Rekindling the spirit needed for mission to flourish

“The PC(USA) is ____________ .” What would you use to fill in the blank?

The hope of Roger Dermody, deputy executive director for the General Assembly Mission Council, is that the answer would be “people who are changing lives.” Dermody’s vision, fleshed out as 1001 new missional communities in 10 years, is an ambitious challenge for a denomination that has faced struggles of political and theological controversy as its membership declines.

Dermody came to the GAMC after nearly two decades of ministry at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. “By God’s grace I was part of some ministries that, even though circumstances looked bleak, they turned around,” he said.

His current call, he said, is to be a catalyst for new life.

“We in the Presbyterian Church used to have this incredible entrepreneurial spirit that created hospitals (and) amazing schools, as well as churches. So what I began to wonder was: How can we help inspire people to get back to that?”

It was from that wondering that “1001 in 10” was born. “It’s something that other denominations are already doing, setting a goal for planting new churches,” Dermody said.

Though perhaps not novel, this idea that began at a Christmas party as a casual conversation among Dermody, Linda Valentine (executive director of the GAMC) and Gradye Parsons (the PC(USA) stated clerk) seems to be gaining momentum.

“We started having conversations everywhere, and this just seemed to breathe live into the existing conversation,” said Dermody.

“About that time I went to see Craig Dykstra at the Lily Foundation and he was realistic — he said, ‘If you think you can dictate this from Louisville, you are kidding yourself. But what you can do is create the conditions where the giftedness that God has instilled in all God’s people can emerge. Then things can happen.’”

Dermody said “1001 in 10” is also not meant to discount the mission and ministry of existing congregations, but rather to engage those communities in thinking of new experiments.

The term missional communities rather than churches or congregations is intentional.

“The minute you call something a ‘church’ we have so many rules that it almost chokes something out before it even starts,” Dermody said.

Another issue, said Dermody, is how and what we count.

“We don’t have a way to count things that aren’t churches yet that are just fellowships or worshipping communities,” so the wider church doesn’t get the benefit of knowing about them, he said.

Dermody is quick to point out that “1001 in 10” isn’t just about counting. “We don’t want to say in nine and a half years that we’ve started 1001 new communities, celebrate and then just go back to sleep,” he said. His hope, rather, is to create a movement where the church rediscovers its role in giving birth to new worshipping communities.

Dermody said the initiative is not an attempt to bypass the role of middle governing bodies in new church development.

“It doesn’t have to come through us,” he said. “Our role is connecting and inspiring the church and using our balcony view to see what is going on and connect that.”

Dermody said he would “love this to be something that we all take on together.”

He already has commitments from organizations within the PC(USA) for close to half the target number of new missional communities.

But then, who’s counting?

ERIN DUNIGAN is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico, when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.