A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Worship – The Core of a Vital Presbytery
September 26, 2013
We have often explored in this weekly letter the question, “What is a presbytery, anyway?” Some answers are obvious: Presbytery is an ecclesiastical governing body. It is a deliberating council. It is the gathering of the pastors and ruling elders in a particular region for mutual encouragement and admonition. It is a group of congregations that support each other in witnessing to the Gospel. It is a regional administrative office that resources and regulates the activities of congregations and their leaders. Today I offer another definition: Presbytery is the church of Jesus Christ constituted by believers worshiping together.
Today our presbytery is meeting at Crestfield, one of its four regular meetings this year. Each of our meetings begins with a time of worship during which we praise God, pour out our prayers, hear God’s Word proclaimed, and respond with self-offering. At this meeting we will add to this the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and table fellowship.
We are currently in a series exploring the Reformed claim that when the Word of God is sincerely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, the church of Jesus Christ is truly present. If this is so, presbytery is, in a very real sense, first of all the church of Jesus Christ, constituted by our gathering around Word and Sacrament.
I have recently been engaged in an email exchange between executives of a number of presbyteries, engaging the question, “We are all facing places of great struggle in our life and witness – but where do you see signs of new life, divine blessing, and growing commitment to Christ’s mission in the life of your presbytery?” The most oft-repeated answer goes roughly like this: When we gather, we have been devoting ourselves more to worship and less to business. Business must be done, of course, but more of it is being delegated to committees and ministry teams who bring brief reports to the presbytery gathering. Some presbyteries even report that they now spend more time in worship and learning than they do in business and debate. Imagine!
A presbytery can never be fully like a local congregation. We don’t gather often enough, and don’t have a network of relationships that are sustained in multiple ways day by day over the long haul. But just because it can’t be an ordinary local congregation doesn’t mean that the presbytery can’t be genuinely “church.” In fact, if it is to remain vital in its life and witness, it must be church before it is a legislature, court, or corporation.
The core determinant of life and growth is the same for a presbytery as it is for a congregation – Jesus Christ is present at the center. This doesn’t mean that presbytery life is one continual spiritual retreat. Far from it. But it does mean that whenever we gather, we will cultivate the most important thing of all as our first priority – recognizing and honoring Jesus Christ, who alone is the Word of God by which we live. Everything else we do will flow from that.
My own contribution to this inventory among presbytery leaders is this – Pittsburgh Presbytery is experiencing our growing edge in the many meetings of smaller groups for the purpose of engaging sound teaching, sharing in fellowship and mission, praying together, and breaking bread. Whether it’s in a branch meeting, pastors’ group, regional picnic, lectionary study, or shared mission project, these smaller gatherings of people from various congregations are the growing edge of God’s new work among us. By God’s grace, may it increasingly be said of Pittsburgh Presbytery as it was said of the first Christians, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, emphasis added)
Perhaps the key diagnostic question for assessing presbytery vitality might be, “To what do we most wholeheartedly devote ourselves as a presbytery?” May our gathering today at Crestfield, and our gatherings always, testify that what matters most to us is just this: God’s Word – Jesus himself – is being richly proclaimed and heard, the sacraments are faithfully administered and received, and our covenant as Christ’s disciples is robustly nurtured (as per the “Notes of the Reformed Church,” Book of Order F-1.0303). While presbytery may not be in every respect a church in the ordinary sense, by putting these activities at the core of our gatherings we are truly being church together. And when we are more faithfully “church” as we gather as a presbytery, we will be better equipped to thrive as churches in the many places we worship and witness week in and week out.
That Christ may be fully glorified in us,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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