In the wake of the 140th General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada, an ecumenical friend who was in attendance asked me a most interesting and insightful question:
Knowing the decline in membership in the Presbyterian Church (a fact starkly shown on the screen during the Record’s presentation), why was nobody running around sounding the alarm? I just read a report about the Anglican Church that predicts it will have no members left by 2056; I wonder if the United Church and Presbyterians are far behind. Why wasn’t there a greater sense of concern (or even panic) at the Assembly? Or did I just miss it? Or is that not the Presbyterian way? Or am I off base?
In my twenty-plus years in this denomination, only rarely has anything resembling an alarm been sounded about our membership decline, and when it has been expressed, it has come from only a few different sources. Do we lack a sense of self-preservation? Are we apathetic? Or do we believe God has a greater plan?
While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, it’s possible that all three of these scenarios may be true for us.
I think it might be more than foolish to say that there is no sense of apathy among those affiliated with The Presbyterian Church in Canada. Some are sufficiently wrapped up in the excellent work done by their local churches that what happens to the broader, connectional church is none of their concern. (It might make for a good argument as to whether it ought to be, of course, but let’s leave that for another time.) There are other congregations that are so engrossed in trying to stay afloat for just one more week that the state of health of a denomination matters little when the local entity has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.
There is also the reality of leadership, or lack thereof. When leadership, whether at the local, regional or national level, is weak, it becomes easy to focus on the present without giving a moment’s thought to the future. We can blame this on the clergy or the seminaries or what-have-you, but to be fair, there is so much that needs to be taught to future pastors during their three-year (minimum) tenure in seminary that not everything could possibly be covered. Sometimes, what gets missed is leadership. And even when it doesn’t get missed, not everyone who senses God’s call to full-time Christian service is spiritually gifted for leadership. True, there is a measure of leadership skill that can be taught, and a measure that can be caught, but unless the person has been given a leadership gift by God, there are pretty significant limits to what leadership that person can exercise. (Check out Romans 12.6-8, and other passages, to learn more about the spiritual gift of leadership.)
While we’re on the topic of spiritual gifts, perhaps you’ve noticed that there seems to be a skewed distribution among certain gifts. For example, I don’t know very many Presbyterians (though I do know some) who exercise the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. This is ironic, considering that the use of the gifts of tongues and prophecy is the foundational context for a verse we Presbyterians love to pull out of context: “[B]ut all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14.40, NRSV). But I digress.
The other common spiritual gift that seems in short supply among Canadian Presbyterians is the gift of evangelism. Put simply, the gift of evangelism is a special ability given by the Holy Spirit to be able to explain the good news of Jesus in such a way that people become his followers. Now, we’re all called to have a heart for evangelism, and we’re all called to do evangelism; that’s the crux of the Great Commission. If we’re to be about making disciples, it has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is helping people have a life-changing encounter with the living God through Jesus Christ. Not everyone, of course, will have a special gift that gives him or her the proverbial Midas Touch when it comes to leading people to faith. But surely some must have the gift; where are they? Are there any in The Presbyterian Church in Canada?
Some congregations get so focused on social justice that they miss its hand-in-glove partner, evangelism. That’s too bad, because many acts of social justice can be outstanding ‘pointers’ to faith in Christ. This is, I think, at the heart of being missional in today’s context: we go out into the world, taking Jesus with us as we serve the community in mission. But if our acts of justice are done either without comment or merely for the sake of a better human race, we have moved from ministry to social work, and ought to name it as such. Social work is unlikely to grow God’s Kingdom, but social justice ministries done in Jesus’ name most certainly can.
Faith without works is dead, as James wrote in the New Testament, but works without faith aren’t much good, either.
A lack of evangelistic fervour is a significant contributor to apathy. When we fail to see the good news as truly good – and good for everybody – that banana peel on which one foot is stuck gains significant traction.
The Moderator of the 140th General Assembly, Stephen Farris, noted in one of his series of prophetic, cut-to-the-quick remarks to the Assembly that while sociologists tell us that the world has been moving in a post-denominational direction, perhaps God is doing likewise. In that sense, self-preservation for us, as a ‘tribe’, is pointless; after all, if God is at work, and God’s Kingdom is coming on earth as in heaven, our task as followers of Jesus is not to preserve a particular sub-culture, but to get on board with what God is doing. In other words, God has a greater plan and we should pay attention.
One of the many theological joys of the Reformed tradition is the eminently biblical doctrine of the sovereignty of God. In one of its many iterations, it assures us that when it comes to the future of the church, the work is God’s, not ours. What we sometimes miss in the utterance of that truth is that God regularly chooses to use people in the divine work of preserving the church. We are, as the hymn puts it, “Called as partners in Christ’s service.” So while God has a plan – a greater plan – we can be certain that those who are called by the name of Jesus now are called to be participants in the execution of that plan.
That may mean working for a denomination, but it certainly means working for the Kingdom of God. Let’s be honest: for many people, the future of The Presbyterian Church in Canada is not about a particular expression of God’s work; it’s about the preservation of the Pension Fund. The government will make sure the Pension Fund is preserved, in one fashion or another. If God’s plan is to prosper the Kingdom in some other expression, God is God, and is free to do so!
I am a Presbyterian by choice, not by birth. I serve in The Presbyterian Church in Canada because I believe, at its heart, our expression of God’s church is, at least on paper, the best expression of biblical Christianity. I want to see God prosper The Presbyterian Church in Canada. I seek to heed the clarion call, issued well by some of my colleagues, to do my part to bring growth to this part of God’s vineyard. But I do so for the sake of the edification of the Kingdom, not the upholding of a denomination or its structure.
And ultimately, I think Presbyterians are a people who, above all things, trust God, who will preserve the church universal. Perhaps that is why there were no Chicken Little cries of “The sky is falling!” at the 140th General Assembly. May we all be sensitive to God’s call on our lives to fulfill the divinely-mandated role made for us in that act of preservation.