BALTIMORE – Day two of Big Tent culminated with a rousing call to action delivered with conviction and clarity by Amantha Barbee, senior pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia. Barbee, after reading 1 Chronicles 4:9-10, Psalm 51:10-12 and the text chosen to shape all of the gathering, Romans 12, noted that, “Transformation is an amazing thing, a powerful thing, a life changing thing, but it doesn’t stand alone. It comes in three parts: transitions, truth and transformation.”
Naming a multitude of transitions – from a job change to weight gain – Barbee reminded the Big Tent congregation that every change requires us to face the truths that go with them. A new job, for example, may bring with it a geographical move, loss of beloved colleagues and the stress of learning different skills. Gaining weight, if one wants to reverse that transition, entails facing the truth that other changes need to be enacted — ones that do not come without concerted effort. The point? Transformation does not come easily or without cost.
Barbee laid out for Presbyterians their unwillingness to change: “We enjoy what we are doing even if we are failing miserably.” From singing old hymns to refusing to alter antiquated worship, “we do what we’ve always done for one reason: it’s easy.” But, she said, “I honor God way too much to be mediocre.”
There are no excuses, Barbee admonished the attendees, for our unwillingness to give our best and our complete service to God. She asked: “Are we ignoring transitions to make ourselves more comfortable? Or are we going after our desires with every fiber of our being?”
People of faith must ask themselves “real questions.” Questions like:
- Do we expect the presence of the Holy Spirit?
- Do we expect full participation by all in attendance?
- Do we want visitors to become members?
- Do we want to be a conduit for feeding our flocks for God?
- Do we want all of our senses to be aroused by the holy?
If the answer is “yes” to any or all of these questions, Barbee said, “we’ve got to put the work in.”
Further, she said that Presbyterians should ask: “Who is this for and why are we doing this? If our answer starts with ‘I’ we have a problem.”
Barbee then invited hearers to change “the narrative in our hearts and minds” and begin to consider the possibilities of what God may be up to in our world and church, possibilities like:
- What would we do as church leaders if we were not afraid?
- What if we lived as if every outcome would be perfect?
Remembering in all of it that the goal is to be transformed by God. Barbee reminded those gathered of the urgency of this transformation within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Sharing statistics about decline in membership and loss of congregations, she noted that the denomination is white, highly educated, liberal and “thinking the thoughts, but not walking the walk.”
One of the critiques people of color have of the PC(USA), Barbee said, is its overly scripted nature, putting God in a box and welcoming those willing to be contained within it, saying “we will let you do your thing on the fifth Sunday.” She added: “Come on PC(USA), we can do better than that.”
Barbee proclaimed that the church can be confident that “God will grant us what we ask” when trusting God, but she wondered, “Will we be ready when God answers our prayers?” She added emphatically, “with the Lord’s help we must change, church.”
Barbee shared that her mother died less than a month ago and on her death bed admonished Barbee, “Tell them 99 and half won’t do; they’ve got to give 100.” She then began to sing as her mother had that day, “I’m livin’ tryin’ to make 100, 99 and half won’t do.” In response Big Tent participants rose to their feet and joined her in the song.