David Brooks recently wrote in the New York Times, “The first step in launching our own (national) revival is understanding that the problem is down in the roots.” I would phrase it differently: The first step is understanding that our strategic opportunities and choices are down in the roots. Either way, in the 21st century the locus for action is at the grass roots in our society. We won’t change our nation or our church by transforming things at the “top.” Change will come from the bottom up.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has failed, time and again, to understand this fundamental truth. We keep trying to revitalize ourselves by changing things at the top: at the General Assembly. And yet, in my 40 years as a pastor and consultant, the major reshufflings at the GA-level have had absolutely no impact on the crucial ministries that beg for our attention: congregations.
Today, congregations are the focal point of ministry. In many small, rural communities they are one of the last community institutions standing. In many urban locations, they are a powerful reminder of a much-needed sense of community that once existed and places where life-changing social services are delivered. In many suburban contexts, they remain gathering places for everything from sacred worship to secular day care programs. Despite this, our GA plans for reorganization do not seem to be aligning our resources (people and financial) toward congregations.
The 21st century has been and will continue to be the “century of congregations.” But commissioners going to St. Louis may well experience the gathering thinking it is the “century for reorganizing the General Assembly.” In my opinion, this (and every) GA should be focused on questions such as: How do we keep more financial resources at the congregational level that are currently being consumed at all three judicatory levels? How do we support leadership at the congregational level? How do we help congregations engage their communities in more aggressive, effective ways?
As Presbyterians, we are and value being a connectional church. However, ultimately, we are not connected by our judicatories. First and foremost, we are connected by our Reformed faith in God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit; by the similar ministries that take place in Presbyterian congregations small, mid-size and large; by a commitment to interfaith and ecumenical work on the local level; and by a belief that society can be constantly perfected, becoming ever more just and peaceful.
When I stress our need to focus on congregations, someone inevitably asks, “Well, who will do the social justice work? We need the GA for this work.” Really? The courageous work in civil rights was done by congregations who dared to support integration in their segregated communities. The sanctuary movement was led by a congregational pastor who helped congregations provide sanctuary to immigrants. The more recent advances in the struggle for LGBT rights have been led by congregations and pastors who performed wedding services that our judicatories deemed illegal.
Certainly, judicatories play important roles in the life of the church. To name a few, they need to fund campus ministries; maintain uniform ordination processes; serve as a clearing house for congregations seeking pastors and vice versa; help repurpose congregational buildings no longer in use; and model diverse leadership. What are the absolutely essential things that need to be done and can we eliminate everything else? At the end of the debate over vital judicatory functions, the list needs to be short.
Connectionalism in the 21st century is not going to be rooted in denominational judicatory offices. In large part, it will be facilitated by technology. How can congregations and judicatories use today and tomorrow’s technology to create a new sense of what it means to be a connectional church?
Will the PC(USA) join the century of congregations or continue to live in the 20th century of judicatories? The choice is ours. But it is a choice that hasn’t received much attention.
John Wimberly is a congregational consultant with The Congregational Consulting Group. He lives in Washington, D.C.