Before assessing the state of the Church, one needs to be able to define what the Church is. To do so, followers of Jesus must look to Scripture. While several images of the Church exist in Scripture (such as Acts 2:42), the image we will be employing is the one at the conclusion of the Gospel according to Matthew. In the passage (above) we see a list of characteristics, a set of activities and a promise.
The characteristics of the Church are:
- A non-ideal group of disciples. The number of disciples is eleven, not the expected twelve. The Church is always being perfected by the Holy Spirit as she follows after her Lord. We are a work-in-progress. This point is made vividly and forcefully by Dale Bruner in his excellent commentary on Matthew.
- A group obedient to the revealed will of Jesus. Jesus told the disciples to go to a specific place and, amazingly enough, they did. The Church continues to be attentive to the Word of the Lord, as he is revealed in Scripture--even daring obedience to this Lord.
- A group of worshipers that encompasses people with both faith and doubt. The Church is made up of redeemed sinners who have been called to give glory to God in worship. Worship is an act of faith, but those with doubts are still welcome in the worship act. The worthiness of worship is dependent on the one being worshiped, and not necessarily on the absence of doubt in the worshiper. This is a picture of Brennan Manning's 'triumphant limp,' from his excellent tome, "The Ragamuffin Gospel."
- Going! Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and earth and in his authority, he directs his Church (a very important point!) to go. We are not called to sit and wait, to hope someone comes to us, or to do nothing. We are called to be active in our faith, an activity that Jesus encompasses in the word, "go."
- Make disciples! This is one word in Greek (Bruner suggests a translation of discipling, but my spell-check goes insane with that word, so I stick with the more useful two word phrase). We are called to make disciples of all nations. The Church is a new nation, in the technical sense of the word, meaning a single, united people group. The Church is, therefore, not allowed to discriminate in the disciple-making activity. This is not to say that we are to be accepting of sin, but rather that repentance and transformation are activities that occur once one is in a loving, saving relationship with the Master, Jesus, not before. We are to spread the Gospel far and wide and let God gather in his own.
- Baptize! Our baptism is into the covenant community. Baptism is an invitation and welcoming sign into the presence of God--Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In baptism we are claimed by God and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Baptism is for us, a visible sign of an invisible reality that we belong to God. In practical terms, this is worked out by belonging to Christ's Church. We do not believe that a Christian can go without community and flourish. We need one another because we all need Jesus together.
- Teach! The content of our teaching is to be the commands of Jesus. To understand and follow the commands of Jesus, we need to sit under the authority of Jesus as he is revealed in Scripture. This means coming to know the full witness of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments and sitting under those who have thought deeply, prayerfully and powerfully about the implications found in the Bible as interpreted by the Holy Spirit. As Presbyterians, we often view this last activity as our particular gift to share with the Church universal. We cannot do this last activity, however, if we have failed to do the first three.
The promise is one of presence. Jesus claim that he will be with us always to the end of the age, is a promise that we will not be abandoned or forsaken in our mission until it is fulfilled at the end of days. In the Old Testament, Joshua received a promise of presence for the mission before him (1:6-9) . We have that same promise from Jesus for the mission before us--a mission to go, make disciples, baptize and teach. The center of this mission is the making of disciples, and Jesus is with us all the way.
We are the people called to make disciples of Jesus for Jesus. This mission is going well in many places in the world today. In our corner of the world (the Western Hemisphere, North America, the United States, Washington State, North Central Washington, Okanogan County, Omak, First Presbyterian Church of Omak), the mission seems to have slowed. Now there are a number of explanations for this slowing of disciple-making and a number of approaches to redress the halt. We shall examine the explanations and then address the approaches to redress the halt.
Explanations for the Slowing of Disciple-Making:
- The World has moved on and does not care. A childhood adage is at play here: 'When in doubt, blame somebody else--and when you know it was you, try to blame someone else anyway.' This explanation places the blame firmly on those outside of the Church and accuses them of not being open and/or receptive to the Gospel of Jesus. This is probably true, but it has not halted the mission of the Church nor did it hamper Jesus' own ministry. Pointing fingers at the world likely will only lead the Church to further neglect the mission of disciple-making.
- God is causing His Church to dwindle. Many pastors and theologians like to point to the story of Gideon's army. Gideon was a 'judge,' or 'hero' of Israel called to deliver his people from the Midianites, a band of nomads that came about to ravage the people on a pretty regular basis. (The Midianites always remind me of the grasshoppers in 'A Bug's Life.' See the video!) When God delivers his people through Gideon he diminishes Gideon's army so that everyone will know that it was His hand and not their own doing that delivered the people. Some say that the diminishing of the Church is God doing something like this. If that is the case, however, God will use His diminished Church to fulfill the mission in a surprising way that will reveal that God is building the Church and not us. The end result, is that we are still called to the mission, but we are to view this mission primarily, if not entirely, as God's work through us.
- Disciple-Making is a lost art. For a good number of years we have not had to work very hard at filling our pews on Sunday mornings. Much like the mysterious voice in "Field of Dreams" said to Kevin Costner's character, "If you build it, they will come." We built churches and people showed up. With all of this success in our mission, somehow, in some very meaningful ways, we forgot how to do our mission when people did not just show up. In essence, we forgot how to do the "Go" part. In this view, the fault is with us and the deliverance is from the Lord. We are called to repent and get on with the mission. To be fair, many in this congregation and others have not lost this art, but we can all do better at it.
- The Progressive Approach: Each approach tends to couch the problem primarily in one of the three explanations offered above. The Progressive Approach, surprisingly perhaps, takes the second explanation (God is dwindling the Church) as its basis. The Progressive argument is that the Church has lost its way and has become an institution that harbors injustice in the form of discrimination (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.). God is in some way refining the Church until we learn the lesson to reject discriminatory practices and follow after Jesus in justice-making activities (increasingly divorced from Scripture). In other words, the problem is the Church is no longer acceptable to the world and so it must accommodate itself to culture of the world if it desires to make more disciples of Jesus. The way forward is to allow more freedom in both function (the understanding of our faith and our mission) and form (the way we live out our faith and our mission). The argument is that when we are allowed greater flexibility in both of these areas we will move toward God and God will bless us once more.
- The Fundamentalist Approach: This approach tends to couch the problem primarily in the first explanation (the world is not listening). The argument is that the Church is just fine the way it is in both function and form. The Church is right, the Fundamentalist argues, and it is the world that must transform to be acceptable to the Church. The Church is the keeper of Jesus, and if outsiders want to approach Jesus they must become more like those on the inside. The way forward is to maintain a static approach to function and form, demanding compliance and acceptance of function and form as a sort of conversion.
- The Evangelical Approach: The final approach finds the problem to primarily be the the third explanation (we have lost the art of disciple-making). The evangelical approach acknowledges that the world is not listening (the Gospel ought to interrupt our lives) and that the Church is under the authority of God who may increase or decrease her numbers to fit His will. The problem, then, is to be found with the Church. We are no longer effectively communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ. The world is not listening because we are no longer speaking in terms it understands. The Gospel has not changed, but the medium and ministries of transmission are in need of adjustment. Thus, the Church must be open to a flexibility in form, even as it holds firmly to a set function of mission and ministry.
It is my firm contention that the way forward is the Evangelical approach. While such an approach will inevitably lead to conflict both within the Church and with the world, such conflict is necessary and appropriate for the the disciples of Jesus. We simply must hold to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in Jesus Christ and find creative ways of expressing this Gospel to a world as desperate for Jesus as we are.
A bit of history: Now, adopting this Evangelical approach will not be easy and may require some major transitions in our life as a congregation together. In order to understand the approaching transitional discernment and/or conflict, a look back at our history as a denomination may be in order.
Since the 1983 reunion of the southern and northern streams that would become the Presbyterian Church (USA), our denomination has been composed of a coalition of progressives and evangelicals. Through a number of denominational splits beginning in the 1930s the fundamentalist element has largely not been included in the current denominational configuration (and frankly is absent from most of these separated Presbyterian orders as well). Over the last almost 40 years, the tension between the two remaining groups has ebbed and flowed. At the core of this tension is a basic disagreement over the question of how we can be disciple-makers (i.e. the progressive vs. evangelical approach). While sharp words and biting criticism have come from both parties of this uneasy coalition, when one is charitable, one can say both groups desire to make disciples (whether this in fact the case is not in the purview of this post).
The progressive/evangelical coalition has been unraveling almost since its inception (and before). The reunion did little to alleviate tension over progressive leaning decisions to support Angela Davis, to adopt a pro-choice stance and to pursue an agenda that was, by most estimations, deeply politically liberal. Further, the recent tension over the authority of Scripture (with the symptomatic discussion regarding sexuality and ordination/marriage), the uniqueness and/or Lordship of Jesus Christ and transformation/adaptation of denominational structures to a changing cultural landscape have only exacerbated and served to accelerate the unraveling of the coalition. So, a congregation in our current denominational predicament ought to be asking which side of this coalition they ought to be on (as I earlier indicated, I believe the evangelical approach is correct, but this is my view and one the Session will need to arrive at during their time of deep discernment).
In general, the PC(USA) has adopted the progressive approach to the problem of stalled disciple-making. The result of this approach has led to a precipitous decline in membership rolls, baptisms and conversions. A progressive might argue that this alright, given what God is doing. An evangelical would say that we have declined because we have failed to hand on the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints in a meaningful way in our current context. Until recently, the congregations that adopted the evangelical approach in the PC(USA) were, for the most part, the ones that were growing, but this is no longer the case. That is not to say that progressive congregations have all of the sudden seen an uptick in their rolls. It is just to say that the current forms of evangelical discipleship are in need of further adaptation.
Even still, an Evangelical approach allows for a firm sense of essential theology, while allowing for a flexibility in the way the Gospel is shared in a community. That evangelical congregations are in need of adjustment and adaptation in the forms of ministry is to be expected and, even, welcomed as we continue to follow Jesus in this vital act of obedience and worship.
Were the Session to recommend and this congregation to adopt an Evangelical approach to the mission of disciple-making for Jesus, that could happen in at least 4 different paths [these paths are similar to an article written by Carmen Fowler LaBerge recently in The Layman]:
- Stay within the PC(USA) and continue to make disciples. In effect, this is defecting in place.
- Stay within the PC(USA) and join an affinity network, such as the Fellowship of Presbyterians, to differentiate ourselves in place.
- Leave the PC(USA) and join an existing Reformed Body, such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
- Leave the PC(USA) and join a new Reformed Body, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians [ECO], created precisely to support congregations as they adapt their ministries to better proclaim the Gospel.
The way forward from here will mean entering into a time of deep discernment. This process will primarily be located in the ministry of the Elders serving on Session, but any path (with the exception of #1) will finally be decided by a vote of the congregation based on Session's recommendation. In addition, in the meantime, we as a congregation will continue to meet together on a monthly basis, pending Session's approval, for a series of forums to continue to discuss mission and ministry, function and form and how we, right here and right now, can make disciples for Jesus to the glory of God.
As we move forward, this blog will continue to be updated with information on the process, the prayers and the ponderings of the pastor, and, more importantly the Session as well. The Session is set to meet on February 14 for their regular meeting at which time my invitation to enter into this time of deep discernment will be considered and debated. Please be in prayer for the Session as they come to this hard question and consider the difficult way forward as we follow Jesus together. Above all, pray that all of this is done for the glory of God alone as we seek to build Christ's Church.