Congregations Dying and Rising

In his own blog, Bishop Grant recently brought my attention to a blog post entitled “A Growing Church is a Dying Church.”

I liked what the blog post said about the role of the pastor:

What then can your pastor do? She can make your board meetings longer with prayer and Bible study. She can mess with your sense of familiarity by changing the order of worship and the arrangement of the sanctuary. She can play those strange new songs and forget about your favorite old hymns. She can keep on playing those crusty old hymns instead of that hot new contemporary praise music. She can bug you incessantly about more frequent celebration of Communion. …


What can she do to grow your church? Nothing. There’s nothing your pastor can do to make your church grow. She can’t save your church. Your church already has a Savior and it’s not her. She can push you. She can open doors. She can present you with opportunities. It’s up to you to take advantage of them.

But the greater point was that churches often look for numerical growth and a prolonged lifespan, which isn’t very Christian. More bodies, sometimes, is precisely what God refuses to provide. And as for length of days: we of all people should not be afraid of death like those who have no hope. Resurrection can’t happen until there’s been a death.

My only quibble with the article — not, I think, with its main thrust, but with its wording — was that it conflated two ideas: transformation and resurrection. Resurrection includes transformation, but not all transformation is resurrection. (Consider the transfigured Jesus and the risen Lord. Consider the Peter of Luke 5 and the Peter of Acts 4. He’s been transformed, but neither one is the Peter we will know in the age to come. Or the Paul of Acts 7–8 and Acts 21. He’s been transformed, but not yet resurrected.)

In the case of a local congregation, what the pastor is trying to orchestrate (midwife?) is transformation, not resurrection. The congregation may resist that transformation. It may prefer to die with dignity than to contextualize the gospel for neighbors who don’t look or sound or behave like the people who paid for the organ or put in that stained glass.

What happens when a congregation dies? Sometimes, our church buildings are recycled as restaurants, or even homes and condos. But sometimes they are resurrected for new worshipping communities, like when the small foreign-language Pentecostal congregation buys the old First Mainline Protestant church downtown. May God bless them and give them a fruitful ministry.

I can’t criticize those few survivors hanging on in First Mainline. They’re tired and dizzied by the way the culture has changed under their feet and overwhelmed by the new demographics of their community. I can understand why they might be ready to go home to be with the Lord, just like Paul.

But life is a gift from God, and we are called to make good use of the time we have been given. Paul himself says it: “if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.”

So let’s let God take care of resurrection, and in the meantime, apply ourselves to the work — and it is work — of being transformed so we can be agents of transformation.

(This article is cross-posted from Pastor Luke’s blog.)

Same-Sex Unions

As you may have heard, at its 221st General Assembly last week, the PC(USA) approved same-sex marriage both by authoritative interpretation and by a proposed change to the constitution. Here’s an article from the Religion News Service, and a blog entry from More Light Presbyterians (pro) and a pastoral letter from Presbyterians for Renewal (con).*

I — Pastor Luke — am studying these measures to understand the logic behind them, but my initial impression is that the authoritative interpretation is gimmickry designed to work around the clear words of the constitution, as evidenced by the proposed changes to the constitution which accompany it.

Sadly, the PC(USA) is not alone in misusing church processes to achieve extra-constitutional ends. The UMC has reinstated Frank Schaefer after previously defrocking him for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding. I previously posted about the UMC situation here.

As a citizen of the U.S., I believe that civil rights should be recognized equally for both straights and LGBTs. Indeed, that is (for me) a bare minimum, and I go well beyond it, as I have posted before.

The case for calling same-sex unions marriage in the theological sense is weak, however, and the Church, however, is not free to make things up.

* I won’t sport with you by pointing you to the PC(USA) website for information. There’s an article there, but it can’t be linked, only downloaded. (Seriously! in 2014!)

Lesbian Clergywoman Cleared of Charges by Highest PCUSA Commission

From the Christian Post:

The highest commission of Presbyterian Church (USA) has cleared a clergywoman of charges that she violated church law when she opted to marry her partner in 2009.

Well. I guess that settles it then. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Sigh. (Note the date of the marriage: at that time the “Fidelity and Chastity” clause was still church law.)

Calvin began with just two notes of the church: the proclamation of the Word and celebration of the Sacraments. Later, he sort of reconsidered and sort of added discipline. This is why.

Accordingly, as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place. Therefore, all who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration–whether they do this deliberately or out of ignorance–are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church. (Institutes IV.12.1)


A survey of the fastest-growing Presbyterian churches shows they have lots of outreach vehicles. (Well, the article said “tentacles,” but I’m not comfortable with that image!)

One way these churches reach out is really reaching in to the congregation to communicate with members and to get people involved as members. They do that by using their websites and offering new member classes.

The fastest-growing congregations reach out to guests by offering multiple worship services and even starting new ones, among other things.

They also reach out to people in need by offering emergency relief, sponsoring mission trips, and allowing community groups to use their facilities.

A lot of those should sound familiar. Jewel Lake Parish is acting a lot like the fastest-growing churches in our denomination. What if it works?

Have you given any thought to who God might be bringing to us? What needs do they have? What gifts do they bring? What could we do with their help?

Take a look at the survey. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Prayer Request

Please be in prayer for the PC(USA) (one of our two denominations) as it holds its 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh at the end of the week. The issues being considered include “small” matters like modifications to our Book of Confessions and the ordination examination process. There are also “big” matters at stake, including “realignment” (of the structure of the denomination beyond the local congregation) and the definition of marriage. A good high-level summary is here:

“It would not surprise me at all if some congregations would see [approval of same-sex relationships] as the straw that broke the camel’s back, for them to leave the denomination,” he added.

Already, dozens of congregations have left the PC(USA) after it approved gay ordination last year.

More PC(USA) Departures

Close on the heels of the departure of First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs, a pair of Mississippi congregations voted to leave the PC(USA).

It’s interesting that 10-A isn’t the (stated) reason for the churches’ departure. The article is probably right in saying 10-A was “the final straw” for many, but these Mississippi churches claimed the real issue was theological differences:

“In a recent survey, almost 60 percent of PC(USA) pastors could not affirm the fact that Christ is the only way to salvation,” said Mitchell.

“How can we possibly continue to have a witness to the world when the pastors or a particular denomination can’t even affirm one of the most basic principles in Scripture?”

I’d say that’s the foundational question: how do we interpret Scripture, and what kind of authority does it have? Certainly 10-A is downstream from there.

10A Repercussions in Colorado

CNS reports that Colorado’s largest PC(USA) congregation is leaving the denomination:

Of the 1,769 congregants of the 4,000-strong church present for the vote, 1,689 members voted in favor of dismissal from PC(USA) to join the recently created Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.

I don’t know the Colorado Springs congregation (my Presbytery of care was Plains and Peaks) but it wouldn’t surprise me if several more Colorado churches were going through a discernment process about leaving the denomination.