A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
People of the Way
June 13, 2019
The community that Jesus founded was called simply “The Way” in its earliest days. (Acts 9:2; Acts 24:14, etc.) It conducted its activities in existing meeting places, usually homes. When persecutions arose, the places where Christians met were often kept secret. There is no hint in the New Testament of Jesus-followers erecting a building to accomplish their mission.
I was once associated with a new church development that met in a school. Even though we had to cart in our PA equipment and various liturgical furnishings week after week, the enthusiasm of pursuing our mission more than compensated for the hard work it took to set up and tear down our worship space each week. Most of our new worshiping communities in Pittsburgh have similarly been planted and flourished without owning a building.
Buildings can be of great benefit to us, of course. As a ministry gets established in a community, a building tells the neighborhood that we have planted a stake in this place. We are here for the long haul. And that is truly important.
As useful as buildings are, they are temporary dwellings at best. It is good stewardship to maintain them well, but when they are treated as an end rather than as a means, things are upside down. We are people of The Way, not of edifices.
Seth Godin, a motivational expert on leadership and business, recently wrote, “If you want to make a long-term impact, build the roads…(T)he roads are worth far more than the buildings.” He noted that a comparison of Boston city maps from 1860 to 1960 reveals virtually all of the same roads, but none of the same buildings. Buildings are transient; they serve a good purpose for a time. But roadways continue to be useful in helping people navigate their world. Some of the roadways from before the time of Christ are still in use.
Christianity is more about a Way than about an Institution, about paths rather than structures. Institutions have real value as means for preserving the genius and DNA of important spiritual movements across generations. Governmental institutions help keep us on track with the constitutional principles that underlie our common life. Governing bodies help keep churches accountable to the wisdom of their forebears. Institutions matter. Yet like buildings, institutions are ephemeral.
Buildings and institutions prove valuable only to the extent that they further the Way they serve. If we wish to make a real difference for the Gospel, let’s keep our focus on the Way. On being disciples, followers of Jesus, who was himself always on the road. At the outset of his ministry he did have a home of his own (Mark 2:1), but later he declared that he had “nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58) He was always on the move, and to follow him meant literally to be also on the move. A disciple of Jesus is always taking a walk with Jesus. It is no accident that the apostles’ ministries recorded in the book of Acts are virtually all itinerant.
I am grateful for the institutions known as Pittsburgh Presbytery and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). They have bequeathed to us a legacy that is far richer, and wisdom that runs far deeper, than anything we could muster on our own. Yet however great their benefits, they continue to be of value to us only in so far as they keep pointing us along the Way. I love the local congregations that have borne witness to Jesus through the buildings that have served as sanctuaries for their worship, classrooms for instructing disciples, and mission outposts in their communities. Yet no matter how vibrant their history, these buildings continue to be of value only in so far as they point us further along the Way.
Buildings and institutions come and go. They serve good purposes for a season, yet they are always means toward ends beyond themselves. Their survival is never a worthy goal.
Roads endure. Following Jesus leads us to be people of the (road)way. People on the move, guided by the Spirit who is always on the move. More concerned with how and with whom we connect than with where we stand or sit. One mark of authenticity for Jesus’ followers is the ability to identify where they have moved and are ready to move even further. People on the Way are never in a static place. Renewing and transforming our minds are core markers of Christian vitality. (Romans 12:2) Where are we changing? Where are we moving?
Your companion on the Way,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister