How Can the Church Be More Biblical, Missional, and Intentional?

How Can the Church Be More Biblical, Missional, and Intentional?

By Richard Gibbons, Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC

For many of us attending the Fellowship Gathering in Minneapolis later this month, the questions uppermost in our minds will quite naturally relate to the purpose, focus, and direction of the PC(USA). Such questions are of course not new. They have been asked multiple times by sessions and congregations across our nation in recent years. Yet I cannot help but wonder if there is now a new urgency behind such questions.
In listening to the responses that came from the changes in our ordination standards back in May, I consistently hear from across the theological spectrum that “the system is broken.” Yet each time the issues have been discussed, the focus has been on refining and recalibrating “the system.” From within me, however, I hear another voice. A deep, passionate, consistent yearning for a fresh perspective which will liberate me from the restrictive, burdensome mechanism of yet more meetings, agendas, and votes. Please do not misunderstand me; my days are often filled with such things and I fully realize the value of them. However, they have value only if they are enabling ministry and not restricting it. So let us ask the question, is that which “is broken” capable of self-renewal?

While we are asking the difficult questions, let us probe a little further. Are we willing to support and encourage those who are actively engaged in creative dialogue while demonstrating the leadership resolve to tackle the sensitive and uncomfortable issues we are facing? Can we, without being unnecessarily aggressive or stridently polemic, ask the question which is dominating the thinking of so many? Can we as a denomination endure as “a house divided against itself”? This last question is difficult and complex at multiple levels. Yet the question must be asked. We cannot afford to minimize it, marginalize it, or ignore it. It will take a courageous, prayerful, and determined focus to wrestle with the immensity of it. But wrestle we must. Much of our thinking and deliberation in Minneapolis will focus on this issue and if ever we needed to be open and sensitive to the leading of God, it is now. If the answer to our question is no, what then does the future hold? Yet before we consider travelling down a road for which no road map exists, it is always helpful to consider our current position.

Author, lecturer, and management guru Charles Handy helpfully writes, “The paradox of aging is that every generation perceives itself as justifiably different from its predecessor, but plans as if its successor generation will be the same.”  Many of us would agree that the world we inhabit today is very different from previous generations. Os Guinness, with considerable insight, comments upon the culture we inhabit by writing, “under postmodern conditions, words lose their authority and become accessory to images. The past is no longer a heritage, but a debris-strewn ruin to be ransacked for a bric-a-brac of beliefs that is as incoherent as it is inconsequential . . . The grand flirtation with the meaninglessness of modernity goes on, but in a party mood. Religion is no longer transcendent, but a recreational pursuit of the connoisseurs of ‘spirituality.’ Art, homes, life-styles, ideas, character, self-renewal, and even belief in God all become auxiliary to sales and the ceaseless consumption of styles.”  The result of such a paradigm shift in our culture is reflected in our denomination’s wilfully, knowingly, and deliberately removing biblical standards from our requirements for ordination.

Please understand that when all the subtle nuanced arguments are complete, when all the qualifications and caveats have been expressed and the footnotes are in place, a radical departure from biblical standards has now taken place. Resist the temptation to underestimate the significance of what has occurred. The empty clichéd sentiments of denial and doubt have been disguised in the drab deceit of so called “progress.” As a denomination we are now examining the Scriptures through a cultural lens rather than examining the culture through a biblical lens. A defining moment has arrived.

So what then does the future hold? My prayer is that as we move towards our time together in Minneapolis, we will ask the difficult questions. I also hope we will come with “great expectations,” daring to dream that across our nation God may be moving in unsuspecting ways. Come, praying courageously that in the midst of much sadness over the direction of our denomination, we would hear the quiet, consistent call of God, a call that tenderly seeks to move us beyond the institutional bereavement of living in denial while clinging to the past. Ask the searching question, what is He calling us to today? Dare we discern His purposeful intent and seek for a divine focus? Are we willing to move away from the now neutered “what is” and resolve in our minds to respond to the regenerating creative call of “I am”? If we are willing to contemplate the possible answers, it will be costly and painful. It will leave us deeply disturbed with the insipid stagnation of the status quo.

Yet, within that discontent ultimately lies a desire for intimacy with Him. We know that His presence brings renewal and refreshment to His people. His word regenerates and sustains. His grace enables us to be submissive to His will, to be challenged by His holiness, nourished by His truth, open to His love, and committed to ministry for the long haul. So let us not be afraid, held hostage by the laryngitis of denominational pundits and the “paralysis of analysis.” Let us move forward, emancipated from the tranquilizing addiction of cultural accommodation and the moribund impotence of appeasement. The time to ask the tough questions is now. The time for prolonged prayerful engagement with the living God is now. The time to be biblical in our focus, missional in our thinking, and intentional in our action is now. “Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). The alarm clock is ringing. Good morning, America.

