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The Special Committee on the Nature of the Church for the 21st Century Report December 2011

This is an update written by the Special Committee on the Nature of the Church for the 21st Century, after its meeting in late November, and provided by the committee's moderator, Carol Howard Merritt. The committee will meet again in Louisville Feb. 1-3 and will report to the General Assembly in July.


The Special Committee on the Nature of the Church for the 21st Century met again
at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary at the end of November. As the
committee met, prayed and discerned together, our words and hopes seemed bound
up in the Pentecost story in Acts 2. As we sorted through the rough draft of our
paper and wrestled with recommendations, a number of themes emerged, including
the four key areas outlined below.


Nurturing Diversity. In Acts 2, we read how the Holy Spirit poured out on people
who gathered from “every nation under heaven.” Likewise, the United States has
become increasingly diverse. For example, as we think about emerging generations,
sociologists predict that Caucasians will comprise less than 50% of the population.


This will be a challenge and opportunity for the Presbyterian Church (USA). Right
now, our membership is over 90% white. With the scriptural witness as well as the
changing demographics in mind, a major question of the committee has been: “How
can we realize a vibrant and diverse denomination in the years to come?”


•We can recognize that sometimes the diversity we long for already exists. In
many of our Presbyteries, new immigrant fellowships worship together. We
can encourage Presbyteries to identify and support the fellowships in each
•We can make the way clear for new immigrant pastors to be received into
the Presbyteries.
•We can find ways so that fellowships can become churches, allowing the
members of the new fellowships to have voice and vote on our midlevel
•We can initiate educational opportunities for church leaders and those
preparing for ecclesial leadership, including studies in demographic shifts,
cross-cultural proficiency and sensitivity training, and anti-racism training.


Fostering New Church Developments. Since the day of Pentecost, we have been
planting churches. In the 21st Century, as many congregations close their doors,
we will need to focus fresh and active attention on forming new communities. As
demographics shift and new generations migrate away from rural areas in order to
find jobs, we will need to encourage church planting.


•As we recognize and celebrate the rich ministry of historic smaller
congregations, we can likewise understand the vital ministry of smaller new
church developments by recognizing and supporting congregations before
they become “self-sustaining.”

•The Committee on Theological Education can encourage seminaries
to provide more resources, training, and courses on planting new
congregations, and redeveloping established churches that are struggling to
reach out to communities in transition.
•We can fund and support the pastors who have been identified by the NCD
program of the General Assembly to plant churches in the neighborhoods
where they are currently located.


Encouraging Generational Understanding. In Acts 2, as Peter preaches
repentance and the forgiveness of sins to the first converts, he proclaims, “This
promise is for you and for your children.” Since that day, we proclaim that our
faith is not only for one generation, but also for the generations to come. In our
denomination, the median age of our membership is over 60.


As we think about those promises that are not only for us, but are also for the
generations to come, we will need to encourage ministries to emerging generations.
In seeking to embrace and reflect the great diversity of God’s creation, we can focus
on the particular needs and gifts of second and third generation immigrants.


Sharing Resources. The words of Acts cut the committee to the heart, especially as
we read, “All who believed were together and had all things in common.” Though we
pride ourselves on being a connectional body, we recognize our difficulty in sharing
from our abundant material resources, while some congregations, fellowships and
ministries continue to lack the basic resources they need to fulfill the missions to
which God has called them.


We know that the income disparities between pastors serving in the same location
or even the same church can be appalling. New immigrant pastors are usually not
paid the minimum or provided with health insurance or other pension coverage.
Bi-vocational ministers often do not have health insurance, and we believe that
bi-vocational ministry will become an increasingly important component of 21st
century ministry.


Too often the income disparities fall along gender or racial ethnic lines. The
committee suggests that the breakdown of income will be reported according to
ethnicity and gender. We will submit substantial recommendations on ways to
repair the breach.


In the next few months, the committee will continue to focus on crafting specific
recommendations and a paper to be presented at the 220th General Assembly. Our
final face-to-face meeting will take place February 1-3 in Louisville. We are grateful
for the continued prayers of the church as we seek faithfully to complete the task
with which we have been charged.