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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

May 3, 2018

Question: “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Change???”

In my cover letter for today’s presbytery packet, I explore the significant changes to our meeting with which we are experimenting at today’s presbytery gathering. Why change things at all, when we have worked a long time perfecting what we already have in place?

Early in my ministry, Jack chaired the PNC that brought me to my new call, and we maintained a close friendship for many years. After I had been there five years he shared with me his stash of most treasured mementos. One of the first items he pulled out of the safe was the bulletin of the worship service for his Confirmation, some sixty years earlier. I remarked that while the old typewriter-produced bulletin looked very rough compared to today’s slick computer-generated output, the order and content of worship were virtually identical. Flashing a great big smile, he celebrated, “Now isn’t that the beauty of the church!”

More than once Jack repeated to me his favorite mantra, “If it ain’t broke, I don’t see why we’d want to fix it.” I appreciated his wisdom greatly, and learned from him the benefit of curbing my youthful zeal to change everything. Change for its own sake makes little sense in the work of the One who said, “I the Lord do not change.” (Malachi 3:6)

Reluctance to change may rest in principled commitment to time-tested practices, or fidelity to abiding truth. But sometimes it is rooted in less noble motives. They may be as benign as our tendency to prefer the familiar over the untested, much like always ordering the same items on the menu at our favorite restaurant. Who can blame anyone for that? But sometimes we resist change because we would rather continue to satisfy ourselves than seek to reach others. Or we might try to hang on to things as they are to preserve our spheres of influence.

Real change is always hardest for those most invested in the status quo. And let’s face it – if you are reading this letter, you’re probably as invested in current church life as anyone. The first thing we will experience when real change occurs is that we’ll lose some things that matter to us. We don’t know what we stand to gain nearly so well as we know what we will lose.

“My way or the highway” may work okay for business owners, orchestra conductors, college professors, and basketball coaches. But it is utterly contrary to leadership in the church of Jesus Christ, who came to serve rather than to be served, and called on his disciples to do likewise. (Mark 10:42-45)

Capacity to change is fundamental to growth. Congregations looking for new a shot in the arm often say they want to grow, yet they must reckon with their readiness to do something new. Or, more properly, to welcome something new that God is ready to do in and through them. We may imagine that with a new pastor at the helm, we can keep doing what we’ve been doing all along and get different results. Albert Einstein purportedly said that the essence of insanity is keeping doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Do we really believe we are called to grow, just as the earliest Christian church grew? If so, what are we willing to let go of?

For many years, presbytery meetings have begun with a worship service at which I usually enjoy the privilege of preaching. I inherited that role when the presbytery called me to be its leader in 2009, and it has been a humbling honor indeed. At today’s meeting we will experiment with a different order entirely – not only will I not be preaching, but we will have no sermon at all! Instead, several people will offer brief meditations interspersed throughout the meeting.

I must admit to mixed emotions over this. But I acknowledge that our presbytery meetings have shown a consistent trend of diminished attendance for decades, and if we continue to do things the same way we can expect it to continue. Today’s experiment may be a one-time shot. But unless we are ready to try new ways of conducting our meetings, how can we reasonably expect to reverse the attendance decline trajectory?

The growing congregations in our presbytery all share one trait in common: willingness to do new things to reach people different from those already in their pews. Readiness to become all things to all people in order to reach them with the Gospel is a core commitment of truly apostolic ministry. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) How are we doing with that?

Yours in the winds of God’s Spirit,

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

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