As one of the few people who is on both the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the NEXT Church mailing lists, I read the NEXT Church recent “Open Letter to the Church” with great interest. Especially the opening section that read as follows…
“We share many of (The Fellowship of Presbyterians') perspectives about our beloved church:
- They grieve our often ineffectual ways of being church. We agree.
- They grieve a loss of meaningful evangelism in the church. We agree.
- They speak of new ways of being connectional which are more relational and less bureaucratic.
- They grieve that only 12 new congregations were established in 2010. We agree.
- They speak of the need for a missional church. We agree.
- They say the time for fighting must end. We agree.
- They say, “We are not leaving the church; our church has left us.” While we hold them accountable for their decision to leave, we agree that the church is not what it used to be.”
As the Moderator of the Mid-Council Commission (formerly Middle Governing Body Commission), I have been spending a lot of time “on the balcony” watching the evolving ‘dance’ in this amazing and confusing season of life. But, perhaps most interesting and engaging to me are the common themes that are arising in both of these large groups and in many, many other conversations around the church. From GA staffers, to EPs, to Synod Leaders, to ruling and teaching elders across the country, to frustrated folk on the sidelines, I hear
- We want effectual ways of being church today.
- We want meaningful evangelism today
- We want more relational ways of being connectional today.
- We want our focus to be on mission to the world not denominational fights.
- We want to plant new congregations.
I believe it is the voice of the Spirit in the church. You could even call it “likemindedness.”
Yes…there are some significant differences between and even among these groups.
But could there be in these shared values something truly of the Spirit? Can we discern, in the middle of the swirl of change and anxiety a way forward together?
Perhaps it’s just me… But I am beginning to see
The outlines of a way of re-capturing our identity.
A way of adapting our theology, history and tradition to a new context.
A way of renewing our vows to each other.
A way of engaging a new generation.
And especially and most hopefully, a way back into the world with the mission of the gospel.
As our Mid-Council Commission prepares for our next meeting in Indianapolis next week, we are readying ourselves with reports, theological papers and lots of conversation around the church. We have worked long and hard this summer and we are hopeful to come out of this meeting with some conversational starting points to put before the church for a fruitful dialogue months in advance of the next General Assembly. After a long, helpful “listening phase” we are looking to begin the “experimenting and discerning phase”. We have been exhorted, urged and even chided to “be bold”, to “think outside the box” and to draw from the wisdom of our history to re-conceive a new way of being Presbyterian in a changing world. From the very beginning we had sensed that God was already at work in the church, and perhaps today we are beginning to see a new thing that God is bringing out of the ashes of conflict.
As I have talked to and listened to leaders across the church, I am beginning to see—for perhaps the first time in almost 300 years when the Presbyterian faith was contextualized on this continent as something other than a "state church"--an opportunity to utterly re-conceive what it means to be Presbyterian in this post-Christendom context.
(This is indeed what we mean by saying that we are “Reformed and always reforming”, isn’t it? Think about it: Just being Presbyterian means that in our “DNA” is the kind of adaptation that said, “Hey instead of having one guy be the bishop, we could have a collegial bishop. What do you think of that?”)
I see a meaningful, maturing, motivated and missional middle coming together to draw upon the historic values of our past and faithfully reinterpret them to engage a far different world than any of our forebears could have considered.
Let me say a bit more about each of those traits:
Maturing. Notice I didn’t write “mature”, but “maturing”. We need a structure for lifetime learners, for continually adapting disciples, for those who are restless to keep pressing on, growing, discerning, surrendering, mutually submitting, humbly staying open to the word of God and the voice of the Spirit.. We need a structure that gives freedom to fail, and encourages self and communal expression. We need a structure that will call us to live in mutual submission and growing trust as we grow in wisdom, understanding, faithfulness and fruitfulness. We need a structure that adapts to and accommodates those who are committed to building trust through transparency, accountability, and congruence of belief and life. We need a structure that allows for both clearly communicated convictions and the patience to respectfully be with others who we believe are in error. I envision a much more “open spaced” structure where the system honors, values, rewards, invests in and even adapts to those who are “passionately willing to take personal responsibility.” I envision a permission-giving structure that is built around shared agreements, covenants, values and convictions rather than around top-down enforced alignment. And I envision a structure where those who can calmly and clearly express their convictions (even deep disagreements) also exhibit Gamaliel-like patience with each other and room to live out their own convictions.
Motivated. One of the rules of “Open Space” organizing is that you can convene anything if you are “willing to take personal responsibility” and are “passionate.” Passionate Presbyterians may seem like a oxymoron, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In so many ways, the regulatory models of the past half-century have sapped us of our entrepreneurial spirit, our buoyant collegiality and our joyful communal identity, but in Presbyteries all over the country there is a well-spring of creativity where motivated people are giving room to experiment and innovate, to align freely around shared passions and convictions, to come together in the name of Jesus and give a fresh expression to their deepest beliefs. At their worst, our Presbyteries are like family gatherings of sullen teenagers who are being forced into arranged marriages. We need a structure that rewards passion and motivation. That seeks to be not only “open space” but “open source”. That generously celebrates innovation; that respectfully collaborates in one creative leap of faith after another; that encourages big risks, big failures and the deep learning that comes from them. As Presbyterians, that means that we are also motivated by a vision of the church that exists beyond a congregation. We are motivated to express the greater unity of the church through a passionate engagement in communities of missional congregations. We are passionate about demonstrating the wisdom and fruitfulness of an elder-led, collaborative way of being the church that has clear theological convictions, is in submission to Jesus and in mutual submission to each other, is obedient to the scriptures and looks to the wisdom of our confessions… and we are willing to set aside anything that drains our motivation, that creates too much constraint, regulation and defaults to old mental models.
Missional. We are having lots of discussion around this term, but in a nutshell what missional means is that the mission of God in Jesus Christ is the central organizing principle for the church and that the local gathering of believers is the strategy of the Spirit for extending that mission. To be missional requires personal and communal participation. To be missional means that the unique, specific, contextual, communally discerned expression of a community of believers’ shared values is the reason for being for any congregation. To be missional means that we live in the conviction that every structure beyond the congregation exists so that congregations—who are in covenants together--can fulfill their mission.
And if there is one clear missional conviction that is growing into a chorus of shared enthusiasm:
Being missional to Presbyterians at this season of history means making a fundamental priority of new church development.
The GAMC envisions 1001 new worshipping communities. I think that number is way too low. How about 10 times that many? How about DOUBLING the number of congregations in PCUSA in the next generation? They will NOT look like “First Presbyterian of Anyplace”, but to be missional must mean that first, foremost and the primary priority of every structure (including seminaries and other groups charged with developing a new generation of leaders) is the conception, birth, nurture and maturity of a whole new generation of “churches”.
Adaptive Change requires “giving back the work to the people most affected.” I believe that whatever models we offer and constitutional changes we propose they must be about more personal engagement, more personal responsibility-taking, more passionate convictions, more freedom and creativity within safe, clear shared boundaries than ever before. We must have a structure that insists that we adapt toward health and faithfulness, toward those who are willing to keep maturing, who are motivated to take on the mantle of calling and personal responsibility by continually re-engaging and re-committing to each other, and who are from start to finish utterly committed to the missional principle of the local congregation as the primary locus for participating in the mission of Jesus Christ in every context.
If we can create this NEXT Fellowship… count me in.