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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

What Happened?
September 20, 2018

Today we gather as a presbytery at the Crestfield Camp and Conference Center for a day of worship, fellowship, and work. Years ago, we used to receive a raft of inquiries after each presbytery gathering, wondering, “What happened at the presbytery meeting?” That led us to begin publishing a presbytery digest on our website following each meeting. There, inquiring minds can learn about all that presbytery did when it met.

“What happened?” seems to be a perfectly appropriate question to ask of a presbytery meeting, where taking action is a primary reason we gather. It seems far less intuitive to ask that after regular church worship services, yet it might be exactly the right question.

Last week I wrote about “boilerplate church,” where everything that happens when the church gathers follows the exact same pattern, and I suggested that such a situation is a sure sign of decay. If the only answer to the question, “What happened?” is “same-old-same-old,” we’ll soon quit asking it.

Swiss theologian Karl Barth suggested that we need to think of “church” not as an institution, or as a gathering, but as an event. The Greek word we translate “church” means literally a “summons.” It’s what happens when the firehouse siren sounds. An emergency has struck, and first responders are summoned to intervene.

As John the Baptist languished in prison, his hopes about Jesus being God’s Messiah began to fade. No longer able to see and hear Jesus at work, he began to doubt the message of the coming kingdom he had proclaimed so vigorously in sunnier times. So he directed some of his followers to go to Jesus and ask directly, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus’ response was telling. He didn’t offer a theological defense or biblical argument to support his authenticity. Rather, he invited John’s followers to report, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 7:18-22)

Jesus’ ministry was authenticated by what happened wherever he went. His teachings mattered, to be sure. But the first question people asked when they heard Jesus had been in town was more likely “What happened?” than “What did you learn?”

In last week’s letter I mentioned that on the previous Sunday the church’s fire alarm went off as I played a piano prelude, and that proved far more memorable than whatever I played. This week I was at a different church, where I had preached a year ago, and when I mentioned that worship service, I was immediately reminded that it was the service where the power went out. Nobody remembers what I said, but they fully remember what happened.

After presbytery meetings, “What happened?” feels like an appropriate question, because we take a raft of actions. Sometimes they are routine, but other times they are controversial, or prophetic, or perhaps both. But this much we know – presbytery is a gathering that acts. What would it mean for each of our congregations if our regular weekly gatherings were known as places of action? Imagine someone who missed church one week calling a friend to ask, “What happened on Sunday?”

Church is nothing, if not a summons to action. I’m not talking about “happening” for its own sake. Church is not a carnival sideshow or entertainment venue. But it is entirely appropriate to ask how God was at work among those who gathered, and where that led them to take action in response. Were the poor encouraged by good news, the suffering relieved, the oppressed set free, refugees sheltered, outcasts welcomed, the wounded made whole? What happens when we gather should make all the difference in how God’s reign is manifest to and in the world around us.

Yours in the work of our Lord,

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

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