You Have To Be There I Guess
The 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is underway in Minneapolis.
Every two years Presbyterians of the PC(USA) stripe gather for several days of... I really am not sure how to describe what happens at our GA gatherings. I do know that each time we have one we seem to grow a little more divided and a little more irrelevant as a denomination. But that's just my opinion.
But the people who are there, working, meeting, worshiping and trying to "reason together" as Christian brothers and sisters seem to be enjoying it--or at least are energized by it.
On the first day of GA219, Cynthia Bolbach was elected Moderator for the next 2 years. She takes over the stole of Moderator from Bruce Reyes-Chow, who was one of the youngest Moderators in recent history (the first from my generation since I became a Presbyterian), and without a doubt the most technologically savvy. Chow did a great deal to revolutionize the role of the Moderator and his own use of social media, blogs, etc. helped to open up dialogue between Presby's all over the world.
I don't really have any feelings about the election of the Moderator, to be honest. I know that there will be publications and people who read a great deal into it. The best that I can say is that the Moderator election says more about the General Assembly rather than the denomination it (supposedly) represents. Bolbach definitely leans toward the very progressive side of things theological and social, which I would assert represents the minority voice within the PC (USA).
At any rate, I have been watching the Twitter feeds and reading the blogs of the commissioners who are distributed throughout the various committees and commissions at GA219, and I have some thoughts.
First, I can't shake the feeling that GA219 is just another exercise in futility in a long line of futile exercises. It's a frenzied and desperate action to appear lively and vibrant for what I believe to be a dying denomination. When I see the things that are front and center on the GA219 docket, I just get weary. Nearly every major issue that is taken up by GA219 is politically charged and almost certainly divisive. For activists on both sides of issues like gay ordination, statements on marriage, Middle East Peace, etc. it's all about "winning." It's always been about winning. And winning to these people means that things will get so uncomfortable for the "losers" that they will go away.
And no one seems to care what this is doing to the Church.
When you look at churches within the PC (USA) denomination that are alive and vibrant, you will see some very interesting things. In fact, any oldline (formerly mainline) church that is growing, transforming and moving into the 21st century with hope has similar characteristics. Here is the short list of ten things I see in living, growing churches from what I've both seen, experienced, read and heard:
1. Effective, Engaging and Relevant Preaching
The preacher most likely does not read his/her sermon. It's not an academic exercise, it's a proclamation of the Gospel that relates to real life. People have a way to respond to it. The preacher works hard to not be self-indulgent, but to deliver messages that the community needs to hear in order to more fully follow Jesus. The goal is to draw people in to a closer relationship with Christ. If the "senior pastor" isn't the most effective communicator, then the leader or pastor who is... gets the job. Far too many people are leaving Presbyterian seminaries with the knowledge on how to write a sermon, but without really learning how to be an effective preacher.
2. Evangelism is a Priority
Evangelism is taught from the pulpit, emphasized in the church's culture and is part of the DNA. People want to invite, to share their faith and they are given the tools to do it. The big secret here is: When people are excited about their church and about worship, they invite. When they have a real, true, vibrant and transformational relationship with Jesus, they want to share it.
3. Prayer is an Integral Part of Community Life
The extent of the prayer life of the community of faith is not formal read prayers on Sunday morning or perfunctory prayers before a committee or Session meeting. There are prayer meetings, opportunities to learn about prayer, to go deeper and to bear burdens. And there are prayer warriors who take on the "heavy lifting" in the prayer ministry.
4. Joyful, Authentic Worship
The worship services in all of their variety are celebrations. People are not afraid to express joy, to laugh, to applaud to respond in some way. They leave feeling that they have experienced God and given their best in worship. Nothing should be forced, but should be done authentically, and in Spirit and in Truth.
5. Bible Studies/Small Groups
There are plenty of opportunities for the community to engage in Bible study in small groups. There is a clear structure and plenty of opportunities to be trained for leaders. Small groups that meet regularly to pray and study help to develop community and nurture members in their faith.
6. Clear Vision/Organization
The core values and noble goal of the church are clear and communicated to the congregation. There is a clear vision that the church leadership owns and keeps in front of the people. The church is organized well and has systems in place to generate trust, involvement and commitment from members.
7. Stewardship as a Way of Life
Biblical Stewardship is preached, taught, espoused lifted up and communicated in a variety of ways and not just once a year. There is a dedicated group that devotes itself to the stewardship ministries of the church on a year-round basis. There are opportunities for members to take classes, learn, study about Biblical financial planning, stewardship.
There is a vibrant and growing hands-on mission to the church's surrounding community. The church seeks to answer the question, "If we ceased to exist tomorrow, who would miss us?" Members have multiple ways to do mission and volunteer their time talent and treasure to support it. The church also places a priority on supporting global missions, and is actively seeking ways to get members involved in hands-on global missions.
9. Ministry to Families--Youth & Children
The church dedicates resources to ministries to children, youth and their families. There are dedicated staff for these key areas. The church welcomes children in worship, there is space for youth and efforts made to engage youth and children in the life of the church. Families are considered when scheduling events, providing support, resources, etc. The church understands that in order to live it must work on engaging multiple generations.
10. Focus on Outsiders as well as Insiders
The church doesn't live in the Past. It is aware that it may have wonderful traditions and practices that might not "outsider-friendly" and does a good job to make them more so, without losing it's denominational or particular identity. The church listens to Outsiders and tries to adjust to become the kind of community that welcomes and engages them. The church also ministers, nurtures and cares for Insiders even while it encourages them toward flexibility and openness.
When you look at what is on the docket for GA219, almost none of these things are present. But if the Presbyterian Church (USA) is going to survive, they need to be.
I am going to be blunt. I think that the bureaucracy of our denomination needs to die so that individual Presbyterian churches can live.
In the groundbreaking book The Starfish and The Spider, Authors Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom espouse the concept of Decentralization as the way of the future for business and organizations in a postmodern, post 9/11 and now post Great Recession world. The idea is simply this: A "leaderless" organization is stronger, more nimble and has the potential to be much more effective and successful in our current culture. They cite organizations/businesses/phenomenons like e-Bay, Craigslist, Skype, Amazon and others as examples of how Decentralization can effectively transform and thrive.
I'm not sure how it would look, but I think the General Assembly needs to move more toward a "support and equip" role for presbyteries and churches. Imagine if we were able to eliminate the cost of expensive events like the GA219. Imagine if we streamlined the Office of the General Assembly and decentralized the whole thing, placing "power" back into the hands of the organizations that are closest to their own context and much better suited to address the issues near and dear to the heart of their own communities.
Imagine if the GA never needed to have huge, expensive meetings every two years because there would have been countless small, contextualized, cheap gatherings throughout.
Imagine if all of the governing bodies of our denomination focused on helping churches realize the ten things I listed. Imagine if they simply trusted the power of the Holy Spirit to work and move people within the Church to speak truth to power... and to equip individual churches to take action and be the hands and feet of Christ in the world to bring peace and justice. Imagine if we stopped wasting time on fruitless motions, statements, studies and position papers, and just got about the business of doing God's work in the world.
I firmly believe that God calls people to be prophetic and to speak prophetic words to the Church. But something tells me that so much of what activists/prophets in the Church hold on to so tightly and try to control through their own efforts, would find resolution in God's time in God's way if churches were given the space to experience the transformational grace of God. Something tells me that our denomination would move from irrelevance to relevance in a hurry. We would move from stagnation and paralysis to movement and vibrancy.
But instead we seem intent on affirming the notion that we Presbyterians codify with our actions: That God only speaks and moves through a Committee. And the only way to effectively discern God's will is to put it to a vote.