Is the Presbyterian Church (USA) dying? Not from my vantage point!
Our denomination is going through a remarkable and, for many people, a painful time of transition. A number of our sisters and brothers have turned against one another, and a number of our congregations, including some large and influential ones which have had major impacts on the Presbyterian Church in the past, are choosing to leave the denomination, or at least to question whether they should remain loyal to a denomination that they believe has betrayed some fundamentals of the Christian faith. My purpose in writing this article is not to argue the pros or cons of these issues.
What I wish to do is to share with you how I see God at work in the PC(USA) right now, and particularly at the recent meeting of the General Assembly Mission Council on which I serve as an elected member.
In spite of what many think, the GAMC membership as a whole is not wringing its hands and feeling woeful. Instead it is focused on the hope which comes from asking God to guide and lead us into whatever future God ordains. Thus in our meetings you hear council members praying, “Not my will, but thy will be done”. None of us assume that we could claim with certainty what God wants. We recognize that we are sinful beings who see as in a mirror dimly. But we do claim our belief that God’s will shall be revealed to us in God’s time if we allow ourselves to be open to it.
The council continues to want to exercise its role of leadership appropriately as it pertains to those churches who are deliberating over whether to leave the PC(USA). There is a definite feeling and recognition that we need to be proactive and responsive to those who are hurting, and who are questioning where our denomination is going. We have work to do to try and be responsive to these brothers and sisters in the church, whom we love and for whom we pray. We want them to remain a part of our family, and for us to be able to care for one another in spite of our differences, and we want to minimize the judgmental attitude that is harming us on both sides of the issues.
On the other hand, we recognize that a number of those wanting to leave the PC(USA) have made up their minds. For them, we offered prayers for their well-being and that they might find ways to serve God consistent with their faith values.
The council focused much of its energy on edifying those congregations with new programs and an infusion of new ideas and directions which can make our ongoing congregations more vital. We discussed plans to assist those who are just beginning as new communities of faith. Between plenary sessions we would watch videotapes of new PC(USA) communities that were expanding and growing with a focus on biblical, theological and social foci. These were exciting stories of people who feel called to serve God in the reforming PC(USA) and can be found on the denomination’s website. Already we have a number of newly formed faith communities who have become part of the PC(USA), with many others on the drawing boards. We heard reports of our important missions in the Republic of the Congo, our partnership with the Presbyterian Church in Cuba, our focus on efforts currently going on in Viet Nam. There are so many more. We rejoiced that our international mission efforts appear to be growing rather than declining. In addition we heard about national mission work in Atlanta, and in other places in the USA.
We listened to reports about the growing program we have begun as a denomination focusing on young adults and saw how it is helping to expand so many of our congregations. We heard about our renewed and exciting work in campus ministry, and in other critical areas of work such as Racial Justice and our Military Chaplains program. We heard from Presbyterian Women, and the renewal of their dynamic ministry across the church.
We also reviewed an in depth report on our financial status, and though we are still a short distance behind last year, and far behind where we were ten years ago, we saw data that indicated that alarms sounding our rapid demise are inaccurate, and we are in a much more stable place than we have been for a good while. It should be noted however that we did have to cut a small number of staff. Due to tight budget control as well as the reorganization of some of our programs, we were saddened to have to cut any positions. We listened to a careful explanation of what needed to be done in order to maintain our current programs and be properly aligned for the future. We prayed for those who had served us well, and expressed our desire that we help them find new employment opportunities (a service which our denomination offers to our staff). In a number of instances we were able to place staff into new positions in the denominational offices because they possessed the skills needed for that position. In spite of those changes, we did not stop any programs from operating this year, and instead listened to optimistic projections on how a number of our programs will grow. We saw healthy projections for our future based on current trends in our church, and they sent a positive air through our deliberations.
Throughout the entire meeting, as always, we worshipped. We listened to personal testimonies, and we focused on specific passages of the Bible which could inform us as we headed into times of decisions. We sang hymns from our new hymnbook - both familiar and unfamiliar, and when the piano started playing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and we began to sing, you would have thought you had entered a Baptist gathering instead of the PC(USA). Equal enthusiasm echoed in our singing a “new to us” South African Hymn “Come, Bring Your Burdens to God”. We recognized that we are a changing and diverse entity, different from who we have been, and seeking to be responsible to God’s leading.
Yes, we dealt with difficult issues such as divestment in companies providing controversial products to the Israelis, and made referrals to the General Assembly. We talked about the U.S – Iran war and we talked about the environment, and immigrants, and poverty. The list continues. But we did not talk about homosexual issues or abortion issues this time. Certainly these are matters that concern us greatly, but they do not define us. They are not the primary focus of who we are as a Christian denomination. We are defined by the love of Jesus Christ.
Our conversations were centered on our new directional goals and Biblical foundations –
To inspire, equip and connect the church to: Cultivate, nurture, and sustain diverse, transformational leaders for Christ’s mission. (Using John 15:16 as our basis)
To inspire, equip and connect the church to: Make, receive and send disciples who demonstrate and proclaim God’s justice, peace and love in an increasingly globalized world. (Using Luke 4:18-19 as our basis)
To inspire, equip and connect the church to: Ignite a movement within the PC(USA) that results in the creation of 1001 new worshipping communities in the next ten years. (using Acts 2:47 as our basis)
To inspire, equip and connect the church to engage and join with young adults reforming the church for Christ’s mission. (Using Genesis 17:7 as our basis)
To engage with, respond to, resource and represent the General Assembly in alignment with the vision and mission for the General Assembly Mission Council
To build confidence, trust and engagement in all the we do by being collaborative, accountable, responsive and excellent (Using Philippians 4:8a as our basis)
We are not a denomination that is dying or imploding. We are a denomination that is excited and inspired by God’s infusion of enthusiasm and optimism for the church of the future. We are a church that is not just reformed but reforming. Even if one is upset about a certain issue, we are a church that looks beyond any one matter to the basic tenets of our faith which hold us together. We are a church that looks to the Scripture to guide us as we can best understand it with our human limitations, and we make decisions prayerfully and seeking God’s guidance. Let us choose to celebrate the wondrous gift of Christ’s leadership in the PC(USA), and let those who do not feel they can be part of this spiritual renewal choose to follow Christ the way they feel called. We will miss them, and whereas we want them to remain in the denomination, we do not want them to deny their beliefs or expect us to deny ours. We are told explicitly not to judge each other, but to pray for one another. We can continue to love and celebrate each other if we truly follow Jesus’ commandments. He loved us despite our differences. Let us do the same.
Is our Presbyterian Church (USA) dying? Not from my vantage point!
Heath Rada is the former President of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (now a part of Union Presbyterian Seminary) and was also an executive with the American Red Cross.