11 Responses

  1. Dr. Gibbons,

    Thank you for your submission here, it has given me some fuel for reflection. But I wonder, a bit, at what seems to be a generational critique of postmodernity. Alongside of Handy’s insight, I would posit this bit of folk-wisdom: Every generation believes it will be the last. There is something of that pessimism reflected in your letter, in particular the language that you use from Os Guinness describes the religious approach of a postmodern generation to be a “bric-a-brac of beliefs as incoherent as it is inconsequential.” You pin the passage of 10-A squarely on this incoherency, it seems, and on the idea that the religion of this age is “no longer transcendent, but recreational” (again, quoting Guinness, American Hour).

    It seems to me that if we are to look to the future, as you exhort us to do, we must look without fear or disdain upon this postmodern landscape we find ourselves in. I am part of that postmodern generation, I don’t think my beliefs are an inconsequential bric-a-brac, nor recreational, but I do accept that I probably approach the question of church institutions and orthodoxy from a perspective that may seem foreign to those from earlier generations. If we are to imagine a new way of being church, I am sure we must address the areas of discord between the contemporary culture and the gospel, but we must also imagine this new way of being church in a way that addresses and engages the postmodern landscape. Too often, I think, there is a temptation to feel greater anxiety over perceived differences between the church of today (or tomorrow) and yesterday, than between the shortcomings of the church of any age and the call of the gospel.

    If we go into this work of imagining a new way of being church carrying an idea that this generation is, in some way, “wrong”, while previous generations were, in some ways, “right”, I fear we will end up disregarding voices that need to be heard, about ways in which the gospel can speak a fresh word to a needy world.

    May grace fill in any gaps between my limited understanding and your intentions. And I can, without reservation, echo your closing exhortations – “Let us not be afraid!” and “Let us move forward!” May it be so!

    Kind Regards,
    Duncan MacLeod

    • Richard Gibbons says:

      Duncan, (if I may)

      Thank you for a helpful and insightful comments. I deeply appreciate your comments and the points you are making. I did have in mind a secularised post-modern mindset in my comments rather than a generational mindset.
      Again thank you.
      With warmest greetings in Him.

  2. Jerry Deck says:

    Dr. Gibbons,

    I in no way want to pile on, however, I am hoping that you will respond so that this can be a true dialogue (rather than just talking past each other). While postmodernity is certainly not without flaws, I think we are naive if we allow it to be the “boogeyman” to what ails us. I would, in fact, echo the argument that others have made that in many ways postmodernity has helped to adjust what is perhaps the greatest of modernity’s flaws: pride (though to be sure, postmodernity is not beyond that as well).

    I found it interesting that the sermon you preached (from which the title of this blog is seemingly derived) concerning the denomination’s vote on 10-A begins by mentioning the profound words of the Declaration of Independence, including “that all men are created equal.” You then say that these are words we deeply appreciate and are “enshrined on our natural psyche and encapsulate what we believe.” “In fact,” you state, “we declare them to be self evident.”

    I’m sure I am telling you nothing new when I point out that clearly words like “self evident” are anything but. Today what we see as self evident is quite a bit different than those who penned these words (i.e. not just white landowners). Postmodernity has helped us to see again and again that things which appear to be self-evident simply are not. Personally it has helped me to understand that what seems self-evident to me in the way I read scripture (as a 37 year old male living in America in 2011) may be very different than what seems to be self-evident to a parishioner at my congregation who is a 55 year old female Iraqi Christian.

    Postmodernity has forced me as an individual out of what seems so “self-evident” and into a community (another important aspect of postmodernity) of believers who will help to shape how I understand scripture. This need not, as some postmoderns will argue, lead to an endless amount of “truths” but it certainly encourages me toward humility and engagement with those who are different than me. This, it seems, is something to celebrate not bemoan.

    It is also certainly something that will change how I would like the conversation at the fellowship to be shaped. This, of course, will be the great difficulty as we all come together in Minneapolis. My hope though is that through dialogues like this one and in two weeks we will be able to truly hear one another and even more importantly, hear the voice of God.

    Thank you for your words and I look forward to continuing the conversation.

    • Annette Mayne says:

      “Postmodernity has forced me as an individual out of what seems so “self-evident” and into a community (another important aspect of postmodernity) of believers who will help to shape how I understand scripture.”

      I’m concerned that we are too ready to allow man to shape how we understand scripture, shouldn’t we be looking to His Holy Spirit to interpret the scripture? And in love share what the Holy Spirit has shown us?

      • Paul Rib says:

        Dear Annette Mayne

        I totally agree to what you have said:
        In my opinion we should seek to listen more than speaking, and listen to God’s Holy Spitir:
        # 1. Because The Holy Spirit is the One who teaches us the truth;
        # 2. There is only one TRUTH, not human’s truth, which varies according to our world view;
        # 3. Culture and human’s opinions cannot change the TRUTH which is written in the Scriptures, and are firm forever. So, seems to me many people are led by their own understanding, and the Scriptures became for them subjet to their interpretation. And I think the interpretation of what is written depends more on the Holy Spirit than in our own human fragile understanding.

