I am perhaps the most irrelevant pastor in a very irrelevant denomination adding more irrelevant comments to the latest emerging "water-cooler" conversation in the ole' PCUSA. (For those of you who have innocently stumbled upon my blog because your search engine has gone berserk, PCUSA is the acronym for a once great protestant denomination called the Presbyterian Church USA.) I haven't been pastoring (or "pestering," as the case may be) a church for awhile, and I sprang for early retired status for no other reason than to meet my monthly mortgage. Most of my preaching and church involvements in the last couple of years have been in non-PCUSA churches, every PCUSA church I've applied to since leaving my last church has decided not to call me (except for one bizarre "twilight zone" case which is grist for another posting), and lately my primary venue for sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been to young people and drug addicts (sometimes one in the same). So, my credentials for irrelevancy are quite formidable and beyond question.
Yet, my irrelevance does not dissuade me from being very intrigued and encouraged by the Letter to the PCUSA penned by the "scandalous" all male gathering in "blissful" Scottsdale, Arizona. (Actually, I would think meeting in Scottsdale would be looked upon favorably by the very relevant Robert Kopp of the Kopp Disclosure, as the location has a Harley-Davidson ring to it --- at least it does to me.) The criticism this letter is now receiving is disappointing, although the responses of some groups and persons reveal the ingrained habit they have nurtured in their hearts and minds for being points of contention rather than points of construction.
Yes the early signers are all males, and yes they are mostly well known names, and yes most of them are from big churches. (Would this letter be receiving the same notice if it were formulated by thirty or so male and female small church pastors meeting at the I-70 Inn in Colby, Kansas? I don't think so!) While these are things one can complain about with a good deal of self-righteousness, such complaining only bolsters one's own ego, and does nothing to bridge the conversation with the fruitful exchange of ideas and understandings. As I learned long ago in my marriage, I can press the point when I'm right (a fairly rare occurrence) when arguing with my wife, but winning the argument can make for a less than joyful relationship. Sometimes holding on to a sacred point of correctness can mean missing the opportunity for improving a relationship with love and understanding.
Anyway, about ten years ago when I was more relevant as a PCUSA missionary in Croatia, I had several occasions to work with pastors and congregants from several of the largest and most influential churches in the PCUSA. I don't remember the exact crisis our denomination was facing in 2001 (pre-9/11), but as usual there was something (in all likelihood connected to extolling homosexual conduct and ordination) that was forcing congregations to re-evaluate their place in our constantly contending denomination. It was then I said to several of these pastors that regardless of what controversies the PCUSA faces, nothing will ever really change for the better until most of the bigger churches form an alliance with one another and take the lead in forging a biblically faithful and missionally focused future that the PCUSA official leadership cannot stop with its organisational machinery. This alliance must be clear in its goals, ardently orthodox, passionately missional, trans-denominational in vision, and must be committed to being an umbrella of protection for the smaller churches and less prominent ministers who would follow their lead while being more vulnerable to the heavy handed actions of the liberal presbyteries and the ever vigilant PCUSA bureaucrats.
Of all the congregants in the PCUSA, there are only about 900,000 truly active members (these are my guesstimates based on my research when I was an almost relevant pastor). Of these 900,000 members, over 700,000 are in evangelical and orthodox churches, which virtually makes the PCUSA in its substance and active expressions an evangelical/conservative denomination. However, so little of this reality is ever noted or acknowledged in many of the upper structures of the PCUSA, especially at the General Assembly level.
Therefore, the ideas and sentiments in the Letter to the PCUSA are very hopeful to me. It's a beginning, and I pray that these pastors and others will have the wisdom and resolve to not shrink from the task before them. The journey has begun, and many will follow if those taking the first steps keep their feet from turning into clay. As Mark Brewer of Bel Air Church once told me (yes, I used to talk with Mark Brewer, although I doubt that Mark even remembers me now), "You can't lead if no one is following." A corollary to this is true also, "Don't stop leading when so many are following."
The criticisms being slung (yes, "slung" is the past tense of "sling") at this group of faithful (albeit prestigious) pioneers is mostly out of blindness, ignorance, or just plain demonic spite! In the churches represented on this list of signees are some of most truly diverse, gender affirming (orthodox biblical Christianity truly affirms what it means to be male and female while the liberal humanistic understandings obliterate any true and distinctive affirmation of gender), culturally engaged, missionally innovative, globally involved, socially active, multi-ethnic, youth reaching, and theologically-inclusive (yes, it is possible to be clearly orthodox, evangelical, and Reformed in theology while being open and accepting of other truly catholic theological positions) ministries not only in the PCUSA, but in the whole world-wide church! After all, when Presbyterian churches have their engines biblically tuned, they are the Corvettes of the ecclesiastical world (or the Ferrari's for those of you with a European bent). As the leaders in this journey, all these realities will emerge and be clear distinctives of this ecclesiastical reform.
My prayer is that they just have the guts to keep on going despite the obstacles and the criticisms. After all, the devil does not want a bunch of effective, relevant, God-bearing, heart transforming, society changing, Gospel proclaiming, Christ loving, outcast accepting, Word upheld, Spirit empowered, joyful worshipping Presbyterians to be let loose on this world of deceit and despair. So, with all the dunamis and exousia my one little irrelevant voice can muster, let's get going!
I'm not worth a hoot in effecting these kinds of movements, and no one is going to complain about the unfair advantage my support lends to the Letter to the PCUSA, but I can follow and encourage those who do have the relevance needed to get these things done. After all, in the end it is all about how relevant and effective we are according to the final Arbiter of all relevance and effectiveness, Jesus Christ.