If someone asked you to describe the Presbyterian Church, what would you say? Would you talk about the worship, or the polity; the theology, or perhaps the governing structures?
Call it what you will (Old School, Traditional, 1960s, Christendom), there has been a way of ‘being Presbyterian’ that I have grown up with in my 35 years on this earth, all the way back to punch and cookies at Parma-South Presbyterian Church in Parma Heights, Ohio.
But here is the kicker: every Presbyterian congregation is not the same. In fact, the more congregations I visit throughout the country and even the world, the more I’m aware of how unique and different each and every one of our congregations really are. Yes, there are quite a few similarities in the larger sense, but there are also some wonderful particularities as well that make our congregations wonderful.
I love the Old School church I was raised in. I was brought up by good and faithful Christians, who showed me Christ’s love in a most life-giving way. The very practices and mindsets that developed over the past fifty years have helped create a foundation from which I have the privilege of ministering with.
As faithful Presbyterians who celebrate the past and look to the future, where are we being called today? What are the ‘essentials’ of a Presbyterian church? And what are simply local customs or preferences?
There has been a movement over the past 15 years or so called the ‘missional’ church movement. While this may seem like a new idea for some within your local congregation (it does take a while for new ideas to enter church dialogue at times), I would like to present some ideas on what church may look like if it were to embrace this missional identity. Please don’t understand. I don’t wish to simply write off the practices that have made the church over the past fifty years. However, I do present them in comparison to a missional understanding of such topics, more as a comparison rather than a value judgment. So here it goes:
|Topic||Old School (Christendom)||New School (Missional)|
|Worship||Classical Worship. Hymns, organs, preachers wearing robes…||Organic Worship. Incorporating local expressions of culture in music, form, technology. This still may mean worship with an organ and robes, but it also may mean bluegrass music outside on a back porch. You may also enjoy reading ‘Beyond the Hymns and Organ’.|
|Financial Stewardship||Pledges. Stewardship drives, pledge cards, and campaigns.||Fundraising. Creating budgets and goals around particular programs and purposes have much more appeal for individuals who want to know where their money is going to. Yes, pledging is very important in helping to discern responsible budgeting, but it can’t be the only source of economic projecting. You may be interested in ‘Fundraising & Budgeting in Ministry’.|
|Mission||Benevolences. Create a diverse giving budget that shares our financial blessings with others. Youth mission trips, food drives, etc.||Balance such giving with action of our members and friends who recognize that mission takes all shapes and sizes near and far. Hands on mission is just as, if not more important than giving to mission partners and agencies. The mission field is right outside the walls of the church itself.|
|Youth Ministry||Family-Based. Create a fun youth spot, offer safe, regular programs, get to know the whole family of ‘your kids’ or your flock based on membership roles.||Share the gospel message with the youth of the neighborhood, especially those who don’t show up on Sunday nights. Bring Christ to them.
You may also enjoy ‘21st Century Ministry with Youth?’.
|Fellowship||Pot-lucks! Enjoy the relationships and fun of long-time members and friends.||Become friends and acquaintances with those who are not in church on Sundays, and be able to invite them into church community. Sometimes this means creating community outside the church walls, in ‘third places’ like a coffee shop or a bar. You may want to read ‘Drinks & Discussion’.|
|Membership||Membership classes, then put them on a committee. Active members tend to stay involved for life.||Today’s generations (especially of young adults) are not looking to join another club. Rather, invite people into your lives first. Allow individuals and families to experience community, then tell them about your structure such as membership.|
|Committees||Committees are what make the church function. Committees are led by Elders, and church members are recruited for such needs.||Workgroups and task forces organized around passions, spiritual gifts, and movements of the Spirit. Workgroups are more flexible, allowing individuals and groups to exist for particular purposes, and not for the sake of institutional structure. This also allows for people who are perhaps not members of the congregation to get involved in the life of the church.|
|Education & Discipleship||Sunday School. This model has worked well for nearly a century.||Small Groups. These groups are built around particular interests, life stages, and needs. Much more flexibility allows for more individuals and families to find a place that works for them. Small groups also allow for a wonderful ‘doorway’ into the life of a church community.|
|Staffing||Pastor-centered with support staff.||Staff would be modeled in response to the understood mission of the congregation; more egalitarian in nature.|
|Evangelism||‘Build it and they shall come.’ Maybe a whimsical church sign.||Open the doors, and exit the building! Members are encouraged to get out to where people are; we are called to be incarnational.|
|Buildings & Grounds||Maintain the beautiful church that previous generations invested in.||Are church buildings really necessary for our mission today? Are there better ways to use our money? Does a church building help create a safe place, or is it an intimidating, uncomfortable, place for those who need to hear of God’s love?|
|Council structure||Top-down; what does General Assembly have to say?||Bottom-up; how does God’s activity on the streets speak to our larger identity as a denomination?|
I think it may be foolish to believe that such a table as I created above can adequately communicate what is going on in this great transition which is the Presbyterian Church in the Twenty First Century. However, perhaps this is good ‘grist for the mill’ as we together continue to think, talk, and live our lives into a new day and age that God calls us towards.
Each congregation has a unique story to tell, as part of a much larger story of God’s movement in the world. Each member, young and old, has wonderful gifts and passions to share with the world. Each tradition, each custom, each story of old has amazing value that makes the Church what I love and protect. We are called to be storytellers to the world around us today as well.
So will every congregation benefit from dropping what they are doing and adopting a ‘missional’ mindset? The short answer is no. It’s not that easy. Each congregation must be willing to honestly look at themselves and discuss how God is calling them to move and be in the days ahead, so that they may not only be relevant to the world around them, but faithful to what God has in store for them as the church. And we as human beings are terribly grumpy when we hear that horrible word, ‘change’. We are not talking about changing a light bulb (insert Presbyterian light bulb joke here). We are talking about changing culture and attitudes, and this takes lots of time. So may we be patient and persistent in listening for God’s word in the lives of our congregations. There is hope.
As always, questions and suggestions are greatly appreciated. If this is a topic that interests you, you may also like my other posts in the ‘Ministry’ section of my page, especially ‘Re-Imagining Congregational Ministry’.