A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
October 16, 2014
Presbyterians have often described their distinctive identity in terms of “three C’s” – we are Confessional, Constitutional, and Connectional. Other denominations also describe themselves as “connectional,” as opposed to “congregational” or “hierarchical.” While the term “connectional” is not wrong in itself, I encourage us rather to use the theological language of “covenant,” in which we acknowledge that we are bound together because of God’s covenant claim on us as children in God’s family. “Connection” itself is a neutral category; we can be connected by love for one another or by chains that shackle us together against our will. Connection can alternatively provide refreshing channels of nourishment or chafing bonds of restriction. We need to acknowledge not only that we are connected, but to own how and why we are connected.
I propose an alternative “three-C’s” statement of Presbyterian identity – we are a Collaborative Covenant Community. In previous posts I have addressed the first two of these; today we consider the third, “community,” which suggests how and why we are connected together as God’s covenant family.
“Community” is a term that has lost some of its distinctive force in common parlance, as it has come primarily to signify a geographic population cluster, much like the terms “city,” “town,” “village,” or “municipality.” In its essence, “community” is much more than a local aggregation of persons – it signifies mutual bonding. Literally, “community” means “united with.” It is not just about being neighbors, but being in close relationship.
Christian community is rooted in the communion we enjoy with Christ and thereby with each other. The Westminster Confession reminds us that when we are joined with Christ by the Spirit, we are thereby also joined with each other. (Book of Confessions 6.054)
Communion in Christ’s flesh and blood at the Lord’s Table tangibly signifies our taking Jesus into ourselves. (See John 6:53-56) Communion with each other is likewise necessarily tangible – being engaged with one another face to face, person to person. It is not abstract: not a conceptual agreement in values or doctrine, not a “virtual” gathering like an “online community,” not enrollment as a member of an organization.
Occasional contact does not constitute community. Being united with Jesus occasionally is not enough; we must walk with him constantly. The first Christians were immediately known as a group that gathered daily, whether for prayer, fellowship, teaching, or meals. (Acts 2:42)
Apparently some early Christians began to grow slack in their gathering habits. Thus Hebrews enjoins its readers not to neglect gathering, because it is in being together that we are encouraged and strengthened for Christian living. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Yet community is more than a congregation. People can gather together yet remain disengaged from each other. True community requires congregating, but congregating does not necessarily constitute community. Only when those gathered meaningfully engage each other does community really happen.
This is why our presbytery has been emphasizing gathering in branches, where we are interactively engaged with each other. Of course, presbytery business needs to be done, and a congregation of presbyters (aka a “presbytery meeting”) is the appropriate venue for that. But meeting for business is something quite different from being community. One requires votes, the other builds relationships and moves us into mission. One allows us to claim the label “Presbyterian” formally, while the other equips us to be Christ’s ambassadors together in the world. We need them both, but I fear we have tried too long to maintain vitality simply by being formally “Presbyterian.”
We need community, not just institutional church. We need genuine mutuality, not mere organizational membership. We are true to our identity as disciples of Jesus when we are truly community.
A few years ago the annual report of national church membership trends disclosed the all-too-familiar “news” that only a small handful of denominations had grown in the previous year. The report then drilled down to search for a single concrete factor that growing denominations shared, and discovered that growing churches are marked by members participating weekly in some small-group activity beyond the main worship service. It could be a mission group, a choir, a Bible study, a prayer group, or even a committee! What mattered was that there was some venue in which the majority of members engaged each other mutually. In other words, growing churches are marked by members being in real community with each other.
I challenge sessions to take a “community measure” of your congregation. How might you better engage your members in true community, motivating them participate in some church activity beyond Sunday morning worship attendance?
As for presbytery life, the conviction that we need to be in true community as congregations and leaders has led us to prioritize branch activities and pastor peer groups. By being more truly “community” as a presbytery we hope to inspire and equip congregations to be more truly “community” themselves.
Yours in the communion of the Holy Spirit,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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