Being the best church we can be in an ever-changing world

In wishing the Presbyterian Outlook a happy 200th celebration, I have to first say I cannot remember a time when the Outlook’s most recent issue was not on the coffee table in my home — both as a child growing up in Richmond, Virginia, and now, some 75 years later, at our home in Black Mountain, North Carolina. 

My parents were not church professionals, although later on my mother worked as a church secretary. Thankfully, our family was active in a Presbyterian (PCUS) congregation whose session included in its budget an Outlook subscription sent to every member. It was not a radical church but a church that cared deeply about witness and justice and compassion. It recognized the Outlook as being a venue that encourages the faithful not to just give lip service. It offered solid theological and social perspectives on various issues confronting the church, both as an institution and as members of a congregation.

As early as my early elementary school years, I remember how my mother, by then a widow, used certain articles in the Outlook to help me understand the world in which I would need to make some hard, controversial, convoluted decisions.

Living in Richmond where the Outlook was published, I vividly remember then-editor Ernest Trice Thompson as an inspiring leader in our community, as well as a distinguished professor at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, offering greetings and a ready smile to all he met.

Richmond was a racially segregated world and soon the stirrings of the civil rights movement began gnawing at the conscience of church leaders, and consequently at the very foundations of mainline Christianity, Presbyterians included.

Dr. E.T., as he was called by everyone, shepherded the Outlook boldly through those troubling times. He put before his readers articles reflecting biblical references and scholarly insights that challenged the status quo.

One year, for instance, when I was a teenager, word came that a black student was being sent to integrate our school. Over half the student body went home. The rest of us stood by the window watching for police cars and maybe even the National Guard.

I worried about how to handle all this, but because the role models in my church and family used the Outlook as something of a guide for such a challenge, I appreciated what it meant when it encouraged us be brave and bold, and to love all of God’s children.

Eventually, an event in which I participated was included in the Outlook.  I was asked to be roommates with the first black camper at Camp Hanover, a Presbyterian facility outside Richmond, and the first integrated church camp in the South.  Thanks to teachings like those in the Outlook, it seemed natural, not trailblazing or unique to me.

Racial tension continued to grip the church in tedious and disturbing ways, yet all the while, the pages of the Outlook offered sound theological arguments and different interpretations of biblical texts that helped us look inside ourselves for the best answers. The editors were willing to take a stand, but they never shored up their conclusions by demonizing faithful people who understood Christ’s mission differently.

Outlook readers often heard both sides of a controversy. Even our church youth group had disagreements about what to do with racial issues, but we could do so without disgracing each other. Even if it was not always referred to at youth gatherings, the Outlook was a big reason we felt less threatened in those civil rights debates. Maybe we weren’t loud enough or strong enough to call one another out in credible ways, but we could express our personal positions without apology or shame.

Race wasn’t the only issue that the Outlook examined. It became a kind of road map for other divisive and troubling social and political realities.

The role of women in the church was a new/old battlefront. Should they be allowed to become church officers? Could they be pastors? Were they a threat to male leadership? Sometimes I wondered if these matters would ever be resolved. Churches became so adamant about keeping women in a spiritual underclass that they pulled out of the denomination. 

Much later, while I served as president of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, there was strong conviction that we as church educators deserved the privilege of ordination. Not everyone agreed. 

Those against felt a traditional Bachelor of Divinity was necessary in order to be legitimately ordained. The Outlook was fair in presenting the pros and cons, yet it did point out how this was yet another way of discrimination, not only against women, but against the call to ministry as educators. The ordination of educators was never approved.

The next major issue to threaten the unity of the church – when again, some churches left the denomination – was deciding where LGBTQ Christians stood in the body of Christ.

Again, articles in the Outlook presented differing ideas: Is homosexuality a sin? Where do transgender people fit in? People still feel at odds over these questions, and the Outlook, in an uncompromising spirit of fairness, never wavered from the assurance that justice and compassion are two of Christ’s most significant callings.

Today’s Outlook continues to offer readers an ongoing challenge on how to best be the church in an ever-changing world. It reflects the same passion, scholarship and fairness. Its commitment to our Lord is between every line and on every cover. Articles on social justice, environmental stewardship, politics, Scripture interpretation and other relevant commentaries lead us through what many believe is the newest Reformation Age of the Church.

Having the honor of recently serving as the moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I have seen firsthand the need and benefit within our denomination for guidance and foundational understanding of being the church in this first quarter of a new millennium. Where have we been? Where are we going? How do we get there?

The Outlook takes on this responsibility as no other publication. It brings into our living room exceptional Bible studies, a clear look at both sides of current debates within Christianity, new realities for the organized church, exciting nontraditional models of worship and a better understanding of our confessions. 

Thanks be to God for the Presbyterian Outlook. Because of it, we are a stronger, more informed denomination. Through it, we learn to be mediators, activists, servants.

Happy anniversary. 

HEATH RADA was moderator of the PC(USA)’s 221st General Assembly.  He served as president of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) and as CEO of the Greater Richmond Chapter of the American Red Cross. He lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina.