Our final report is now posted. John Vest and I will be blogging about it over the next few weeks trying to keep a good conversation going. The report is lengthy, but there is a 15 page executive summary within a 43 page section that lays out our argument for a "season of reflective experimentation" to bring genuine adaptive change to the denomination for the sake of missional congregations. In addition, there are full reports on the data we collected, the best models we discovered and the work of a racial ethnic task force. We hope this will encourage lots of good creative conversation.
To begin the discussion, it seems best to lay our cards on the table. After a long season of listening to the church, when we moved to the 'experimenting' and 'discerning' phases, we developed this set of Guiding Principles.
- We live in a post-Christendom context that calls for continual re-consideration of our mission, our structures and our practices in order to be faithful to Christ and fruitful participants in God’s mission to the world.[i] This reality is now undeniable. We live in a new day, a new epoch. It is as significant as it was for the Reformed tradition to be transported from Europe to America, and it requires no less a reconsideration and reformulation of our way of being the church. And if we do not do so, the will eventually die.
- The missional congregation in a healthy, faithful covenant community is the center of the mission and faithful life of discipleship of Jesus Christ. Congregations are the “basic but insufficient” form of God’s mission in the world. (G.10101) The Congregation is the basic form of mission, but for congregations to be faithful to their mission also requires them to be in covenant relationships with other congregations for shared authority, accountability, edification and missional support.
- Councils exist to serve the mission of the congregations in their local context. In the words, of Louis Weeks, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary, “The highest council in the church is really the Session. The rest of the governing bodies serve the Session.” Presbyteries are “covenant communities of missional congregations”[ii] and the center of our corporate life, governance and mission together connecting congregations to each other and the larger witness of the Church. It is a “collegial bishop” charged with preparing and ordering the ministry of teaching elders, it is a covenant community of missional congregations, it is the “balcony” that offers a broader perspective to congregational leaders so that they might serve wisely and well in their specific contexts.
- This report and our recommendations are committed to refocusing the mid council structure on one goal: serving fruitful and faithful missional congregations. To that end, our structures, especially our mid council structures, must engage and serve the mission of God in the world through missional congregations and partnerships, not our institutional or denominational concerns.
- There is no “one size fits all model”. Ecclesial structure follows missional function and is always marked by a commitment to being covenantal and contextual. The best ecclesiastical structures are discerned by those who live in it together. They will be contained within the frame of our shared constitutional life, but those structural changes should ordinarily come from the local context, not the “national office”. The new Form of Government and the passage of Amendment 10A indicate a shift of authority to the local contexts for discerning the shape of a mission and we want to affirm and build upon that shift.
- Our structures must serve and support healthy, shared, spiritual and collaborative leadership between ruling and teaching elders.
- This report continues, builds upon and lives into the decisions made by the church to accept a new Form of Government and place the discernment of fitness for ordination on local churches and presbyteries. Our proposal is a next step in a trajectory that we believe will result in further collaborative creativity by the whole church in every context.
- We envision a “big canvas with a clear frame”. While remaining securely within the “Foundations” of our theological and governance tradition, we call the church to create the conditions to energize collaborative creativity, missional innovation and relational accountability with permission for many different models of middle councils to emerge that will foster the vitality and fruitfulness of missional congregations.
[i] Guder, “The Presbytery as Missional Context”, p.3 “Perhaps the most pervasive and powerful reduction made in the course of the western church’s gradual establishment, as it became more dominant in its social and political context, and as the assumption took hold that everyone born and reared in this territories was Christian, was the fact that the essential character of mission in the biblical sense gradually faded away. Mission is not needed if everyone is already a Christian!...The contemporary exploration of the church’s essentially missional vocation challenges unquestioned attitudes formed over centuries that the church is to be defined more in terms of its maintenance than its mission. What is meant is, of course, the concern for the maintenance of the church as an institution. That concern turns the church inward, centers its attention upon itself and its members, upon its survival and their religious needs. The institutional inwardness of western church contradicts the clearly missional calling of the church in the New Testament defined by Jesus on the Mount of the Ascension: ‘You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). Thus, Newbigin’s question can be paraphrased: How does the church truly regain its understanding of itself as called and sent, remembering that the term mission means, in fact, “sending” (see John 20:21)? How does the church move beyond the idea that Christian identity is basically a geographical or cultural or organizational concept? (emphasis ours).
[ii] This definition is from Darrell Guder, “The Presbytery as Missional Context”.