My friend Adam Walker Cleaveland, posted a great warning on the presbymergent site about trying to "save the PC(USA)" . You can read the good discussion in the comments section. One discussion partner, Shawn Coons wrote a response that begins to bring this worthwhile discussion into perspective. He asks is the PC(USA) worth saving, and argues that he would work to save presbymergent or pomomusings (adam's project- and a facebook group i joined) if they, too, were struggling.
While Shawn's compassion is lovely, I'm not sure that people's obsolete inventions (what is implied by institutional death) are always helped by our enabling. It could be that the very people maintaining these systems, my sisters and brothers in Christ, are called by the Spirit to rebuild them (continually being reformed) if we youngbloods didn't give them another way out. Sure, our Christian hope in the coming kingdom of God includes a servant church, the called out ones established in Jesus Christ, but the church will prevail regardless of denominational inventiveness or preservation. I'm hopeful that the church's task will be accomplished in the finishing grace of God, by people, and not by any other organizing metastructure. And so it seems to me that our relationship with a denomination or congregation is terribly thin, and rooted in our own promises to oneanother, not in promises to an ontologically necessary structure. Using some presbyterian moves, I've fleshed this out in a reply to a couple great questions posed by Shawn
I just left a presbytery meeting where we discussed a lower budget and, while one noted that campus ministry was cut by more than 35%, the presbytery was basically asked to either "trust the process" or vote for "more funds for my or your idea." The whole thing was not as ugly as it could have been, but it did leave me thinking, why are we doing this?
Which makes Shawn's comments interesting. you should read his post, but here are a few cursory responses (R) to the questions (Q) he poses to Adam, and to me by association, I guess.
Q. If you are not concerned about the dying PC(USA) then why be a part of it?
R. I joined the PC(USA) as a connectional community seeking to display the kingdom of God, and our connection is rooted in the fidelity of that God to bring such kingdom and provisional toward that end alone...
In a sense we joined a team in the game of kingdom work, and when the court and the players adapt and we are no longer playing that game but simply running drills like the harlem globetrotters, then its time to let the team end on its own, not set up an endowment that it might play in perpetuity.
a few excerpts from our book of order:
G-3.0401c, "The church is called to a new openess to the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God's activity in the world."
G 30400. "The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk
of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of
life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that
point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ."
Q. If we choose to be here [in the PC(USA)], aren’t we affirming that God is at work here? And if we affirm God’s work being done here, shouldn’t we be concerned if that work should stop?
R. Niehbur might have said this best in his "approximation of brotherly love." To grossly paraphrase this ethical concept, we work toward an ideal, toward an eschatological promise, and yet we are called to submit these working ideals to critiques. We can learn by what is not working, that it may no longer fit. While eschatological hope (and prophetic imagination) is a guide our prior hopes and actions are not "proof" that God's mission depends upon us hoping them and doing them forever.
I agree with Shawn's last comments, "I think we can be concerned about the survival of the denomination, without being inordinately concerned about it." However, I am worried that we assume, then, that our call is to refine and protect our precious denomination/church/ideology because of it's historical precedence. Survival of a structure does not guarantee its future usefulness. But continually rebuilding and being rebuild (with consideration of the construction tools we have been handed by the great cloud of witnesses before us), that is missional.
returning to the presbytery meeting I just left- What if we were led by images from scripture and the testimonies of those structure ahead of us (all signs that the spirit uses) to hand our denomination away, to put it in risk, the way that G30400 might dare, like Barmen dares, like paul dared as he met with Peter and others in the Jerusalem counsel? What if we were not concerned with renewing a previous thing, but building something funded in those testimonies for our children and for our neighbor?
On sunday I spoke at a local Atlanta church on the topic of missional churches (you can download the podcast of the class here). Using the Newbigin triad, i was explaining how the church is not the end-user of the gospel but placed in relationship with culture by the gospel.
Afterwards an architect came to me and described his firms approach to designing hospitals. He noted that all the other firms in Atlanta come to the client with three different options, A, B, or C. And they ask the hospital which would they would prefer. His firm, however, asks the client to describe what they hope to become in their hospital service, to describe the functions. He saw a similarly between his firm's work with hospitals and our church structures addressing culture, those we are called to bless with our hope-in-action.
I think that the "renew our denominations" drum is too concerned with finding clients to keep models A,B,or C in business. And we could learn from the architects who (1) ask about the future that their clients hope to see, and (2) are building (appropriating classical knowledge) based on function and not precedence.