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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Encouragement from Cuba

Some Monmouth Presbyterians may remember Edelberto Valdes Fleites, a pastor from the Central Presbytery of the Presbyterian and Reformed Church of Cuba.  Edelberto itinerated among churches of our Presbytery several years ago, as an International Peacemaker sponsored by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.  Some of us also had the opportunity to meet him in Cuba, as well, on mission trips our Presbytery conducted in coordination with the Central Presbytery.

In addition to serving as a pastor, Edelberto is currently Executive Secretary of the Central Presbytery, with which we continue to be in mission partnership.

I just saw Edelberto's name in a Presbyterian News Service article, in which he was being interviewed about signs of hope he sees for the renewal of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), growing out of the denomination's 1,001 New Worshiping Communities emphasis.  This view of our church from an overseas vantage-point is worth reading. Here's an excerpt:

What did you do in Cuba when it became difficult to be a Christian? 

First we did everything we could to give our churches tools to help them live our faith in the world and be willing to pay a price to be a Christian. We produced many theological documents about how to live in a socialist society, trying to have our church be strong in its faith in the here and now, rather than thinking about life in heaven. We discovered that if you want to be a Christian, you have to live it by actions, instead of just talking about it.

What did you feel as you read about the 1,001 new worshiping communities, which you refer to as “signs of hope”?

I felt that the Presbyterian Church isn’t wasting time, resources, and life discussing items that aren’t important. It’s as if the church decided to be an alive church, instead of a comfortable one that waits for people to come. It is good to hear of these communities that are involved with people, searching for them, walking with them and the problems they have. To me that is a sign of hope. I visited PC(USA) churches five times. Often I found buildings with lots of stuff, nice conditions to work with, but without passion for people. I could feel that.

What would you like to say to these new worshiping communities?

Be encouraged, continue on! I share with you my strength and hope, that you are becoming like Jesus, who walked on the roads many times, being close to people’s problems, giving them holistic healing.

What kind of experiences would you talk to them about?

The experiences we had here when we couldn’t talk openly about our Christians faith in our schools, jobs, or even in our families because it could be the beginning of serious problems. But we survived as a church because we decided to serve Jesus by serving the people. Not with good speeches, but with actions that declare the Christian faith is more than words.

Tell me more about the meaning of your last words “go ahead” and the exclamation points?

In the Old Testament, when Moses was with the people in front of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army behind them, God told him, “Tell my people to walk!” It sounds like a crazy phrase, but if you think about it, many times life paralyzes us. It is so good to know that God is pushing us to continue struggling even when we are surrounded by bad situations. Isn’t that the meaning of resurrection?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Thought for the Day: Jimmy Carter on Church Unity

Christians who truly follow the nature, actions, and words of Jesus Christ should encompass people who are different from us….It is not easy to do this. It is a natural human inclination to encapsulate ourselves in a superior fashion with people who are just like us – and to assume that we are fulfilling the mandate of our lives if we just confine our love to our own family or to people who are similar and compatible. Breaking through this barrier and reaching out to others is what personifies a Christian and emulates the perfect example that Christ set for us.

- Jimmy Carter, Our Endangered Values, America’s Moral Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2006), p. 31.

Along this same line, you may want to check out a thoughtful blog entry by my friend and former colleague on the staff of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Gene Straatmeyer. These are his thoughts on the subject of schism in the church.  Gene is an evangelically-minded retired Presbyterian minister, who's had long years of mission involvement with Native Americans, and, more recently,  a year of volunteer service in Malawi, Africa.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

New Ways of Believing, Behaving & Belonging

Following up on my March 18  "Gutenberger or Googler?" post, I'd like to share this, which is from Diana Butler Bass, a Christian sociologist whose studies of the mainline Protestant churches are incisive, but also notably lacking in the "sky is falling" panic some other commentators display.  Monmouth Presbytery leaders will remember Diana from the leadership-training event she led for us several years back.

I find Len Sweet's distinction between Gutenbergers and Googlers to be a useful distillation of a whole lot of more complicated material about generational differences in religious participation, most of which has been out there for some time.  It may be useful to consider Diana's three sets of questions (below) as a template, and lay them on top of Len's Gutenberger vs. Googler distinction.

The first set of questions, I'd say, are those typically asked by Gutenbergers, and the second by Googlers:


Three deceptively simple questions are at the heart of a spiritually vibrant Christianity--questions of believing, behaving, and belonging.

Religion always entails the "3B's" of believing, behaving, and belonging. Over the centuries, Christianity has engaged the 3B's in different ways, with different interrogators and emphases. For the last 300 years or so, the questions were asked as follows:

1) What do I believe? (What does my church say I should think about God?)
2) How should I behave? (What are the rules my church asks me to follow?)
3) Who am I? (What does it mean to be a faithful church member?)

But the questions have changed. Contemporary people care less about what to believe than how they might believe; less about rules for behavior than in what they should do with their lives; and less about church membership than in whose company they find themselves. The questions have become:

1) How do I believe? (How do I understand faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?)
2) What should I do? (How do my actions make a difference in the world?)
3) Whose am I? (How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?)

The foci of religion have not changed--believing, behaving, and belonging still matter. But the ways in which people engage each area have undergone a revolution.

- Diana Butler Bass,  "A Resurrected Christianity?" , The Huffington Post, April 7, 2012.


I'm of the same mind as Diana: that, of all the different categories of churches that are part of the American religious scene, we in the mainline Protestant churches are probably best-positioned to offer the Googlers an alternative to religious practices and traditions they find stifling.  To do so, we're going to have to change, too, of course - but the changes we need to make in denominations like the PC(USA) are not nearly so game-changing as they would be for the Conservative Evangelical, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches.

All this reminds me of a pithy little quotation I came across recently.  It's by General Eric Shinseki, the former U.S. Army Chief of Staff. Remember him? He's the one who abruptly went into retirement, after standing his ground against political pressure from civilian hawks like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who were urging him to soften his prediction that several hundred thousand ground troops would be needed to secure Iraq, following the invasion by Coalition forces.  History has proved Shinseki was absolutely right; the number of troops that had to be committed to stabilize Iraq was pretty much what he'd predicted.

All this is to say he's a person who tries to base his prophetic statements on actual facts, not on what's politically expedient in the short term.  Coming from him, therefore, the following quotation is all the more enlightening:

“If you don’t like change,
you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
 - General Eric Shinseki

We in the Mainline Protestant churches have a window of opportunity, in the next few years, to save not only ourselves, but also our particular version of the gospel proclamation, from irrelevance.  Let those who have ears, hear...