        On the top of that, it is not the multi-cultural perspective of people living in this post-modern era which has to influence our decisions. So, if we walk by the flesh, not by The Spirit we will certainly make mistakes.

        Just think about “PRIDE” which influences people’s attitudes?
        What the Bible says about it?


        • Jerry Deck says:

          Annette and Paul,

          Thanks for taking the time to comment on what I said. It’s good to be in conversation about this. Let me just quickly say two things. First, as someone who has a high view of scripture and God and a fairly good understanding of my own pride, I would say of course I believe we need to listen to the Holy Spirit first and foremost. For me, it is never a question of whether one should listen more and talk less.

          My question perhaps for you two is how we hear the Holy Spirit? I was suggesting that modernity would say this it is easy and can be done on your own. It is “self-evident.” I think, however, that we are wise to listen to the scriptures and the Spirit in community. That community (other people) are vital to our hearing because as I’m sure you all would agree, we are so prone to hearing only what “I” want to hear.


          • Tim Phillips says:


            And to your point of “self-evident,” it is a “self” formed in a particular historical and cultural context reading texts addressed primarily to communities, each in their particular historical context. We need sisters and brothers from ages past as well as present-day brothers and sisters in our multicultural context to give us balance and insight for the particular realities we face. All of this is the work of the one Holy Spirit who teaches us, helping the people of God to become mature. Great discussion!

  3. David Brunk says:

    “As a denomination we are now examining the Scriptures through a cultural lens rather than examining the culture through a biblical lens.” ….., Has it not always been so? Uncomfortable as I am with the former, I realize the Church, would still reflect the culture, conflict and prejudice of those “white landowners” who signed the Declaration of Independence, were it not for the latter. I long for “THE TRUTH”, but sadly find human truths instructing and shaping the teachings of our Church. “The Church reformed, always reforming”, has been a blessing and a curse. Race, physical and gender issues were largely dealt with prior to my coming to the age of understanding, thus I have no passion for or against those issues faced by generations past, it’s the way it is and I accept it. But the lessons taught me as a child in Sunday School in the “50’s” reinforced in communicant class, in 1961, and professed publicly as a twelve year old boy joining the Church and taking first communion, being my guiding light as went out into the world, are now reforming, and at the age of 62 I find it all disquieting. On what then do I lean and depend, that which was truth, is truth no more? I cast my faith on the redeeming blood of Jesus Christ and I have found solace and hope in the prayer of twentieth century Catholic theologian Thomas Merton……
    “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
    I will be watching, reading, praying as you meet in Minneapolis. Blessings.

    • Jake Horner says:


      We often get that quote wrong. A fairly literal translation of the Latin is “The Church [is] reformed, and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” There are a couple things worth noting. 1) ‘always being reformed’ is in the passive voice, so it is not the Church that is doing the reforming, reforming is something that is done to the church (by God the Holy Spirit). 2) If our reformation is not in accordance with the Word of God, it isn’t God doing the reforming. Our measure is always the Word of God.

      Jake H.

      • David Brunk says:

        2 Timothy 4

        1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

        6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

    • George Hook says:

      Seems to me, if we followed the New Testament in establishing and operating our congregations (Churches) we would have a lot less problem. There was no earthly hiearchy in the NT church. Jesus is the Head of the Church. Elders were to take care of the Church and are ordained by the Holy Spirit. (Acts 20:28) A team of elders were put in place to keep watch over the flock and also themselves. The reason for multiple elders was to keep each other accountable. They were warned that even some of their own number (the appointed elders) would try to draw away the flock. This is a very important part of Church leadership. The elders have a very responsible position in the Church and will be held accountable by God.

      The early Church congregation selected the deacons. (Acts 6:1-6) The deacons were to take care of the every day needs of the Church. This left the Apostles free to give their attention to the spiritual needs of the Church. They had not yet established the position of elder.

      Paul, during his missionary trips, established Churches in many cities throughout the area. He then appointed elders in every Church. (Acts 14:23;
      Titus 1:5)

      We have to assume that, after the Apostles passed on, the elders were selected by the congregation, just as the deacons were in Acts 6. Why else did they record the qualifications for elders (overseer)? (1 Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9) There is no recording of Apostles succession in the scriptures that I can find.

      I can find no position of Pastor in the scriptures. Seems to me that one of the duties of the elders is to pastor or shepherd the flock. This is not a single position but a joint position of all the elders.

      I sincerely believe, if we had followed this NT outline for Churches, we would not have the problems of sexual misconduct among our leaders. These things would be exposed and taken care of long before they reached the magnitude they have today. Yes all types of sin would still arise in our Churches but the persons involved would be held accountable much more quickly than they are today. I don’t believe we would have all the pedophiles, adultery, etc that we read about and see in our Churches today. This is truly a congregational form of government that the scriptures project.

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