to be made accessible. Promises were made, but three generations of that family finally left when they realized that if the boy died, they would not be able to hold his funeral at their church.
In another case, a woman who had not gone to church for 50 years began attending every week when the church began providing bus transportation, she said.
When Presbyterians make buildings and programs accessible to those with disabilities, “the church grows,” Montgomery said.
There is also, some in the audience said, a sincere hunger among many to have a direct and personal encounter with God.
Isaiah Jones, from San Jose presbytery, told of meeting a young man on a flight who had been raised Presbyterian, but married a Catholic and was raising his children Catholic. Jones said the young man spoke of wanting to find a place “where he could go to find a meaningful relationship with the divine.”
And Tom Koger, from Tres Rios presbytery in Texas, suggested that Presbyterians may be asking the wrong question if they wonder what the national church is doing to help them practice evangelism.
“It happens over a cup of coffee,” Koger said. Evangelism happens through relationships, “eyeball to eyeball.”