A decade or two from now, when we Presbyterians look back at 2015, we will see it as a landmark year.
Why? Because from where I sit it seems as if the many seeds of change planted in the last decade or two finally began not just to sprout this year but to bear worthy fruit.
- The PC(USA) became officially welcoming to LGBTQ folks around the same time as the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2015 that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
- Despite some serious problems, the effort to create 1,001 New Worshiping Communities broke through denominational rigidities and encouraged new expressions of worship and of doing life together in ways no one could have predicted. My congregation, which celebrated its 150th anniversary this year, laid the groundwork for a new community that calls itself The Open Table.
- After years of talk and some action, the notion that we Presbyterians must be much more open to learning from people of other religious traditions seemed to take deeper root in 2015. An interfaith group I work with in Kansas City, for example, brought in Vanderbilt’s Amy-Jill Levine, the great New Testament professor, a Jewish scholar and author, to spend several days in various local venues helping us understand the importance of religious literacy. Lots of Presbyterians here and elsewhere now get that understanding Jesus means understanding Judaism.
- The reverberations from racially charged incidents around the country — from Ferguson to New York, Baltimore, suburban Houston and beyond — drove many of us to face more honestly the ways in which our religious institutions have abetted systemic racism. Members of my own congregation underwent training in this area and then hosted a lively community forum that I moderated on racism, incarceration and policing. A full sanctuary shimmered with opinion.
- As Pope Francis visited the U.S., we were challenged to remember God’s preferential option for the poor even as we watched refugees from Syria and elsewhere struggle for freedom. We also read the pope’s strong encyclical on the environment and recognized anew how fragile our home planet is.
There’s more, of course, including personnel and structural changes either completed or in the planning stages in our denomination — and a recognition that the Protestant membership decline is ushering in not the end of Christianity but new configurations of faith communities as the religious landscape changes dramatically.
When my friend Robert Martin, who teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., outlined current trends in Christianity for an adult class at my church earlier this year, I wrote about it on my daily blog because I thought what I’ve just called these emerging configurations of faith communities are terribly important. I think they found lots of solid footing in this important year. Those trends include house churches, new Protestant monastic communities, covenantal small groups, churches meeting not in sanctuaries but in such places as bars and bowling alleys and, finally, affinity and missional small groups.
In this pivotal year of 2015, in other words, we Presbyterians and other Protestants opened our hearts and minds more fully to detect where God already is at work in the world. In response, many of us are moving outside our sanctuaries and joining Christ in the slums, the rescue missions, public schools and low-income housing development sites.
It’s easy to be disheartened by staring at church membership numbers. But in 2015 many of us have thrown out that false way of measuring growth in God’s kingdom, focusing instead on helping people become disciples of Jesus Christ. And it’s been enormously liberating.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog (billtammeus.typepad.com). Read about his latest book (www.amzn.to/1GjnHXQ). Email him at email@example.com.