Thursday, April 21, 2011

You Can’t be Serious, Can You?

Do you know what steams our broccoli? Promoting expediency over integrity, selling for cheap a priceless spiritual practice in pursuit of a greater share of the religious market. The very idea! Who died and made Success God?

In the January-February 2011 issue of Presbyterians Today -- a magazine we know and love -- the cover story expresses a hope that “educational standards” will not get in the way of the opportunity for “rapid expansion” of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) provided by a rising tide of immigration into the United States. The statement flummoxes us into cliché´: C’mon man! Really?

The writer is Michael Parker, coordinator of international evangelism for the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He compares the present situation to the growth westward in this country during the early 1800’s. The end of the Revolutionary War opened up the American frontier to a mass migration of people looking for land. During this period, Parker writes, “the Presbyterian Church was one of the largest and most influential churches in the country. But because Presbyterians insisted on an educated ministry and were ambivalent about revivalism, they were not able to keep up with the westward movement of the population. In the space of only 50 years, Methodists and Baptists, small denominations before 1800, became the dominant Protestant churches in the nation.”

Anyone who has studied American church history of that time and place knows that there were multiple reasons to be at least “ambivalent” about frontier revivalism. In and around those camp meetings, some good things happened and some crazy things happened. Included among the latter were church schism, displays of mass hysteria, and the reduction of theology to manipulative techniques aimed at public conversions. Presbyterians knew enough to back away from the Great Revival precisely because they were educated. Wise ministers and elders of the time could see that the worst way to bring people into relationship with God and God’s kingdom is to scare them into it.

Doubtless the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) needs to undergo extensive changes to help people do the mission of Jesus Christ within the present, immigrant-rich landscape. So great are the challenges that one could argue for more educational requirements for elders and ministers, not less. Ordaining an uneducated Presbyterian ministry would be like arming fire fighters with water pistols.

Baptists and Methodists are good people. Some Baptists are smarter and better educated than some Presbyterians. Likewise for Methodists. As such, members of those churches are not closer to or farther from the Holy Spirit than Presbyterians. If they have different educational standards than we, so be it. If their numbers soar over ours, the reign of God is not harmed, is it? But just because Baptists and Methodists out-number us doesn’t mean that we should become them. Someday, the world and the church at large may again cry out for a distinctively Presbyterian-style witness. There may yet be a call for a thoughtful, disciplined, and reflective group of Christians to play a role within the church catholic. We ought to be ready if and when that call comes.

Were I an immigrant, I would be insulted that the church would even consider lowering its educational standards in order to count me among its leadership. Am I intellectually deficient? Am I too backward to learn Greek and Hebrew, too ignorant to gather the knowledge necessary to pass ordination exams? I don’t think so. There may or may not be some catching up to do because of cultural differences, but the wait, should there be any, will be worth it. Any reach for quantity over quality, in any endeavor, proves unsustainable over time.

The idea behind the aforementioned article exposes a floating anxiety that comes upon institutions when they seem to be caving in on themselves. We think we can tinker with this little part of our system or that part and things will come round right for our shrinking denomination. Church growth is neither a function of tinkering nor of marketing. It’s a function of faith. Growth in numbers comes from growth in the spiritual lives of church members, creating dynamic, outreaching congregations which attract new people. The spiritual energy spins from inside out and outside in, building interior excitement which produces an abundance of hope focused on the church’s exterior. The faithful -- long term members and new ones -- are thus pointed toward living meaningful lives meaningfully engaged with the world as they pursue Christ’s peace and wholeness, Christ’s justice and mercy, Christ’s beauty and truth for all the people God made and God loves, indeed, for the whole creation.

Presbyterians should understand all of this because they are disciples, which is to say students of the master Teacher. Presbyterians are rarely (probably never) at their best, but when they approach maturity, they are rigorous students of Scripture, theology, church history, and the practices that support faithful living. Presbyterians are not the only denomination that appreciates education, but no denomination has blazed an educational trail across this nation wider and deeper than ours. Commitment to education defines us. It’s why many of us are Presbyterians in the first place. It’s why many of our people were able to rise from poverty and become contributors to a better, healthier world.

