Two church growth strategies, new sexuality curriculum approved

SAN JOSE — In two separate but related initiatives designed to address the persistent decline in Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) membership as well as the church’s commitment to grow in diversity, the 218th General Assembly wholeheartedly approved June 25 a Strategy for Church Growth for African American Congregations and a resolution to help Christ’s Church Grow Deep and Wide during the report of the Assembly Committee on Church Growth and Christian Education.

In other major business, the Assembly also concurred with the committee’s recommendation to approve, with comment, an overture from the Presbytery of Grace to direct the General Assembly Council (GAC) to produce adolescent sexuality resources. After the failure of several amendments, the original motion passed by a vote of 509-188-5 (for-against-abstain).

In introducing the African American Church Growth recommendation, the Rev. Lonnie Oliver, chair of the task force charged to develop the strategy, noted that African Americans have been a strong witness in the life of the PC(USA) for more than 200 years. “This strategy came as a result of the mandate to grow the racial ethnic membership of the PC(USA),” he said. “It will enable black congregations to be caring communities of faith, and is designed to increase membership and discipleship.”

Oliver noted that in 2007 African American membership in the PC(USA) increased to 3.1 percent. The General Assembly’s goal is to grow racial ethnic membership in the PC(USA) by 20 percent by the year 2010. Because implementation of the new strategy — which would both grow and transform African American churches — will require the active participation of presbyteries and synods, Oliver closed by saying, “We invite you to partner with us to attempt great things with God and to achieve great things for God.”

The recommendation to help Christ’s Church Grow Deep and Wide was presented on the Assembly floor by the Rev. Tom Taylor, deputy executive for Mission for the General Assembly Council (GAC). “This particular item, as it has been amended, was initiated in the GAC in great part in response to what so many of us have recognized as a persistent decline,” he said. “Yet so many of us know of places that are growing rapidly and dynamically. In light of that we came to the belief that it’s faithful to take affirmative steps.”

Taylor then showed a video that captured various commissioners’ responses as to how the new program might begin to unfold as a grass roots initiative. “Churches are way ahead of the game already,” he said.

To help churches share stories and best practices as Deep and Wide moves forward, the GAC has already created one Web site [ ] and another is under development. The initiative, which calls the PC(USA) to grow congregations numerically, spiritually and with diversity, would be active for two years.

A minister commissioner from Los Ranchos Presbytery, the Rev. Michael Haggin, rose to say that he had grown up outside of the church and was baptized as an adult 32 years ago. “I chose the Presbyterian Church in which to work, which I don’t regret. During those years, I’ve never been a part of a Presbyterian Church that didn’t consider itself already committed to the things in the recommendation. How will this look different in the next two years to what we say we’re doing all the time?”

The Rev. Eric Hoey, director for Evangelism and Church Growth [] for the GAC, responded by saying, “We want to spark a fire or a flame to help acknowledge that we are declining, but push ourselves toward growth.”

The Rev. Bob Edwards, commissioner from Northern Plains Presbytery, acknowledged “a great deal of joy” in the new emphasis. “We must always share Christ with those who do not know him,” he said.

As its final item of business, the Rev. Steve Locke, the committee’s moderator, introduced Item 12-08, the overture from the Presbytery of Grace to direct the GAC to produce adolescent human development resources — including human sexuality — based upon Scripture and the Reformed theological tradition. By a vote of 41-14-2, the committee had recommended the overture’s approval with comment.

The comment spoke to planting “the seed of peace” in trusting the GAC to develop the resources in scope and in content as it saw fit.

Olivia Wilson, the youth advisory delegate (YAD) from Grace Presbytery, which originated the overture, rose to speak in favor of the committee’s recommendation to approve. “It is important for me and my faith to learn what the church has to say about human sexuality issues,” she said. “It was through the God’s Gift of Sexuality curriculum that I learned I’m a spiritual being as well as a physical being. I think it’s important that the church teach us these things.”

Because the committee had wrestled earlier with the financial implications of the overture — approximately $108,000 in unbudgeted funds — the Rev. Lynne Manilla, a minister commissioner from West Jersey Presbytery and a member of the committee, moved an amendment, which would have postponed production of the resources until the 2011 budget year, when funds would be available. The amendment failed.

A subsequent proposal to amend was suggested on the Assembly floor by Grant Wright, the youth advisory delegate from Palisades Presbytery and a member of the committee. Wright’s status as a YAD prevented him from actually making the amendment, which he wanted in order to add specificity to the overture’s language.

An amendment, moved by the Rev. William Stepp, a minister commissioner from the Presbytery of Tropical Florida and a member of the committee, would have specified that sexual relationships belong only within the bond of marriage between a man and woman. The amendment failed by a vote of 479 to 185.

Brenton Thompson, the theological student advisory delegate from McCormick Theological Seminary, stood to interpret the original intent of the overture in leaving the development of the resource open-ended. Thompson, a member of the committee, hails from Grace Presbytery. “Grace Presbytery’s intent in bringing this forward was not to be divisive but to say that there’s a hole in our GAC resources,” he said. “They wanted to direct the General Assembly to fill that hole, but not to say what kind of peg will fill that hole; rather, to leave it open so that the Spirit could move through those called to create these resources.”

Another attempt to amend and introduce specificity was made by Barkley Calkins, an elder commissioner from Palisades Presbytery. The amendment called for adding the words, “articulate the scriptural truth that sex outside of the holy commitment of marriage is sinful. …The resources would
include information regarding responsible partnership and the role of abstinence, contraceptive methods … resources vetted by Office of Theology and Worship.” The amendment failed.

The committee’s original recommendation was then sustained by a vote of 509-188-5. In earlier business, the items from the committee’s consent
agenda — confirmation of nominees to the Board of Directors of the Presbyterian Church and revisions to the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program’s [] (PILP) 1995 deliverance – were approved. The Rev. James “Jay” Hudson was also approved for an additional four-year term as PILP’s president. Hudson addressed the body briefly, thanking the Assembly for its confirmation. The list of colleges and universities related to the PC(USA) was approved with the addition of Goodland Academy (Okla.). The Assembly also concurred with the committee’s recommendation to disapprove an overture from Blackhawk Presbytery to encourage the promotion and observation of Children’s Day on the second Sunday in June.