Monday, July 2, 2012

21st Century Church

The following is my portion of a presentation made (with Carol Howard Merritt) during the Riverside Conversations at General Assembly on Saturday, June 30th. We will be meeting with the committee that has been charged to review our report and recommendations this afternoon.

"Thank you for coming to engage with the committee to study the nature of the church in the 21st Century! We plan on leaving time at the end for questions and conversation, but we first wanted to share with you more about the work of our committee over the past year and a half.

As we began to meet and worship together, we found ourselves repeatedly drawn to the second chapter of Acts. The disciples’ world had been forever changed by Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, and they found themselves gathered in a room, waiting for what would happen next. As they waited, they prayed, and prayed, and waited. Suddenly, with the sound of a violent wind, the Holy Spirit rushed into the room and came upon those gathered together. These followers of Jesus became the Body of Christ.

The story could have ended there, with the followers of Jesus worshiping among themselves, but it didn’t. Instead, the Holy Spirit sent this group of women and men into the streets of Jerusalem, where a diverse crowd was gathered for the Pentecost holiday. They began speaking in the languages of those gathered,  and empowered by the Holy Spirit, these followers of Jesus witnessed to everyone, sharing the good news that they had come to know through Jesus Christ.

On that day alone, we read that three thousand were added to their number. They became brothers and sisters in Christ with a great diversity of people. Together, they devoted themselves to teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, sharing resources, and prayer together. And God continued to add to their numbers, day by day.

But what if they hadn’t left the room? What if they stayed in their small group, in the enclosed room, not venturing beyond those comfortable walls? Sure, they probably would have grown a little bit. They may have been welcoming, accepting visitors and new members – as long as they didn’t try to change anything, and especially if they looked like and talked like those already in the room. After a while, they would begin to fight over dwindling resources, fretting over the future. What if they hadn’t left the room?

As we prayed about the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the 21st Century, we asked ourselves, “Will we, as Presbyterians in the 21st Century, leave our rooms? Will we venture from our comfortable sanctuaries? Will we go out into the streets, learning different languages, embracing diversity, planting new congregations, and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ?”

As we gathered, we prayed, and prayed and continue to wait for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our midst."

Carol then shared some of our findings regarding changing cultural and church contexts, current roadblocks in moving forward, and examples of exciting worshipping communities around the country, including a few here in Pittsburgh. 
I continued... 
"In addressing the changing contexts and our challenges in this century, our committee has come up with a number of recommendations. You can read all of our recommendations on pc-biz, but we want to highlight a few areas of focus.

A number of our recommendations respond directly to the need to form and support a diversity of new worshipping communities. There are immigrant congregations coming into this country from Presbyterian denominations who want to be part of the Presbyterian church but face a myriad of obstacles. We need to address and work to remove those obstacles. We need to adequately resource the development of new churches and new worshipping committees, in money and other material resources, but also by working with our Seminaries and presbyteries to help prepare ministers to plant new churches and to minister in changing contexts.

Even as we are supporting and nurturing new ministries, we recognize that churches are not called to exist in perpetuity. As many congregations dwindle to the point of simply maintaining buildings, we call on leaders in the church to assist those congregations and communities in discerning their call in this time and place. Some churches will be revitalized in new ways; others may discern a call to close. As churches close, we call presbyteries to use the assets to support new church and mission development.

We recognize that there are still many inequalities in our society and in the church, and we call the PC(USA) to a role as social witness. We also recognize that we must continue to work to identify and support leaders in churches, in councils, and in our Seminaries from underrepresented populations, and a number of our recommendations address those needs. We call on the church to repent of our continued complicity in prejudice and find a need for specific training for all leaders in the church around issues of privilege, diversity, and cross-cultural proficiency. We also look at the current communication strategies of the denomination. While we have made great strides in translating documents and resources into languages other than English, including Spanish, Korean, and Portuguese, our overall accessibility to those who speak a language other than English remains quite low. We have concrete recommendations to address that.

As we look at changing needs in church leadership and ministry, we recognize that bivocational ministry will be a critical component of church leadership in the coming decades. This is often scary or threatening for many of us teaching elders, but this will be not just a practical need, but a missional need for the church. We are calling for the creation of a special task force to look at bivocational ministry from a holistic standpoint, and from each level of the church, so that we can better know how to foster and support this emerging ministry front in our denomination.

Bivocational ministry is tied into issues of just compensation. Also related are already-noted concerns of inequalities within our society and in churches, particularly as women and underrepresented populations are concerned. We offer a number of recommendations to study and better understand the extent of these concerns, and to address them through policies guided by a theological understanding of stewardship and compensation.

One of the charges given our committee by the previous General Assembly was the creation of resources that could be used in churches and councils. Given the timeline and scope of our work, we were not able to do this, and so we suggest empowering a group, including some members of our current committee, to continue that work to create and disseminate resources in the church.

That is an overview of our work as a committee. We have appreciated the opportunity to study these important questions, and the conversations that we have had with so many church members, elders, and leaders throughout the denomination. We look forward to continuing that conversation."

1 comment:

  1. Stephanie, Thank you for your amazing work for the denomination! I have just begun to read the report, and I am amazed by its scope and detail. Looking forward to talking more about it. I have shared it with our Presbytery Task Group for their reflection and preparation. Prayers for the Assembly!