Even if the institutional name, Presbyterian Church (USA), were to vanish from history, a righteous remnant of presbyterian-ish sorts would remain. They would be dedicated to the patient and nonanxious life of scholarship. With honesty, humility, and good humor, they would be conscientious servants of the Holy Spirit, devoted to the love of Jesus Christ, and looking forward to the commonwealth of God as it comes.

So let she or he who would work to weaken educational requirements for church leadership beware. Some of us otherwise sleepy Presbyterians will wake up and defend a blessing we consider core. Our hackles raise at the scent of anti-intellectualism. But this has been a rousing little church fight. At least it got our broccoli steamed. And there’s nothing better in the springtime than that, served with a pat of butter and a dash of salt. Good and good for you!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Small Churches, etc.

Small Churches, etc.

Here’s our second posting on the future Presbyterian Church (USA), a church in decline. Our basic notion is that the church needs to get smaller if it is ever going to grow bigger. Embrace our smallness, we recommend, and we advise modesty about who we are by the mercy of God. We think the church is actually too big, as in too big for its britches. Today’s topic is about small churches chained to big old buildings, and then strays into the contested territory of stewardship. See what you think. And then share it, if it’s not too much trouble.

God must love small Presbyterian churches, since so many of them were created. Such churches are the bane and the blessing of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We served the sweetest small church (as in under 100 members) for nine splendid years. Smaller membership churches bless us with their abilities to survive with little resources for sustained periods. Those graces will increase in importance as the whole denomination shrinks and shrinks.

Small churches reveal the future of many congregations, which casts a baneful shadow over the whole church. They are also the ones most affected by the current Presbyterian decline. One of our sources informs us that much of the membership decline of the denomination can be traced to losses within the old “First” churches of small county-seat towns throughout the nation, along with churches in farming communities that are in retreat, agricultural and otherwise. When those towns are losing population, Presbyterian churches are especially vulnerable to congregational leakage. We tend to emphasize education, which means that we send many of our children off to college, and few will return to the old home town that lacks opportunity.

The bane and blessing of small churches are their buildings. Because of our denominational history, we have a lot of old church buildings. Some are pure gems, and stand as beautiful and solid witness to the perseverance of faithful saints. The best of these shelter a small gathering of worshipers who are able to support themselves and to reach out to the surrounding community with welcoming hearts and helpful hands.

Others are not so fortunate, and their aging buildings are but money pits, strangling the congregation’s ability to afford adequate preaching, teaching, and pastoral care, not to mention any meaningful mission. Thus, here’s the New Rule:

If the upkeep of any church building cripples that congregation’s calling to serve both its internal and missional needs, that church will sell said building and use the receipts to support itself in a different physical setting.

Every church, large and small, should attend to the mission of God beyond its property lines at the minimal level of the tithe, or 10% of its annual income. A church of whatever size, whose outreach potential is destroyed by brick and mortar concerns, is guilty of idol worship. Buildings are sometimes strong, sometimes subtle seducers of the Spirit. We can come to love them too much, and Presbyteries can steer church members away from this particular sin.

A small church freed from the albatross of maintaining a moldy old building might form one or more house churches. It may seek to build another, more efficient structure scaled to its needs. It may rent from a near-by church or school. It may merge with some other congregation. Many directions are possible, but each one would insure that its missional tithe is paid.

While we are talking about churches doing what they rightly expect from their members, that is, tithe their income, let’s offer this New Rule:

From now on, all churches will pledge 10% of its income to the wider church. That’s the missional bottom line. Another percentage can be added for mission projects the local church chooses.

Most of the minimal pledge would be made to Shared Mission Giving. That covers Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly. If the congregation is in a Presbytery with a high per capita apportionment, it would be free to count that money as part of the 10% pledge. For obvious reasons, the larger the church the higher the percentage of mission giving that church can afford. Medium-size churches can set goals of 25% of income given away, splitting it between Shared Mission Giving and local causes. A church that gives lives the Gospel, and so do its people.

That’s the big reform proposal for the day. Churches too small or too poor for their buildings need to walk away from them and breathe the air of liberation. All churches need to practice what they preach: tithing. And if they don’t preach it, why the heck not? Are they chickens or Christians?

