Identity Crisis in the PC(USA)

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We are a little more than a week away from the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)., our biennial gathering of teaching and ruling elders to discern, discuss, and debate the will of God for our Church (go to PCBiz to see what’s on the agenda). Among the issues to be discussed: broadening our understanding of who can get married, divesting from companies who’s products are being used for war and violence in Israel and Palestine, a reorganization of how our councils form and function, and, oh yeah, the future of the church, among other things (more than 100 items on the docket).

The Rev. John Vest is an associate pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, one of our larger and more progressive congregations within the PC(USA), and has served on the G.A. Mid Councils Commission for the past two years. They’re report and recommendations will be presented and debated at this coming G.A. gathering.

John has written a lot about the future of the PC(USA) and the Christian Church in the U.S. He recently posted a provocative and poignant video about where we’re at that brings so many of the issues we’re dealing with into a larger perspective, culminating in the larger question of how we continue being the church in this time of increasing cultural shifts. Check it out:

Mid Councils Commission: Changing Contexts for Ministry from John Vest on Vimeo.

What do we have to lose? That is a great question with a myriad of possible responses from “nothing” to “everything”. I agree, though, that we need to start thinking creatively about how we ARE the church and how we are GOING TO BE the Church into the future. I do not see how we can keep going the way we’re going and expect things to change. The recommendations from the council are outside the box in many respects, and charge us all to think hard about not only where we’re going, but how we’re going. Our laurels of bygone generations are no longer beneath us, and we can no longer rest on the “build it and they will come” attitude. We need to get out there and start engaging our world, our culture, our communities in order to effect the kind of change I believe God is calling us to envision. It can start both individually and communally: we can begin to change our behavior and reaction/response to the world as individuals, but we also need to start encouraging our communities of faith (our churches) to take a long hard look at what is happening around us (each church is going to have its own context with its own issues to address), and start engaging as a community.

What might such change look like? A less “pastor/clergy-focused” operating system, where groups of people within a community gather around a particular passion? A move toward group discernment and consensus, rather than the win/lose process of Roberts Rules of order and 51% votes carrying the day? A push toward less “program” and more “relationship building”, both within the church and beyond our walls (literally, theologically, politically, etc.)?

I love the idea of experimenting, where people get to try things to see how it work, with the expectation that more than half of the experiments will fail to meet expectations (this is reality in the world of inventions and church planting), but still offer opportunities for growth and learning. Growth and learning cannot happen without risk, and risk requires an ability to fail well. Are we willing to risk failure in order to grow further? Maybe it starts with being honest with ourselves about our “sacred cows”—naming those things we have been unwilling or unable to change or look at (worship style, music, liturgy, programs, how we dress for worship, what we expect of our leaders, where the communion table should go, how we receive and offer the sacraments, etc.)?

What do we have to lose?

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