Monday, February 27, 2012

Report to the Presbytery February 28, 2012

"Stop the Decline"

I believe in zero. I know I am a dreamer, an idealist, and a seer of visions. What if zero was our goal? For our Presbytery, having zero membership growth in a year would be an amazing accomplishment. Every year since I have been in this Presbytery, and for many years before that, we have lost members. Indeed, our statistics for 2011will show that we lost 154 members. What would it look like, what would happen, how would it feel like if we stopped losing members? What if the Presbytery, which really means what if each of our churches, decided to name a goal that we stop losing members? What if we stopped the decline, here in our churches, in our presbytery? I am not talking about the whole denomination; I am not talking about the future of the Protestant mainline denominations in America; I am talking about us, each of our congregations, in our pews, every Sunday. What if we said “We want to stop declining?” Is it possible? Are we even able to talk about it?

I know all the responses to this crazy idea. Many will ask me why I am obsessed with numbers. Many will say numbers do not matter. What matters is faithfulness and vitality in ministry. I understand that our calling is about spiritual maturity, about Kingdom growth, about proclaiming Jesus and building relationships. I understand that our goal is about spiritual vitality in our hearts and in our congregations. I get that. I fully agree. I understand that there may be many expressions of spiritual vitality in congregations that are not growing. I understand that a vital congregation is not always a numerically growing congregation. Personally, I have been with many blessed, vital, devout spiritual people while they were dying. I understand that a vital church is not always or necessarily a growing church. But I do believe that every growing church is a vital church. Let us at least talk about growing. Let us name the vision that we would like to stop the decline. Stop the decline. Why not zero. Zero growth would, indeed, be fabulous.

I know all the responses to this crazy idea. All the sort of post-modern, missional, emerging, hyped-up, generous orthodox new leaders out there are going to tell me that membership does not matter. You will tell me that membership is an obsolete idea from the age of the institutional church, which is now gone and obsolete. Many will say that we should not even be talking about membership; we should be talking about discipleship. What matters is not having your name on the active list but taking Jesus into the streets. I understand all that. Indeed, I believe we are making a fast transition from an emphasis on membership to an emphasis on discipleship. But we are not there yet. And this year we are still counting members. And I expect that we will still be counting members next year. So let us count more of them. Counting more members is not going to usher in the Kingdom of God, but, my friends, it would certainly be more fun.

Numbers do not matter; I get that. But it sure does feel good that we had a positive cash flow in our Operating Fund. Numbers do not matter, I get that. But it sure does feel good that Dan and Alison Siewert had 40 people at the worship service in their home several weeks ago. Numbers do not matter, I get that. But it sure does feel good that the Presbytery of Carlisle has continued to be one of the top ten presbyteries in shared mission giving. Numbers do not matter, I get that. But it sure does feel good that we had 645 young people at Camp Krislund last summer. Numbers do not matter, I get that. But it sure does feel good that the Pittsburgh Steelers have won the Superbowl six times, more than any other team. Numbers do not matter, I get that. But it sure feels good that we have built four new homes in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and will be going in April to work on number five.

The Presbytery of Carlisle lost 154 active members in 2011. But actually just one of our congregations cleaned their membership rolls and lost 148 members. Can we as a Presbytery stop the decline? Can we talk about zero membership growth? That seems possible to me. We are very close. But it will only be possible if we start talking about it. It will only be possible if we are intentional about our goals and plans. It will only be possible if we make sure our own church is a place of deep hospitality in every way. It will only be possible if every person who walks into our church is called by name, is welcomed as a beloved child of God, and is spoken with authentically and intimately. It will only be possible if we stop being so resigned to our continuing decline and pray like we have never prayed for Christ to transform our hearts and bless our churches.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Andrew Walls

Book: Understanding World Christianity: The Vision and World of Andrew F. Walls. Edited by William R. Burrows, Mark R. Gornik, and Janice A. McLean. Orbis Books, 2011.

We need Andrew Walls. Never in my academic study of theology was I introduced to the work of Professor Andrew Walls. But in recent years I have read widely in the area of mission studies to understand, bolster and support my commitment to Presbyterian World Mission. I believe that our work in World Mission is the shining light in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) today; I am motivated to participate in and support this work. In doing so I have sought to develop a solid theological foundation for our international mission work. I have found that theological foundation in the work of Andrew Walls.

It may be a unique tribute to the remarkable influence of Professor Walls that there is a new book gathering a collection of essays which seek to explain and define his lasting influence. And this new book is now available while Professor Walls is still alive. Walls is still teaching from his position at the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World at Edinburgh, which he founded, but also in Ghana and regularly in the United States through the Yale – Edinburgh Group.

I believe every theological student, and our seminary curriculum, and our church leaders need to seriously engage the important work of Andrew Walls. To simply summarize the work of Andrew Walls is to say that we must live and work today within the context of World Christianity. For many of us, this insight has become common sense. But Andrew Walls is the scholar who first named this truth for the western Christian academic world.

This quote from Wilbert Shenk’s essay expands the point:
“It was impossible to understand either the contemporary world or the church without the aid of mission studies. A survey of the changes in church and world between 1568 and 1868 showed that distribution of the Christian population worldwide had changed little. But in the century since 1868 a momentous transformation had occurred. In 1900 Christianity in Africa was still negligible but by 1967 the trends were that Africa was rapidly becoming the continent with the largest Christian population. Failure to understand this massive shift was to misunderstand the emerging new world. Historical Christendom as a territorial reality was rapidly disintegrating.”

Indeed Andrew Walls has himself argued, “That we will begin to grasp the ‘fullness of Christ’ only as we bring together the insights that can be gained through comparative historical and comparative theological studies – Greek and Hebrew, Germanic and Latin, second-generation Africa Christian experience and second-century Gentile Christian faith.”

If we seek to understand the reality of the church in our world today, I believe that Church leaders must add the work of Andrew Walls to our reading lists.

Monday, February 6, 2012

George Washington

There is fabulous new, Pulitzer Prize winning biography of George Washington titled Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press, 2010). The book includes a brilliant chapter, "Providence", on Washington's devout commitment to the Anglican Church and reflection on his theological perspectives. This one sentence from Washington himself certainly still rings true today:

"Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconciliable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause." (Chernow, page 132).

And here is an insightful description of Washington's personal attitude toward religion:

"Some of Washington's religious style probably reflected an Enlightenment discomfort with religious dogma, but it also reflected his low-key personal style. He was sober and temperate in all things, distrusted zealotry, and would never have talked of hellfire or damnation. He would have shunned anything, such as communion, that might flaunt his religiosity. He never wanted to make a spectacle of his faith or trade on it as a politician. Simply as a matter of personal style, he would have refrained from the emotional language associated with evangelical Christianity. This cooler, more austere religious manner was commonplace among well-heeled Anglicans in eithteenth century Virginia."

It seems to me that a low-key, sober, temperate, austere personal style is not a bad thing. It describes a quiet, persevering faithfulness which reminds me of many Presbyterian saints I have known.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Kaleidoscopic Fragmentation

Do we need another, new denomination?

“If the quest of the church is for unity in Christ, the on-the-ground reality has been kaleidoscopic fragmentation. And the kaleidoscope is spinning with increasing speed. In the past dozen years, formal organizational diversity among Christians has grown by 26 percent, swelling from an estimated 34,100 denominations in the year 2000to a projected 43,000 by mid-2012.”

Quoted from:
Dwight P. Baker
“Unity, Comity, and the Numbers Game”
International bulletin of Missionary Research
Issue 36:1, January 2012