What say ye?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Small Presbyteries

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is entirely too big. Sure, as in years past, we removed approximately 60,000 more members from our rolls than we added in 2009. That’s the rough equivalent of a town the size of Bowling Green, Kentucky. We reel at that thought, because the people of Bowling Green are dear to us, too dear to lose.

Overall, the church has dropped from a high of 5 million members in the 1960’s to 2.1 million today. We’re here to look beyond reasons for this decline and suggest a way to stop the shrinkage, and, perhaps, reverse it. It fits under the back-door notion that the way for the church to grow larger is for it to get smaller. Here the words of the Baptist pertain: "[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).

Our church is no longer the prominent religious franchise it was during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. We liked Ike, the officer and Presbyterian gentleman, but he passed away some time ago, as did the church we once were. When we say that the Presbyterian Church is too big, we mean too big for its britches. We strut around as if the world cares when we tell it what to do in this area of life and that one. The fact is that it doesn’t -- and won’t -- no matter the righteousness of our cause or how loudly we shout.

Showing a little humility about who we really are would be good for our collective soul. Maybe we reach that virtue by embracing our diminished size. Being small, powerless, and insignificant to the world puts us in good company. It’s the way of Jesus and of his early followers. It’s the way of the Hebrews in their reluctant march from slavery into freedom.

Permit me to set this idea in practical terms. Our Presbyteries are excessively large. We have belonged to three Presbyteries in our time, and each could be cut in half, into thirds, or even quartered. Allowing adjustments for varying population densities, here’s the New Rule:

Presbyteries should contain at least 6 churches and not more than 24.

Presbyteries sit at the center of the connectional church. The smaller the connecting points, the stronger the overall connection. There’s an electrical circuit analogy we could use about now, but we’ll spare you that. In our experience, the relational gap between the Presbytery and churches, especially smaller churches on the geographical fringe of the Presbytery, yawns widely. A small Presbytery could not afford to neglect one of its member churches, and neither could it afford to be neglected by one of its members. A Session would grow in responsibility not just for its own congregation, but also for the health of the Reformed church in its local area. The Smaller Presbytery is better positioned to become truly parochial, in the best, Wendell Berry sense of that term.

All of the Presbytery Executives and General Presbyters we have worked alongside have been stellar individuals. They have been real colleagues in ministry: lovers of God and the people of God, wise sources of counsel and support. However, we believe their days on the payroll of Middle Governing Bodies (what a terribly wooden phrase) are numbered, and I’m not speaking of those approaching retirement. These smaller presbyteries need but a part-time stated clerk, whose job would be to insure that the Presbytery’s business is conducted decently and in order.

Presbyteries as we envision them will be short on program and long on de-centralization. They will need minimal structure: a Committee on Ministry, a Committee on Preparation for the Ministry (we can imagine the COM and CPM combining in some cases), a Committee on Representation, and, perhaps, a Budget Committee. That’s about it.

Small group theory applies nicely here. Large groups gather in a sanctuary, an auditorium, and even a sports arena. We enjoy these settings. They can teach, refresh, and even inspire us. But personal growth is usually slight, because in large groups we observe more than act, and both risks and rewards are low.

If we want to grow spiritually, we do it best when we participate in a smaller group of people. In this group, personal trust and knowledge abound, and a creative tension is held between acceptance and accountability. The group members are honor-bound to love us, but they love us too much to let us get by with any flapdoodle. A spiritual challenge discussed with this group will be re-visited in subsequent gatherings, and the support received can send the soul soaring. Others may notice our growth in faith, hope, and love, and want to join our group. Thus it grows.

The same applies to Presbyteries. The more tightly churches are connected, the more those churches reflect the grace of God. Churches that are truly local and in close conversation with a few other neighboring churches, will grow, in mission, membership, and, Lord willing, in number of congregations.

Keep all that in motion for long enough, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) will get Bowling Green, Kentucky back and maybe similar communities in years to come. That’s the theory, anyway.

Next, we will cover small churches, described, as they will be, as the bane and blessing of the Presbyterian Church (USA). But the topic at hand is enough for the day. Get small, presbyteries, so that bigger you will be.

Those are our thoughts. What are yours?