Every once in a while competitors turn into allies. This seems to be one of those times.
Voices all around the church are calling for a change of subject. Most of them are proposing the same subject. Indeed, many heretofore opponents now believe that the answer to our denomination’s woes is for us to become a “missional church.”
Attendance (125) at the Presbyterian Coalition’s Gathering X was dwarfed by that of the second conference of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship (800) — and both groups seemed pleased about that (see pp. 8, 9). Could it be that the call to be missional is re-energizing conservative-evangelical-confessionalist Presbyterians?
The upcoming conference of the Witherspoon Society (Sept. 17-19) is dubbed as “A Witherspoon conference on global mission and justice.” Could it be that the call to be missional is re-focusing progressive-liberal-activist Presbyterians?
The Form of Government Task Force has just produced a set of recommendations to next June’s General Assembly that call for rewriting the Book of Order — at least the first four chapters — in the hope of jettisoning our regulatory church mentality to be replaced by the missional church vision (see pp.6, 7). Could it be that the call to be missional is re-invigorating centrist-moderate-ecclesiastist Presbyterians?
Add to these the pietistic-contemplative-devotionalist Presbyterians, whose new monasticism is driving them to build communities of mutual support in the inner cities. Add to these the compassionate-caregiving-altruist Presbyterians, whose persistent service to the disadvantaged and the environment finds itself aligned with the National Association of Evangelicals.
Put that altogether, and we see signs of a convergence. Our conflicted church seems poised to beat its swords into plowshares … and into water-wells and hammers and school buses.
We’ve been near here before. After 35 years of pitched doctrinal conflict, the northern Presbyterian Church USA decided in 1927 that “theology divides” but “mission unites.” So, following the lead of that year’s General Assembly moderator, the brilliant mission scholar and organizer Robert Speer, the church changed the subject from theological differences to missional commonalities. The call to do mission helped convert church-destroying conflict into world-reaching cooperation.
However, that panacea provided no cure.
The vote of the many muzzled the few. Some of those most passionate about classical theology departed our fellowship in solidarity with their ousted leader Gresham Machen. Others stayed but soon discovered that doubting the denomination’s choice — for mission and against theology — disqualified them from exercising their leadership gifts within the fellowship. Many of them chose to pour their missional energies into innovative parachurch organizations and movements that were tenaciously traditional in theology. A quiet schism was brewing, not between the left and the right but between the insiders and the outsiders.
In recent years we have reaped the unintended consequences that bifurcating between mission and theology sowed 80 years ago.
We can do better. It appears we are doing better. Influenced by such leading voices as the late David Bosch, The Gospel and Our Culture Network, Darrell Guder, and Michael Frost, mission and theology have been tying the knot. Theirs is a marriage made in heaven. Literally. Their marriage is bearing children of theological vigor and missional endeavor. Their children are doing evangelism in the name of Jesus, and they’re promoting peace in the name of common decency. They are engaging in compassionate service to the needy and promoting equal rights to everyone everywhere.
We all can do that. And we can choose to be a missional church instead of a regulatory agency. Oh, we do need to maintain accountability among our elders, both teaching and ruling elders. Part of the genius of the connectional, Presbyterian tradition is how it puts us into covenantal accountability with folks we’d never have chosen to be our friends. But, we also need to let go of the need to hold on to control. Whether we be confessionalists, devotionalists, ecclesiasts, altruists, or activists, we all have our control issues. We all want the church to live up to our vision of what we believe it could become. It won’t, as long as we try to engineer the results.
All we can do is to work and to pray and to trust the Holy Spirit to bring a God-inspired, God-directed, God-honoring missional church convergence.
Perhaps we are seeing the first hints of that in these days.