“Envisioning a New Church: The Potential Is Right in Front of Us”
by Paul Detterman, Executive Director of Presbyterian For Renewal
People who have been shaped by Scripture are steeped in the language of individual repentance, forgiveness, grace, and a new beginning. (2 Corinthians 5:17) But when it comes to the nature of the institutions of our faith, the bureaucratic structure and the substance of the Church, as well as denominational expression of practical theology, it is a rare and important moment when we get the opportunity for a corporate do-over. There is an emerging consensus among thoughtful people from various points across the spectrum of the PC(USA) that we are in just such a rare and important moment.
The “trial balloon” proposal for a new non-geographic (17th) synod, created by PFR and delivered to the 2010 General Assembly by Santa Barbara Presbytery, didn’t get out of committee—no real surprise there. But that same Assembly did create the Middle Governing Bodies Administrative Commission, where Tod Bolsinger and his team are now doing an amazing amount of listening and creative thinking. Beyond the mandate of any General Assembly, conversations like the NEXT Conference and the proposal that created the Fellowship PC(USA) are drawing attention from different groups of Presbyterians. And, of course, overshadowing all these developments for many, is the current voting on Amendment 10-A and the New Form of Government, the outcome of each soon to be cause for rejoicing by some and a source of significant trauma for others.
Right now, many people are understandably concerned about practical issues: what will a different denominational structure look like? How can we get from “here” to “there”? How long will it take to write the new presbytery manuals if NFoG passes? What will happen in many congregations if 10-A passes? Can a pastor and his/her congregation in New Hampshire really be part of a presbytery in California just because they share similar theology? These are important questions, but the deeper reality and the far greater potential in this rare and important time of PC(USA) re-thinking goes beyond any regional or national exoskeletons. What could a refreshed, revitalized, reformed witness offer to a post-modern, post-Christian world?
We begin to reach that greater potential when churched people who self-identify as “liberal” and “conservative” realize we have missed the gospel mark. Liberals have been co-opted by currents in an increasingly skeptical and pluralistic culture to become extra-biblically liberal. Conservatives are equally guilty of capitulation to the protectionism and hyperbole of the political Right with equally extra-biblical results. Meanwhile, the good news of Jesus Christ in its fullness, truth, and transforming grace—the very thing we have been commissioned by Christ to proclaim–is not fully evident among us. So let’s seize the moment, catch our breath, and allow the Holy Spirit some space for inspiration.
What could the ministry, witness, and impact of a congregation be if Jesus’ followers were deeply rooted in the authority of Scripture and unequivocally committed to a life of prayer, worship, and service? What amazing joy and satisfaction could it be for deacons, elders, and ministers to exercise spiritual leadership in such congregations?
What could many congregations like this accomplish if they were affiliated with one another in groups of reasonable size, around commonly held convictions of faith and practice? What joy could there be for elders and ministers to meet together as frequently as possible for worship, prayer, mutual encouragement, and accountability?
What could the benefits of such a Presbyterian “order” be—people who, to the very best of their ability, acknowledge and repent of what the Scripture calls sin, embrace and proclaim a gospel identity, and aggressively seek, identify, and nurture those whom God has gifted for biblical leadership in the generations following them? That’s the heart of the proposed Fellowship PC(USA). But let’s go further.
- Could these congregations become places of extravagant welcome to all God’s children, regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, addiction, or handicapping condition?
- Could they become places where the good news of acceptance is equally paired with the amazing news of transformation and healing—communities where our old selves are discarded and every part of us becomes new in Christ?
- Could such congregations be places where children are safe from physical, mental, and emotional harm, and where they are actively nurtured in discipleship from the nursery on?
- Could these be congregations where men and women are equally welcome in all levels of spiritual and structural leadership, where all people are called to service based on their spiritual giftedness and not on abstract quotas or entitlements?
- Could these be congregations where God’s gift in creation is recognized and hallowed, where people who care deeply about stewardship of resources and the environment?
- Could these also be congregations where people welcome and encourage artists and musicians, writers and dancers to join with God’s created world in ceaseless praise?
- Could these be congregations where skeptics and seekers are actively welcomed, where Scripture is both transcultural and countercultural, and where people who have previously experienced abuse by the Church find new hope in a community of Jesus’ followers?
- Finally, could these be congregations where people who meet for study and worship are intentionally equipped to live beyond their doors, showing sacrificial love for the poor, the oppressed, and the truly marginalized; courageously taking a stand for God’s justice and mercy in their homes and in their clubs and in their work places; proclaiming, by their very presence, the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ in a broken and hurting world?
We know our answer can be yes—so the only real question is, are we willing to do whatever it takes to become such a Church in this rare and opportune time?
We need to reconnect with Jesus in ways that are truly and radically progressive—in our care for people, in our commitment to ministries of justice and compassion, and in the embrace of our welcome—so much so that we alarm many die-hard social conservatives. And at the very same time, we need to reconnect with Jesus in ways that are truly and radically orthodox—in preaching and living the fullness of God’s Word, in proclaiming the truth of Scripture, and in holding one another accountable to a redeemed and transforming way of life—so much so that we alarm many committed social liberals.
I want to be part of a Church like this more than I want anything else in this life, and I believe the proposals now coming together in the project called Fellowship PC(USA) have tremendous potential for helping Presbyterians accomplish all this and more in this rare and important time.
God has given many of us the opportunity, the desire, and the capacity to re-think church, to shed the excess baggage of a by-gone era, and to live into His amazing future. In faithfulness and in joy, we must seize this moment to repent of what we have become, seek forgiveness from God and from one another, proclaim the freedom of grace in Jesus Christ, and follow the Holy Spirit into a new beginning.