NOTE: This post is only for church people and non-church people. Everyone else can ignore!
The Presbytery of the Cascades is navigating a Strategic Planning process and developing new mission and vision statements. One of the threads that has shown up is a concern that in a time when we are trying to connect with the broader community we use too much “insider” language. Others have commented that our language isn’t religious enough and could fit any do-gooding non-profit.
The fact that comments come from both sides of the spectrum tells me that this is a core issue that we must face. It goes to the very heart of who we are and how we relate to the world. It reflects the need to answer two very basic questions:
- What does it mean to be a Presbyterian Christian?
- How do we best communicate that to the rest of the world?
I am going to invite us into a dialogue that could last as little as six weeks to as many months as it takes to come out the other side of this. This is important and, quite honestly, why I accepted this position four years ago. I have a long-standing commitment to the values of the Presbyterian Church, but also to finding ways to communicate those values to a public that often bristles at church insider language.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a Book of Order which represents one-half of our Constitution. I won’t bore with the details, but just know that it provides the philosophical and theological basis for who we are as well as the guidelines and rules for what we do. In the first foundational chapter (F-1.0304—yes, that is how exciting it is!), are named The Great Ends of the Church. They read:
The great ends of the Church are:
- the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
- the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
- the maintenance of divine worship;
- the preservation of the truth;
- the promotion of social righteousness; and
- the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.
Over the coming weeks (and possibly months) I will provide some fodder for unpacking each of these in response to the two basic questions, “What does it mean to be a Presbyterian Christian?” and “How do we communicate that to the world?”
I want to invite you to comment, respond and add your own thoughts. I will stay with each of the “great ends” for as long as it takes to unpack all the nuances of them—even if this dialogue lasts six months rather than six weeks. I won’t move to the second “great end” until we have squeezed everything we can out of the first “great end.” Seriously, tomes have been written on this stuff so we could be at this for a while if you decide it is worth engaging in. Quite honestly, I hope you do want to engage. The future of the Church depends on this dialogue.
We have a real gift and an opportunity here. The comment section in my blog reflects a pretty even split between people affiliated with a church and people for whom their spirituality has taken them beyond the church. Because I will be dealing with the language that we use to communicate our deepest values (“great ends”) it could be illuminating to hear from both groups of people and to see a rich dialogue develop.
The church needs to hear from the people beyond the church. And, I believe, those “spiritual but not religious” folks who are following my blog wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have some stake in the outcome of this.
Be liberal with questions and comments.
Let the dialogue begin.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, The Presbytery of the Cascades
I am someone on the borderline of your “churched and non-churched” audience. I am a member –nay, elder — in the Yachats Presbyterian Church. Yet my background in psychology, my Zen training, and my nature make me much more fit for the “spiritual, but not religious” category. I see huge problems with the viability and longevity of each of these “ends.” It begins with their overall arrogance.
“We, the good, will save you, the bad.” That is the main and persistent theme of the presupposition underlying the surface message. When there was a mortal fear of being grouped with “the bad” this worked better. Now there is little to no fear of Hell in the culture, or even the church. It is merely off-putting, condescending and insulting.
I believe in the first line of the Apostles Creed bc of my acceptance into Bethany Presbyterian Church back in 1985 when my faith was floundering. Through their Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, many mission trips, song and especially the fellowship, I found what I’d been missing… a connection with God and His son. I, also, found a new calling as I enjoyed creating banners for each season in the church. Brian, your positivity and accepting personality of those around you only increased my belief I was learning more about God and who I wanted to be. I’m struggling now bc Covid has cut my fellowship time, but I still have a strong faith and belong to a group of friends who call themselves Prayer Warriors. We hold each other up. Thanks for your Holy Breadcrumbs words. Carol
Sent from my iPhone
For openers it seems important to remind ourselves that Jesus did not write anything down regarding his teachings relating to the “Good news Gospel” or the “Salvation of human kind”. This primary “great end” of the Presbyterian Church is dependent upon information from various sources, most of unknown origin, written decades after the death of Jesus, and then carefully interpreted, organized, and developed by the early Roman Catholic Church to conform to their belief system and developed theology. Hopefully any attempt at present day “Proclamation” for the “Salvation of Mankind” would keep the early development of the Gospel in mind, and the large diversity of belief systems involving humankind. Any attempt to understand and “proclaim” the gospel needs to focus on not just the written words of the Gospel writings and theology developed by the church, but also the circumstances and the underlying human message Jesus is providing relating to the major themes of his life and teachings (Love of God & Neighbor—Compassion—Forgiveness) Jesus, at his best, does not do much “proclaiming”. He is just a quiet Story Teller with a clear underlying message (Who is my neighbor—Let he who is without Sin cast the first stone). Whether “Proclaiming the Gospel” results in the “Great End” of the “Salvation of Mankind” would seem rather uncertain and perhaps unlikely, since the word “Salvation” is open to a variety of meanings, and to the best of my knowledge is not defined in the Presbyterian Constitution. As with most theology based organizations, the concept of being “Saved” from “something” is usually dependent on your Personal Belief in some set of concepts that gets you off the hook. (usually developed by churches) The statement of belief, at least in theory, will result in some type of reward for your efforts. Some Churches and Clergy make millions of dollars preaching a “Rewards Gospel” to an enthusiastic membership, but in the end, who knows about “Salvation”, perhaps it is just a delusion after all.
