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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Offices of the Church, Part V
August 16, 2018

Over the past few weeks, we have considered how the church is called to fulfill the offices that belong to Jesus: Prophet, Priest, and King. As his Body on earth, the church’s mission is to carry forward these ministries. In so doing, it participates in the unique life of Jesus as both fully divine and fully human.

The biggest theological challenge the church faced in its early centuries was to understand how both full divinity and full humanity could coinhere in Jesus. The dominant tendency was to downplay his humanity, given his perfect sinlessness. He wasn’t really like us, then, was he? This trend is exemplified in the beloved Christmas carol “Away in a Manger,” which includes the heretical line, “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”

Jesus is able to fulfill his three offices only to the extent that he is both fully human and fully divine. And the same is true for the church, as his living Body in the world. The church is both fully human and fully divine, both mortal and immortal, always dying yet imperishable.

Congregations die. None of the churches founded by Paul is alive today. Yet Jesus says that the gates of hell, of death itself, cannot prevail against the church. (Matthew 16:18) The church loses its life often, yet always rises again to continue bearing witness to the work of God.

Our presbytery has chartered hundreds of congregations over the past 250 years. Some of them remain alive and active, but many have dissolved, or merged with other congregations. That doesn’t make them failures; it merely demonstrates the church’s inherent mortality. It is a human institution, subject to all the rise and fall such humanity entails.

I have recently been in conversation with one of our elders over the question of what makes congregations flourish or decay. He observed that one of our churches in recent years closed its doors after years of steady decline, after which another church opened in the same neighborhood, and it has grown rapidly. He wonders what makes one congregation in a community thrive while another in the same community shrivels. It’s a great question, one that every session should discuss vigorously.

While the two congregations he mentioned were very different in their missional approaches, whether a congregation will live or die is not determined by its initiative alone. Life and death belong ultimately in God’s hands. Death is not necessarily the end; it is sometimes the necessary condition for new life to be born. (John 12:24)

The mortality of the church is especially evident when a congregation closes its doors. The church’s immortality is demonstrated in the reality that for every congregation that dies, another rises up that exceeds its reach in mission. Whether a congregation flourishes or fades can be somewhat affected by its leaders and its programs, but ultimately life and death belong alone to the God who “gives and takes away.” (Job 1:21)

So, is there nothing we can do to make our congregation blossom or to ward off its decline? I believe that there are no magic bullets for congregational growth. It is noteworthy that Jesus’ following diminished, rather than grew, over the course of his ministry. (John 6:66-68) Yet we can align ourselves with the message and values of God’s kingdom, which is sure to prevail in the end.

Immanuel Kant famously said that an action may be considered “good” only if it would be commendable in all situations. Similarly, a church’s work can prosper only if it aligns with the values of God’s kingdom that transcend space and time.

Paul lays out those values in Romans 14:16 – “The kingdom of God is … righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

These attributes arise and flourish among us only “in the Holy Spirit” that animates us amid our mortality. The primary thing for us to “do,” if we wish to see God’s reign more fully manifest among us and through us, is to offer ourselves prayerfully to God toward that end. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth – in this imperfect community known as the ‘church’ – as it is in heaven.”

Yours in kingdom hope,

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

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