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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Teaching to Send
April 14, 2016

Our April presbytery prayer focus is on the church’s teaching ministry. Jesus was often addressed as “Teacher,” a title he gave himself as well. As Teacher, his task was to make disciples whom he could send out to say and do what he was saying and doing.

Simply being together was important. Jesus called the twelve, according to Mark, first “to be with him.” (Mark 3:14) Nearly all of his ministry was done in the company of his disciples. He longed for them to stick with him on the night of his betrayal, simply to sustain him by their presence. Being together mattered. But it was not togetherness simply for its own sake. It had a goal – to equip the disciples to become his ambassadors.

The purpose of Christ’s church is never merely the pastoral care of its members. It is to proclaim and embody his mission of reconciliation publicly. The core purpose of Jesus’ role as Teacher was to prepare disciples to continue his mission. That is still the primary purpose of the church’s teaching ministries – not merely to nurture its members, but to make them world-changers.

One of the things Presbyterians are especially good at is keeping records. One could be forgiven for suspecting that sometimes we keep records simply so we have records. But the reason runs deeper; in keeping records, we learn important things about how the church is doing in keeping faith with Jesus’ mission.

Our penchant for keeping records is evident on our denomination’s website, which includes a record of each congregation’s ten-year trends in membership, attendance, education, and giving. Taken together, the statistics for our presbytery congregations reveal some important mission-related indicators beneath the sheer numbers.

Fewer than 20% of the churches in our presbytery grew in membership from 2003-2013. Those that did grow run the gamut – notably, there are equal numbers of small and large, of urban and rural, and of progressive and conservative congregations. Predictably, newer congregations show more growth.

I looked at the list of growing congregations for a long time, however, before noticing something significant: Nearly half of our growing congregations are intentionally and increasingly multi-cultural in their membership. And closely related to that common thread is one of deep engagement in proclaiming and demonstrating the reconciling work of Jesus in our community and beyond. They become diverse by reaching out.

Mission matters. We teach in order to send. Disciples become apostles. Congregations that commit themselves to mission are more likely to grow, especially if they commit themselves to the hard work of reconciliation across the divisions that run rampant in our society.

Spiritual growth is an important goal of Christian teaching. But it is not its end product. Growing more saintly is a worthy aspiration, but only so we can become more worldly. If our sainthood is not manifest in reaching into the world around us with the good news of reconciliation proclaimed and enacted through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it is not the sainthood of Jesus’ disciples.

Mission engagement may seem beyond the reach of congregations that struggle just to pay their bills. Yet such congregations may be in the best position of all to do the mission of Jesus, because they cannot respond to his missionary call simply by sending money to fund others to do his mission.

Jesus did not send out his disciples to do his mission alone, any more than he tried himself to do it alone. It was always a corporate effort. The early churches did not operate as isolated mission bands, but as communities that worked together in fulfilling Jesus’ commission. One of the great benefits of being united in covenant as a presbytery is that we can do mission together as congregations. Whether working together with help from Crestfield in reaching out to our neighborhood with Bible Schools, joining hearts and hands with other congregations in supporting new church developments such as House of Manna, jointly supporting community mission agencies such as Open Hand Ministries, partnering with other congregations to send disaster relief teams to areas ravaged by hurricanes, or joining in partnerships for world mission to other countries such as Malawi, South Sudan, and Haiti – our partnerships in mission have a multiplier effect.

This vision is embedded in our presbytery mission statement:

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.

This cannot happen without the work of faithful teachers in our congregations and in our seminary, who in the spirit of our great Teacher are always teaching to send. Let us pray diligently for them toward this end.

Yours in Christ’s mission, 

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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