As much as anyone can miss eight solid days of meetings, I’m going to miss General Assembly this year. General Assembly is an odd thing – some might even say an anachronism – but it reminds me that it’s good to be Presbyterian.
In a world full of chaos, suffering and injustice, it might seem odd to spend so much time and money on gathering people from all around the country (and world) just to talk. It makes me think of the modern bystander effect where everyone tweets but no one actually helps. It makes me think of the Hunger Games and the people of the “Capitol” who sent thoughts and prayers and care packages to comfort Tributes as they were forced to fight to the death in an arena. Are we rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? Are we having enlightened discussions while people suffer outside? If I’m honest with myself, I think that, in a certain sense, we are.
I’m not here to condemn our meetings — at General Assembly or otherwise. I think we Presbyterians like having these discussions partly out of a desire to say the right words and do the right things. We don’t want to simply send money to places hit by natural disasters only to have our aid cause more harm than good in the long run. Instead, we want to establish an organization like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to provide real and lasting help that respects the lives of those we assist. We don’t want to change the rules based on an emotional response to a single anecdote. We want to consider all possible impacts and avoid unforeseen consequences, especially when we believe vulnerable people will be negatively impacted.
I don’t think, though, that our meetings and discussions are above reproach. I think perhaps we spend so much time talking about problems because that’s where we’re comfortable. After all, our church received one of its most important documents, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, from a meeting that lasted for so long that 22 committee members died before it ended. Committee meetings are in our DNA.
But God doesn’t ask us to stay comfortable. God asks us to follow the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. When Jesus conquered death, he didn’t stay on earth to lead the disciples, he left them and sent the Holy Spirit to lead them into a new way of being faithful. They had little time to be comfortable because the Spirit had work for them to do. The Epistle of James tells us that faith without works is dead. We have faith – but we need to make sure we follow through on that faith. Meetings are not enough – we must act.
Spending our time and energy on meetings should make us uncomfortable. And I’m not talking about sitting in hard-backed uncomfortable chairs with intermittent Wi-Fi and poorly adjusted thermostats. We should be morallyuncomfortable. In any church meeting, we should remain mindful that the words we speak will probably do very little, by themselves, to serve Christ in the lives of “the least of these” people in the world who are suffering; our speeches and motions, in and of themselves, won’t help the people Christ taught us to serve.
We should remember that it is a privilege to have hours to spend discussing anything from funding structures to building use policies from the removed perspective of parliamentary procedure. And we should make full use of that privilege: leveraging it for those who aren’t present, leveraging it on behalf of people who don’t have the time or energy or opportunity for discussions. I believe our system makes this possible. And I believe the possibilities for fair and informed discussions can make us better Christians in the end – as long as we remember that we want to become better Christians in the first place.
If we’re going to spend the time talking about something, our actions must be that much more creative, wise, bold and faithful to make up for the time we spent talking instead of doing. Our carefully considered words should lead to carefully considered actions so that when people look at our Presbyterian system, they will see a system that works; a system that leads to authentic faith and meaningful service that we could never achieve apart from our Spirit-infused processes and procedures. God is on the move, as always, in the Presbyterian Church. Let’s not just watch God go by – let’s follow.
ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.