Very interesting observations, Herman. Here’s two cents’ worth in reply from my side of the pew-oriented pulpit: salvation comes from Latin “salva me” – save me. From early church times, persecution fit exactly the social injustices we see today. Only for the Hebrew sect of Judaism known as “followers of the way” of Jesus, they were the persecuted, so “save me” meant a lot – the way of Jesus, love neighbor as self, meant just that. Look out after all those around you – family and non family alike; helping one another through a life and reality of persecution. I think “salva me” made it into the doctrines of the church, even if subsequently the church replaced the Roman Empire as the entity needing to be “saved from.” Today, the same injustices are present with “White Western Civilization’s Systemic Political Power Ethic” being the entity needing to be saved from. Especially from the perspective of BIPOC “followers of the way.” Salva me, indeed.
I am going to enjoy going with you on your journey. I continue to have many questions about our church, my faith, and relationships with others. I really wonder if six months will be long enough for this dialog. It is like peeling an onion (This means to delve into a problem, one layer at a time, to thoroughly understand what’s causing all the trouble.) The more I peel, the deeper my questions. I have to wonder if that is how God wants it to be because the more I dig for Him, the sweeter the water. Thank you for this conversation.
Align better with all life: learn in/from nature, and our bodies, like our earliest holy people. Feel God without distraction. Celebrate.
Reinforce your resonant Bible teachings with physical or meditative experience others or alone.
Lightly practice selflessness without expectation.
Study our mentors, Bible scholars and philosophers across spiritualities.
BACK TO BASICS!
I think I’ll have to take a “grain of salt” look at those “great ends.” I echo Fran’s thoughts above, that there is an implicit (and broken) “us-them” in those statements. The only three I see that have any viability moving into the “Age of the Spirit” as Phyllis Tickled called it, are these:
1. The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
2. The promotion of social righteousness (we have a lot to answer to, a lot to repent of, and a lot of reparations to be made) and
3. The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
Additional thoughts: “Kingdom” of Heaven has its own challenges, as many from non-hierarchical perspectives would attest. “Kindom” is as close as many can come to try to fix that implicit power structure issue. The point behind the verbage is to witness to the indwelling of God’s Spirit in the Earth, among all “ha-adamah,” or “the earth beings” created of Earth by God. From my perspective is all-inclusive, not gender-specific, not even human-specific. If indeed God is Love, then the Holy Being has,is, and will forever “beget” in love, with love, through love – or, put another way, God eternally becomes that which God loves, and God Loves All.
I wonder if the basic difference in orientation can be traced back to the Romans and the desert fathers and mothers. I know this is very simplistic and reflects my lack of education about church history, so forgive the glaring errors.
Anyway, in my simple way of thinking, the Christian church as we know it in some way grew out of the Roman empire more than out of the teachings of Jesus. The church has a lot of qualities of “empire” if you think about it. And much of Christian theology comes not from Jesus but from Paul, who, even though dramatically converted, still came from a background in church hierarchy and organization. And then when embraced by the Roman Empire, the church was automatically absorbed into an existing political structure based on conquest and the expansion of power.
So from the get go, the church grew along these external lines of organization and power, relying on structure and rules, rather than along the internal lines of mystic union with the divine, relying on personal revelation and inner guidance. Indeed, the folks who took that route did not organize but went out into the desert and did their own thing, so to speak.
Now it seems that church folks like yourself are exploring how to integrate these two divergent paths. The the question is whether that is ever possible. The mystical path cannot be organized into any structure, it seems to me. Like Bruce Lee said, you can’t organize truth — that’s like taking a pound of water and trying to shape it in wrapping paper.
Which doesn’t mean that the organized church serves no spiritual purpose — it undeniably does that for many people. But as long as it identifies “great ends” that unavoidably separate people into us and them, especially in an arrogant way, as one commenter said, it can’t, almost by definition, be a place of spiritual sustenance for those on the mystic path more akin to the desert mothers and fathers.
So as I watch from the outside, I wonder if you are trying to find some way to fit under one roof the Romans and the desert mystics.
Just some musings on a rainy day. Always enjoy your posts and your process.
Sounds fascinating. Count me in.
Whew! Whatever could “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind” mean? Definitely not (for me) people knocking on doors with pamphlets. Maybe it’s talking with people about the way of Jesus, which (if we actually follow, not just talk) might allow human beings (and all creation, as already pointed out above) continue to flourish on planet earth? More following, less talking.
I’m looking forward to this dialogue. As someone whose first church experiences were in a different denomination, I have been an active member (and elder, worship planner/leader, musician, Sunday School teacher, etc..) in a Presbyterian Church for 19 years now, always struggling to explain to others what the “Presbyterian” label means beyond ‘reformed theology’, ‘Christian’, and having lots of rules and unbendable traditions about just about everything. I’d still say that I am there ‘despite’ the Presbyterian label not ‘because’ of it and as our current stressful times seem to be swinging the pendulum back to “the way we’ve always done it” for those who find “Presbyterian” a comforting place to be despite a dwindling, exhausted congregation I’m finding it even harder to understand.
I love all these comments and this conversation! Serious, informed, individually honest, communally engaged. Thank you all — for a new community of minds. Thank you Brian, for the question(s).
As a new Presbyterian but longtime churchman I look forward to learning about this denomination.