This is a Conversation
Tom Are, Jr.
Village Presbyterian Church,
Prairie Village, KS
I am very grateful that you are here this morning. I know that you are probably a bit uncertain as to what exactly we are about today. In the event that uncertainty leaves you wondering if you missed an email somewhere along the way, let me assure you that you did not. It is my hope that we will discover together what it is we are about. In an effort to lower the bar of expectations, let me say first of all this is a conversation. Today, it is no more and no less. It is a conversation. In an effort to keep your attention let me remind us that there have been conversations –for example
with a woman at the well about water, or
with a Pharisee at night about birth, or
in an upper room about bread or
in a church court about Gentiles. These have been conversations that have shaped the life of the church. So I suggest today, in both humility and hope, I believe this is a conversation that matters.
Twice over the past nine months, 15 pastors from across the country met to begin this conversation. It is, I think, part of a collection of conversations taking place across the church. We are not alone in seeking discernment regarding where God is leading the church today. Those of us who have begun talking with one another about the direction of the church want to broaden this conversation. That is why we have invited you to be here today. The thing I can say most clearly is that we are here because we all love Jesus Christ and his church, and believe that the world needs the particular witness of the Presbyterian Church today as much as ever. There are, however, big questions as to what it means to offer our particular witness in our day, and questions as to how to do this most effectively and faithfully. But to this purpose of bearing witness to Jesus Christ as Presbyterians, we are eager to devote our passion, our theological creativity, and our leadership.
By everyone’s account, the church is not what it used to be.
To some this is liberation, indeed the working of God’s Spirit. After all, whom among us would want to put on our church sign, “Come on in; we are exactly what we used to be.”
To others the shifting assumptions of what it means to be the church is a cause for great concern.
Both reactions are justified. A result, however, is that in this season of the church’s life, in which we minister, the particular witness of our church, is weak, if not on life support.
The following is presented for no greater purpose than to set a context for our conversation.
Where have all the leaders gone?
My personal reason for being here is I need your partnership in seeing a way forward. I remember the days when Presbyterians in more vivid and vital fashion contributed to the repair of the world. We had leaders. They challenged us. They charted a strategy for mission. They motivated us. As a result, we built schools. We built hospitals. We planted churches in Kansas and Kenya and Korea. We sent doctors and teachers, farmers and theologians to serve in ways that made the church more Christian and the world more human. We may not have been an exhibition of the kingdom of heaven for the world, but we did bear witness to it. I grew up in the hallways and heartways of congregations that committed themselves to these kinds of missions. I graduated from a college dreamed into life by Presbyterians. I attended a Seminary born and sustained through the commitments of congregations in the East. I have visited Presbyterian hospitals in Ghana and schools in Ecuador. I have prayed in a Presbyterian sanctuary in Khartoum, Sudan whose multicultural congregation was constituted by a collision between the black world of Africa and the Arab world of the Middle East offering a Pentecost-like witness that a common confession in Jesus Christ can actually be stronger than culture. I grew up in a season when a disproportionate percentage of civic leaders, business leaders and politicians were Presbyterian. We had a particular witness to offer and we were effective. This was the church of my childhood. This was the kind of church that made me proud to be Presbyterian.
The Times have changed
The church has changed, but not enough. The culture has changed more. The Presbyterian “ecosystem” in which I was raised is today the stuff of museum display. The contemporary church must learn to respond to the diverse “cultural” realities that are ethnic but perhaps more so generational.
A few marginally related observations about change:
- Now Presbyterians are known, as is the balance of our mainline family, as the denomination that argues over sexual orientation. This fight remains important inside the church, as we have attached central convictions about scripture, Christology even sin and salvation to this argument, that it is impossible to see it as anything but central in the ecclesial conversation. But the culture sees this as old news. It is a stumbling block for us outside the church.
- Our neighborhoods have changed. In what Dr. Diana Eck of Harvard calls the “New Religious America”  the nation is much more religiously diverse. You dare not assume that the folks you meet in the grocery store are churched. Even if they are, you would likely be disappointed if you assume they can tell you the Ten Commandments or know the story of the prodigal son. It is very possible that they are Muslim or Hindu or of Native American spirituality (and if so, they are likely to know well the basics of their faith). The religious world has come to us.
- The means of establishing community is in a shift as significant as the shift we experienced when population moved from rural to urban life. In the rural days, community was defined largely as family: that’s who “your people” were. The move to the cities meant that community became largely defined by friendship rather than blood. Today we are experiencing an even more dramatic shift. We live in a time of “social networks” in which technology is not simply a means to communication; it is a means to create connection, even community. It is not only the fact, but the speed of such change that is significant. Consider this: It took Radio 38 years to reach 50 million viewers. It took TV 13 years to reach 50 million viewers. Facebook, which began in a college dorm room, reached 100 million participants in nine months. Or this: ABC began broadcasting in 1948 and from 1948 to 2008 broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. The total number of viewing hours logged by ABC over 60 years was surpassed by You Tube in the last six months of 2008. Among websites visited You Tube is 3rd, following only Facebook (second) and Google. All of this has implications for community and therefore for being church.
- Calendars have changed. Some polls reveal: ask a Presbyterian in their 60’s if they attend church regularly, a positive response means they attend 3.5 times a week. The same question and same positive response from someone in their 20’s means they attend church 10-12 times a year.
- How the church is viewed has changed. Michael Kinnaman’s UnChristian provides unsettling polling data, revealing 38% of 16-29 year olds in this country are hostile to Christianity. To say it more clearly, they don’t reject Jesus, they don’t like us. From outside the church they see Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps and they think we are all like them. To be fair many have probably had encounters with churches that have supported their stereotype. They think we hate gays, we are judgmental, hypocritical and ignorant of the spiritual questions they are asking. They see us as elevating belief while they elevate experience.
- Most significantly, in the midst of such revolutionary change, many of the leaders of Presbyterian congregations (pastors and elders) were born and raised in a Presbyterian ecosystem of a previous day. As I have stated above, it was in many ways a good day, a glorious day, a day when we were effective. Many are aware that this glorious day has died but they are at a loss of how to respond to the present situation. The old ecosystem still works well enough—as a shadow of its former self— for some and therefore, even if they knew how to change, too many lack the motivation to do so.
We speak of reformed and always reforming, but this has to be more than a theological claim. Our reforming theology needs to bear fruit in reforming strategy, model and forms of being church.
A closer look at the PCUSA
Given these shifting cultural realities, it should not surprise us to remember that since 1965 the Presbyterian Church has lost 46% of our membership. From 1964 to 1965 was the last year the church showed a net gain in membership. The six years of the greatest percentage declines since 1965 are 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 & 2008. In 1983, the year of reunion, our church baptized almost 51,000 infants. In 2008 that number dropped by 48% to approximately 26,000 infant baptisms.
There is a relationship between growth and new congregations. In Kansas City, where I serve, our largest mainline congregation (Methodist, over 7,000 worshippers each weekend) has begun three other “sites” in the past three years. During that same time, our Presbytery has dismissed three congregations and closed another, with several more on the way out. The last new church we began was a joint venture with the Lutherans initiated five years ago (which is doing well) and an immigrant congregation born in the basement of Village(also doing well). There are no plans to begin a new church in our growing city.
Facing all of this transition, I have been concerned and have wondered privately and sometimes wondered aloud with colleagues “why can’t we get leadership like we used to have?”
I was looking in the wrong place
I have waited for leadership from Louisville. Let me say clearly, this is not a meeting to beat up on Louisville or anyone else. As a church we have exhausted ourselves by beating up this faction or that and we have beaten ourselves into irrelevance. This is not a conversation to beat up on anyone; it is a conversation to seek and claim what our responsibilities as pastors are in this new day.
This is not my criticism, it is my confession. I waited for the old leadership to show up in Louisville. Over this time, the folks I met in governing body leadership were often smart, compassionate, filled with a servant love for the church and were as committed to mission as I. But there was no dying, something has happened. I have come to the conclusion that what has happened has not happened in Louisville. The “happening” is in our pews.
The happening in our “pews.”
The Presbyterian Church thrived in a day when the culture valued institutions. Our governing bodies (institutions) could network, strategize, and coordinate strategic plans for mission at home and around the world. As a result dollars and volunteers and prayers from congregations would flow upstream making of us a collection of congregations whose impact far exceeded our numbers.
But the culture no longer values institutions. Institutions as such do not command loyalty, trust and certainly not generosity. But we are still trying to do mission institutionally. Every governing body still talks about being a mission entity. Trying to live institutionally is increasingly challenging.  I would imagine that every one of you has attended the same mission committee meeting I have. It is the one when you make the case for sending money to Presbytery or GA. I give them my power-point and tell the story. All the while they are looking at me as if I had suggested we replace the chancel choir with Elvis impersonators. Why? Institutions as institutions no longer carry respect or value in and of themselves.
It is helpful, I think, to know that Governing Bodies have not always been mission agencies in our denomination. For more than 100 years Presbyteries in this country devoted themselves to the business of governance, not mission. It was the calling to Christianize the American Frontier that gave birth to structured mission in Governing Bodies. While the northern and the southern church approached this in different ways organizationally, it did reveal a certain Presbyterian Genius. In that day we paid attention to the need but also the strengths of the culture in which we lived. Based on both, we developed strategies that maximized our impact.
But the culture has changed.
At Village when we support a local mission project we do a “site visit” to the health clinic or soup kitchen or whatever. The visiting teams always come back energized. Two of the past three years we have done “site visits” to Louisville. (I would suggest you do that as well. You will find staff who are eager to share with you what they are doing and there are good stories to take back to your churches.)
Among other insights you will hear that governing bodies exist to serve ministry/mission at the congregational level. In this culture governing bodies have little option. I think they are right in this assessment. However, think about the strategy this leaves us.
If the Congregations are the front line of mission, and I think they are, it raises the question, where does leadership in mission for the whole church come from?
The Presbyterian Church has 10,700+ congregations. If the congregations are leading the way in mission that means we have 10,700 leaders, which is to say we have no real leaders. In every way we are scattered, fragmented, even divided.
Louisville cannot change that. This cultural shift reflects a change in the pew. My congregants and I am sure yours as well, do not need or want a governing body to determine mission priorities or possibilities for them. They want to make those decisions themselves. A wonderful result of this change is that the touch of mission is more grassroots than it has been in the history of our church. We are no longer dependent on the missionary from the Congo to bring slides to show at a church night supper. We have our own stories to tell. Our members have weighed babies in the Dominican Republic or painted walls of a clinic in Mexico. This is a gain!
BUT, THERE IS A HUGE LOSS. The loss that I am pointing to is the loss of collaboration. With reduced collaboration we see reduced impact. What is not reported in those mission trip videos played back home is that too often the same wall in Mexico has been painted by a congregation from NC and another in Pennsylvania and perhaps one from Kansas—– all in the same year.
We have recognized that mission is not simply about projects. Mission requires relationships. Yet, this new realization has planted itself in a new culture which means we have traded a kind of effectiveness for intimacy. We would be stronger if we did not see this is a choice. Why can we claim both?
If congregations are to provide the leadership for mission, then we must discover new ways for congregations to collaborate.
There is a second factor to consider regarding congregational leadership for mission. Every congregation makes a difference, but not every congregation shares the same responsibility to the whole. In most contexts a critical mass is needed for the congregation to have an impact beyond itself. Without claiming to define what that critical mass is (and it will certainly vary in differing contexts), we do know this about the PCUSA:
The PCUSA has 10,700+ congregations. Fully 50% of these congregations have 100 members or less, and 25% have 50 members or less. For many of our congregations installed pastoral leadership is difficult if not out of the question. Almost half of our “shops” do not have the resources to keep the doors open during the week. Bump the membership count to 200 members and you are speaking of 73% of the Presbyterian congregations.
There are 914 congregations(8.5%) with 500 members or more.
There are 96 congregations that have 1600 members or more (.8%) and another 96 at 1200 or more.
Ministry happens in all congregations and this analysis of who we are is not intended to suggest that larger churches are more important. It is rather to say that small is large in our church. A congregation of 201+ members in the PCUSA is a large congregation—-among largest quarter of congregations!
Congregations play different roles on our collective life, but we have found an engaging way to coalesce these various roles. To say it again, we need to ask ourselves what our responsibility is in this new day.
Often, in the present Presbyterian culture larger congregations are needed to provide financial support for the work of governing bodies, while at the same time these congregations find themselves needing less of what the connectional church provides. Many of our Presbytery budgets secure the vast majority of their funding from a handful of congregations, while these funding congregations are somewhat distant from the implementation of mission. It is a rather disengaging model.
I suggest that one of the new critical roles that any congregation with the capacities to reach beyond itself must assume in this new day is to explore and engage a new model of connectionalism.
What would it look like for congregations to collaborate? Toward what purposes could we collaborate? Let us dream together. Could we be more intentional about who we send to Seminary? Could we be more complete in providing mentoring for graduates of seminary? Can we discover ways to increase the number of congregations planted and increase the chances that they thrive? Could we dream of ridding the world of inadequate access to clean water? Or insuring every woman in Afghanistan or every kid in Palestine or every village in Kenya or preschooler in downtown Detroit has a chance to go to school?
