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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Are We Fish or Scuba Divers?

When it comes to reflecting on the health of congregations, Jim Kitchens is one of the best minds in the PC(USA). A retired pastor of long experience, he "gets it" with respect to the challenges churches are facing.

"It's Not Your Fault" is a little essay he's written, directed at congregational leaders who may be demoralized about AWOL church members and declining financial resources. It will take you just a couple minutes to read it. But it will give you a lot to think about.

"It's not your fault" is what Jim says to congregational leaders he's working with. It's not you, he says. You're doing what's always worked. It's the culture around you that's changed:

"...the culture shifted out from under you. The culture in which you know how to 'be' church is gone, and you haven’t yet figured out how to be the church for the new culture in which you find yourselves.  But the truth is that no one else has, either.”

Reading those remarks, I felt a deep sense of resonance. Yes, that's exactly the situation in the church - and the presbytery - I serve.

A question bubbled up in my mind. If we as the church are swimming in the larger culture, are we doing so as fish, or as scuba divers? In other words, is the water our native environment, or do we really belong to another realm, and have to import our own spiritual life-support?

No doubt, our Lord himself swam in the water of humanity like a fish. That's what the incarnation is all about. But there's some biblical evidence that the church has a somewhat different relationship to the culture.

"But our citizenship is in heaven," Paul says, in Philippians 3:20. "So we are ambassadors for Christ" he also says, in 2 Corinthians 5:20 - again, implying that the deepest aspect of who we are hails from someplace else.

But something seems different today. The in-but-not-of-the-world thing has always been part of the church's experience, but it seems particularly intense at the moment. As a sixty-year-old Baby Boomer, I can vividly recall the days when the church steeple anchored Main Street, and church membership was the norm rather than the exception for most of our neighbors.

Sometimes it seems like we're swimming in a whole new ocean. And the needle on our oxygen gauge is entering the red zone.

Is that your experience, too?

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