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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Pittsburgh Presbytery is a covenant community formed by the triune God,
called to share together in the ongoing life and ministry of Jesus Christ,
proclaiming and demonstrating the Gospel publicly in word and deed
in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Do Not Forsake the Assembly
June 14, 2012

Given the title of this letter alone, I imagine most readers would expect it to focus on the upcoming General Assembly. And they’d be right – but only in part.

The title is actually a rough quote from Hebrews 10:25. Engaging in “assembly” is a biblical act, and a required one at that. In its context, the counsel to remain faithful to the assembly is given with a rationale – we need to assemble in order to “provoke one another to love and good deeds,” as well as to “encourage one another.” We need all the help we can get in these departments, don’t we - thus the urgency that we not forsake assembling.

This became one of the pressing concerns of our Mission Study Team as it sought prayerfully to discern God’s call to Pittsburgh Presbytery at this time in our life. It learned that when our presbytery meets, on average only about one-third of our ministers are present and 40% of our congregations are represented. To the extent that we have failed to assemble together, we have lost the assembly’s benefits of spurring each other to love and good deeds, and encouraging one another. The Mission Team’s proposal to gather in branch meetings is designed to increase participation in our assemblies, in response to two of the biggest reasons people give for NOT coming to our presbytery meetings:  1. At presbytery meetings we have nothing to contribute to the body except a vote – we want to be part of something where we can make a meaningful contribution; 2. We hardly get to know anyone at presbytery meetings – they are too big, too long, and we don’t do anything that gives us opportunity to get to know each other (like sharing a meal). So the Mission Study Team began framing a proposal for us to assemble sometimes in smaller groupings where each member can make a real contribution, and where we spend time together in table fellowship and conversation-based activities that permit us to get to know one another. This commitment to strengthening our pattern of assembly is reflected in the new mission statement’s phrase, “sharing together in the ongoing life and ministry of Jesus Christ.”

We Presbyterians place great value in our pattern of government – so much so that our name Presbyterian itself is based not on our beliefs or our mission, but on how we are governed. Our governmental apparatus is full of special offices and functions we hold dear – clerks, moderators, synods, committees, courts, commissions, sessions, etc. Only two categories in our system of governance have direct biblical roots – “Presbytery” and “Assembly.”

“Presbytery” gets mentioned just once (1 Timothy 4:14, in the KJV), but “assembly” shows up frequently (50 times in the KJV, over 160 times in the NIV). Assembly matters in the Bible – and so should it for us. It is in assembly that we are both provoked and encouraged – and Lord knows we need a heap of both!

Our assembly as a presbytery matters a great deal for our welfare and vitality. And so does our assembly as a whole church in “General Assembly.” In earlier generations when travel was much harder, these regional and national assemblies effectively became festivals of fellowship, celebration, and mission motivation, as well as governance mechanisms. Our forebears would not “waste” the rigors of travel just to have a quick “get the business done and get out of there as quickly as possible” meeting. Alas, that has become the norm for too many of our assemblies. The greatest treasure of our assemblies is located not in their work of governance (essential as it may be), but in their other aspects– fellowship, breaking of bread, teaching, and prayer (Acts 2:42).

General Assembly lies just around the corner, and it can be a wonderful opportunity for us as a whole church to provoke each other to love and good works, and to encourage one another. That can and will happen to the extent that we foreground the really important things that happen during the assembly of God’s people – fellowship, breaking bread, teaching, and prayer. While attending business sessions may be interesting, especially when controversial matters are being considered, I would encourage us to make a first priority to come to GA for meals (there’s a great lunch available each day at First Presbyterian), for daily worship (especially the grand convocation worship at 1:30 on Saturday June 30), and for spending some time in the GA Prayer Room that is being sponsored by our Committee on Local Arrangements (it’s open all day every day).

Looking for you at the Assembly,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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