I am not seeking to be directive, but illustrative. I do believe if we collaborate our witness can have greater impact.
Because our need to collaboration is ultimately rooted in our call to live the gospel, we must remember that collaboration is more than doing tasks together. Our relationship with one another may be our most important offering.
Not only what we do, but also how we live together is a critical piece of collaboration. Something ugly is happening around us and sometimes among us. Righteousness has come unhinged from meekness. Convictions are voiced with a certainty that seems severed from humility. We look at our world, our political situation, as well as the testimony Presbyterians have offered much of the past 20 years and it makes you wonder, as a friend of mine once said, “it seems like someone opened the door and all the grown-ups left the room.” We need to act like grown-ups. That is a call to civility, but more than civility. It is a call to fidelity, but more than fidelity. We need to reclaim the role of being sense-makers for a culture that is so skeptical it no longer trusts that sense can be made. We need to exhibit hope in a culture that is stricken by fear. Paul tells us that everything we preach, everything we see, everything we know, our very existence as a church is rooted in God’s choice for resurrection. As sense-makers, we need to claim a voice of hope in the storm of fear; and more than speaking, we need to demonstrate that hope in our treatment of one another.
So what now?
This is not a conference, for we do not have answers. This is a conversation. Scott Black Johnson said at the end of our first meeting, “I feel like this is asking what’s next for PCUSA.” Next has stuck in our minds. But understand clearly, next is a question not a proclamation. As such it is a theological confession. “Next” is ultimately a declaration of faith that God is doing something, something new. It reminds of the promise of the old prophet, “I am doing a new thing!” But there is an exhortation as well…”do you not perceive it?” My confession today is that I do not see this new thing with clarity; but I claim enough trust in the Gospel to believe together it can be seen.
The 15 pastors who began this conversation found growing energy to collaborate and our conversation has drawn us to three general areas of the life of the church. We wish to spend time today by engaging your thoughts about three focal areas.
- We recognize that we need to join the conversation about what governing bodies need to provide our congregations (rather than what congregations need to provide the governing body)
- We want conversation about vocation:
- Campus ministry
- Who goes to seminary
- We want further conversation about mission as both relational and effective.
I don’t know the way forward. Saying that this is a conversation rather than a shared task or an agenda that we must check off admits that we may discover significant frustration along the way. I am fully aware that you may have flown to Minneapolis to discover that as we ask ourselves if it is possible to discover new ways of collaborations we may discover the answers are negative. But if we can find a way together to say “yes,” it may be a singular moment of leadership and faithfulness that is needed from us in this season when leadership for this portion of Christ’s body rests with us.
. July 2, 2010 a group of pastors gathered in Minneapolis, MN to reflect together on ways to enrich the witness of the church. These remarks were offered by Rev. Tom Are, but resulted from a conversation that initiated with the following group of pastors:
Scott Black-Johnston (5th Ave, New York); Christian Chakoian (Lake Forrest, Il)
Lib McGregor Simmons (Davidson, NC) Andrew Foster Connors (Brown Memorial, Baltimore)
Pen Peery (1st, Shreveport), Agnes Norfleet (Shandon, Columbia, SC)
Lewis Galloway (2nd Indianapolis) Karen Sapio (Claremont)
Tim Hart-Andersen (Westminster, Minneapolis); John Wilkinson (3rd, Rochester);
Carla Pratt-Keyes (Ginter Park, Richmond, VA); Joe Clifford (1st Pres; Dallas);
Shannon Johnson Kershner (Black Mtn, NC) Fairfax Fair (Highland, Louisville, Ky)
 . Diana Eck, The New Religious America
 . Socialnomics.com
 . Michael Wesch, an anthropologist from Kansas State University. It should be recognized that the viewing impact is different. For a majority of ABC’s viewing years, it was mass viewership. The majority of You Tube videos are viewed by 100 people or less. However, we all know how some videos in a matter of hours and days can circle the world and become viewed by millions.
 . Kinnaman, UnChristian
 . Board of Pensions publication, Here is the Church…..; pcusa.org stats
 . This is not to suggest that Governing bodies do not play an essential role in governing; this is simply to acknowledge the way mission is done is changing. There is an increased burden on congregations.
 . I am also indebted to Ted Wardlaw for this metaphor.