LOUISVILLE – J. Hebert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), gave some advice Feb. 17 to the 2020 Vision Team.
“Take off the brakes,” Nelson told the vision team, which is meeting in Louisville Feb. 16-18.
“Say it again,” responded team member DèAnn Cunningham, a ruling elder from Charlotte. “Say it again, say it one more time.”
Nelson did. “Take off the brakes,” he exhorted – advising the vision team to worry less about pleasing Presbyterians and more about casting a sense of possibility for a church still being formed. “The church we are trying to become has not been invented yet by anyone,” he said.
What about the report the vision team will submit to the 2020 General Assembly in Baltimore?
“Understand that your report is not going to be the report that is going to totally change the church. But it can be a jump-start for how we begin to process change across the church in significant ways,” Nelson said. “So dream and have vision, and let them say, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’ It doesn’t have to be a perfect report,” but it needs to have ideas so new that “somebody’s going to be wowed enough to believe it can happen” – that mid council leaders and pastors will take its ideas out for a thrilling test drive.
“I think you’ve got to give freedom to the church through the freedom you give yourselves to dream, to vision,” he said. “Everything that matters to us now in this world – somebody who invented it was called crazy. Everything.” Such as: “You can’t fly a plane.”
So “challenge this church,” Nelson told the vision team. “Make them say ‘ouch.’ But it has to be a vision that is commensurate with our faith,” that is grounded in theology and will have an impact. “Can this transform the church, or is this another gimmick? … If we come back with the same bland stuff again that dots all the I’s and crosses all the T’s but doesn’t speak to where we need to be, you’ve wasted all your time and wasted the church’s time.”
Produce something where a church leader will say, “I’m going to try this one.”
So what did Nelson think of the draft guiding statement the vision team wrote and the 2018 General Assembly approved?
In the PC(USA), “we write great statements and guiding documents, we really do,” Nelson said.
From here on out, “the question is how do you make the vision plain?” As the prophet Habakkuk said in the Old Testament, “write the vision on the wall so that the runners can see it.” (That passage has been one of the touch points for the vision team during the first two years of its work.)
Nelson said the team needs to be creative in how it shares the message – the team is talking about everything from a website, Instagram, videos and more – because some Presbyterians “are not going to read this,” they’re not aligned to print. “They want to hear it. They want to see it,” to swipe through it on their phones.
Nelson also spoke of faithfulness.
What matters is that “we move away from dying talk, we move away from ‘can’t do’ talk. We move away from not being enough talk,” to say, “Let’s see what the Lord can do.”
He encouraged the vision team: “Don’t lose heart. … The Lord is in this, I want you to always remember that.”
Nelson, a fine preacher, had a bunch to say on other subjects too.
Division and chaos. The political labels of conservative, liberal and moderate have crept into church life, a place where they “have no meaning,” Nelson said. As churches have left for other denominations, those labels have led to a spirit of division, sometimes marginalizing those who stayed or demonizing those who left.
That dynamic has led to years of chaos for experienced pastors, he said. “Many of the leaders of our presbyteries were not prepared to deal with this. … They saw churches leaving, which meant they saw per capita leaving,” people leaving the pews, the church’s clout in decline.
That leads now to questions of identity and direction. As Presbyterians, “who are we?” Nelson asked. “What is our core theology? What are the things we believe and that are central to our faith as Presbyterians?
And how do we teach that “when we are fighting battles on the ground about who is going to keep the property?”
Megachurches. The PC(USA) is a denomination of smaller churches, and “bigger is not always better,” Nelson said. Presbyterians need to get out of the model of thinking that a successful church is a big church.
Student debt. Some who may feel called to seminary can’t afford it. Some graduate from college or graduate school with significant debt. Nelson recently encouraged a young woman to consider seminary, and she replied: “I may be called. But I’m tired of being in debt.”
Immigration. Those seeking asylum at the border “are going to come in,” Nelson said. “It’s just a matter of time, and a leader who understands that.”
Fellowships. Some fellowships in the denomination draw 200 people to worship – they are bigger than many PC(USA) congregations. But they don’t pay per capita and don’t have a voice in presbytery. And most are immigrant fellowships. “It’s segregation any way you look at it, and it’s an impediment,” Nelson said. “They are being marginalized on every front. If in fact we counted them in, we could possibly be looking at a potential growth statistic.”
The vision team’s meeting will conclude the morning of Feb. 18. It has completed revisions to the draft guiding statement, and is working on a communications plan and ideas for how people can interact with the guiding statement – to “try this on,” as Debbie Foster, a mid council leader from South Carolina, put it.
Among those ideas, which are still being percolated:
- Social media interaction, including a PC(USA) 2020 Instagram account and hashtag;
- A website;
- A video from the vision team;
- A daily prayer application using the guiding statement;
- Materials for new member orientations and confirmation classes;
- Ideas for liturgy, a sermon series and hymns;
- A competition for songs or hymns based on the guiding statement.
The intent: As much as possible, challenge congregations, mid councils and Presbyterians at the grassroots level to take off the brakes – to get involved in setting the vision. Team members plan to test out these ideas through a series of pilot projects — with the hope, as Foster put it, of seeing “what new discoveries, what transformation, what learning will come.”