When do most Presbyterian churches hold worship? Sunday mornings.
So Presbyterians shouldn’t be surprised, said pastor and author Carol Howard Merritt, when young adults don’t show up in church.
Many Presbyterians talk about wanting to make changes – to no longer be a denomination known for being mostly white and disproportionately old. If they are serious about wanting to make a difference in a multi-cultural and fast-changing world, churches in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) need to want to try new approaches to ministry. In doing so, they should build on the strength of the Presbyterian tradition but with open hearts towards experimenting and with a willingness to fail.
That was part of the message at the recent Moderators’ Conference – an annual training session for moderators and other leaders of presbyteries and synods, held in Louisville Nov. 18-20.
The conference theme was “Shifting Sands: A Changing Church in a Changing Time.” A series of speakers spoke of ways the PC(USA) is being asked to consider new approaches – including Tod Bolsinger, moderator of the General Assembly Middle Governing Bodies Commission (now known as the Mid-Councils Commission) and Merritt, moderator of the Special Committee on the Nature of the Church for the 21st Century.
Landon Whitsitt, vice-moderator of the 219th General Assembly and the executive and stated clerk of the Synod of Mid-America, spoke about the idea of “open-source church” (he’s written a book on this) – drawn from the principles underlying the creation of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Part of the “open-source” concept is this: that letting people make changes to what already exists, what Whitsitt called “mercilessly editing,” is a way to make something much better.
“We’ve got this long history of the way we do things,” Whitsitt said – which includes both all the strengths of the Presbyterian tradition, and that habit developed in too many places of saying, “We don’t do it that way here.” Whitsitt told of one congregation with a diagram showing exactly how the tables were to be set up in the fellowship hall, with the (perhaps) tongue-in-cheek warning: “Violators Will Be Beaten.”
When she was in college, Merritt, now a teaching elder at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., routinely showed up late for worship. “I would go five minutes late, because I would be yelled at for sitting in somebody’s seat if I didn’t,” she said. “I knew whose church it was, and it wasn’t mine.”
The PC(USA) is faced with the possibility of large-scale impending
change. Some congregations are taking steps to possibly
leave the denomination – the Fellowship of Presbyterians is holding a meeting in January to create a new Reformed body. The Mid-Councils Commission is on the verge of recommending significant changes in the denomination’s synod structure. Some are urging the PC(USA) to consider this as a perfect time for creativity, for trying something new.
“We’ve got a whole Book of Minutes to tell us how to go back if we want to go back,” Whitsitt said. “Get out there. Do something . . . Be bold. Be risky for the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
While the Mid-Councils Commission will meet again in February to continue writing its final report, which will be presented to the General Assembly in 2012, Bolsinger said it is likely to recommend models (definitely more than one) “for more creativity and more collaboration” in ministry.
“In most of these places where we see vibrancy and vitality, there is a shift in the presbytery culture,” he said. “The presbytery is not an office or a meeting,” but a center of collaboration to support congregations in their ministry and to start new worshipping communities.
Peggi Boyce, moderator-elect of the Presbytery of Northern New England, thanked Bolsinger for giving her hope “that God might be doing something really fabulous.” Her presbytery has started several new church developments “because people came knocking on our doors and said, `Let us in’ ” – Sudanese, Kenyans, Filipinos, Indonesians, Brazilians and more.
In many places, racial-ethnic and immigrant fellowships are the fastest growing communities in the Presbyterian church – but the denomination sometimes makes it difficult for them to flourish, in part by not ensuring that their pastors are paid a living wage, Merritt said.
“We have a church that was geared towards a particular time, a particular culture, a particular time,” she said. But as things changed – in so many ways – “we forgot to diversify, we forgot to keep planting” new congregations.
Too often, “we are resistant to creativity, to new ideas, to strong articulate people who want to step out,” said Bolsinger, a teaching elder at San Clemente Presbyterian Church. He described “a pervasive lack of trust” in the PC(USA) – “I’m stunned at how big it is.”
But if Presbyterians don’t learn to trust each other and develop a capacity for change, Bolsinger said, “we will not survive.”
At the same time, Presbyterians already have experience doing many things that resonate with young adults and others who may not be involved in congregations, Merritt said.
“A new generation is rolling up their yoga mats and going to meditate for a long time,” she said. “We already know how to be still, and know that God is God . . . We’ve been doing this social justice stuff for a long time. We were out there when Katrina hit. We are still there in New Orleans. We are still there in Haiti. We were there before the disasters happened.”
And with the Occupy movements sweeping across the nation, “we have something to teach a new generation about community.”
Dana Hughes, moderator-elect of Greater Atlanta Presbytery, said she’s become part of the backyard chicken movement – of city-dwellers who keep chickens in their backyards. Hughes said she keeps her chickens on a tractor – a moveable coop that could be a model for the church.
“The coop isn’t planted. It’s mobile,” she said – so the natural fertilizer the chickens produce gets spread around to different places in the yard.
“The church doesn’t need bricks and mortar anymore,” Hughes said. “We need to be worshipping in a yurt. It can be packed up and moved,” as the ministry needs change.
“Like a tabernacle,” Merritt responded.
Think of that as a model for ministry.
“A tabernacle,” Hughes said. “A chicken coop. A yurt.”