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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Foundations of Life Together in Christ, Part II: It’s All About Mission
January 12, 2017

The Book of Order begins with mission as the core of the church’s identity. “The Mission of the Church” is the title of its first chapter. It begins, “The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people.” (Book of Order F-1.01) This is God’s mission, revealed in the stories of Israel, of Jesus, and of the early Christian church. “The mission of God in Christ gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church.” (Ibid.)

The church is God’s mission agency in the world. It is called to participate in and carry forward God’s mission as revealed in the words, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is the core foundation of the church’s identity, and of how it orders its life. Any church that becomes self-oriented and self-serving is sure to shrivel and die. Our presbytery mission statement puts God’s mission as Jesus conducted it squarely at the center of our own mission – to bring good news to the poor, healing to the broken, rescue to the lost, salvation to those in peril, and reconciliation to the alienated. (Luke 4:18-21, 2 Corinthians 5:17-21)

Last Sunday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an opinion piece summarizing a study of a group of Canadian congregations, from which the researcher concluded that conservative theology causes churches to grow, while liberal theology leads them to shrink. I believe the study contains some significant flaws, and does not predict the shape of church growth in other populations with different demographics. But rather than elaborate my misgivings about the study, I simply note that we have investigated the ten-year trends for congregations in our own presbytery, and have discovered a very different set of correlations to church growth.

In Pittsburgh Presbytery, congregations that grew from 2003 to 2013 were equally likely to be small or large, urban or suburban, wealthy or economically challenged, liberal or conservative. What distinguished these churches was their deep investment in mission, as reflected by diversity in their congregations. They made it a point intentionally to reach out to people unlike themselves, to welcome them into the community of faith by professing faith in Jesus, and to prepare them in turn to do mission work. Why did they do this? For the love of Christ! (2 Corinthians 5:14)

I was privileged to serve as a pastor in three wonderful congregations. Two of them enjoyed the blessing of large endowments, and one of our great challenges was to overcome the inertia that so readily emerges when we have all we need to keep us going in the bank. The third congregation lived virtually hand to mouth, because it made a commitment to give away in mission half of the church’s receipts. Which of the three do you suppose grew most rapidly?

Our Book of Order lays the foundation of the church’s life squarely in God’s mission, “Proclaiming to all people the good news of God’s love, offering to all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ.… Human beings have no higher goal in life than to glorify and enjoy God now and forever, living in covenant fellowship with God and participating in God’s mission.” (F-1.01)

God’s mission is consummately revealed in the incarnation, teaching, activities, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Book of Order Foundations section moves from the general category of “God’s Mission” to more specific consideration of Jesus Christ who enacts that mission and commissions the church to continue his work. Jesus has absolute authority to rule the church (F-1.0201), he calls and equips the church for God’s mission (F-1.0202), he gives the church its very life (F-1.0203), he is the church’s one true hope (F-1.0204), and he is its sure foundation (F-1.0205).

If the church’s life is all about participating in God’s mission, it must be centered on Jesus. The Christology at the beginning of our Book of Order is breathtakingly beautiful and powerful. Everything that we do and are as the church is bound up in doing Christ’s work at God’s bidding.  

We don’t choose our church; God chooses us to be church. The main business of church is not what happens when we gather; that is simply preparation for what we do beyond its walls, reaching out to a world riddled with enmity and poverty with the marvelous Good News of the Gospel. May NOTHING distract us from that core foundation! Where is OUR best energy being invested, both in our particular congregations, and as a covenant community of congregations?

For the sake of Christ’s mission,

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

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