A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Persistence and Adaptability
January 9, 2020
Jesus prizes persistence. He teaches that persistence has more to do with salvation than great faith and power. (Matthew 10:22) Persistence is never glamorous, and rarely gets noticed.
One of the strengths of our Presbyterian heritage is the persistence our movement has demonstrated. It has maintained its witness to the Gospel across multiple cultures over many centuries, adapting its life and message as changing circumstances have required.
As we begin a new decade, many commentators have been taking stock of the myriad dizzying changes we navigated through the “teens.” Technology leads the way – our modes of communicating and conducting business today look vastly different from just ten years ago. Today I never go to the bank, receive no daily newspaper, and rarely listen to CDs or watch DVDs – all unthinkable ten years ago.
The Gospel never changes, but its communication opportunities and challenges are changing at lightning speed. Adaptability in how we convey the timeless Gospel message is more essential than ever.
Adaptability and persistence seem at first glance to run at cross purposes. We Presbyterians have shown ourselves strong in the persistence department, but have sometimes found it a stretch to adapt. Yet the capacity to persist for the long haul requires adaptability. We could not have lasted this long had our forebears not been adaptable. What’s at stake is not whether Presbyterians can adapt, but how quickly.
Today the need to adapt quickly is especially urgent, for two reasons. First, if we don’t adapt quickly, we’ll become irrelevant to the rapidly-changing world around us. And second, if we don’t adapt, we cannot persist.
Persistence and adaptability are mutually interdependent, rather than at odds with each other. Adaptability without persistence may cause things to flourish for a while, but cannot make them last. Persistence without adaptability leads inevitably to demise.
Readiness to change lies at the heart of what it means to be converted. Just as individuals need to be continually converted from self-direction if they are to be disciples of Jesus, so churches need to be continually converted from self-serving to others-serving if they are to persist and flourish.
As a new decade begins, the church must consider its preparedness to adapt quickly to its surrounding world of rapid-fire change. The need to make changes more quickly does not diminish the need to make them carefully and wisely. But moving slowly can have its own negative consequences, even when it is chosen to avoid the repercussions of moving rashly.
Many of our procedural norms favor moving slowly. For instance, most of our pastoral transitions take two years or more for a congregation to navigate. Moving at deliberate speed can safeguard us from hasty mistakes, but what if it ends up killing us in the long run?
I’m grateful to be part of a church that is not captive to every whim of its leaders, that does not change its message constantly to fit the latest trends in the surrounding culture. I find great comfort in our church’s durability over multiple generations. Most of our congregations were around long before the lifetimes of their eldest members. They’ve managed to carry on, and even to thrive, when many other institutions formed in the same horse-and-buggy era have long gone – one-room schoolhouses, Mom and Pop groceries, neighborhood five-and-dimes, and so on. The resilience of our church is truly remarkable.
Be we cannot assume that inherited resilience can carry us forward without our readiness to adapt still further. Ministry in its apostolic mode responds to changing situations by adapting to those changes – becoming “as Jews” among Jews and “as Gentiles” when among Gentiles. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) As change in our surrounding world accelerates, our need to be ever more nimble in our adaptability grows increasingly acute.
As we enter a new decade of life and ministry, I have three suggestions toward this end. First, in order to make decisions more nimbly, make committees smaller, and have them do as much of their work as possible through electronic communications. Waiting to do business until all members have an opening on their schedule to meet face-to-face has become significantly more difficult as people’s schedules have become increasingly more complex.
Second, in order to communicate more effectively with the congregation’s constituency, use electronic communications more fully, including social media, and keep sending out repeat messages. Participation in community life and work will increase if the invitation to participate goes out multiple ways and is repeated often. Relying on Sunday bulletins or oral announcements will get only a fraction of the community to participate, and it will almost entirely miss those whom we are trying to draw in closer from the fringes.
Finally, in order to permit the maximum amount of participation in giving, make provision – every time you would ordinarily “pass the plate” or set out an offering basket – for electronic giving, including giving by text. Our office can help you set that up. Many people carry no cash, but almost none leave home without their phone. Getting everyone to give a little by making it easier to give increases their buy-in into our shared ministry, for, as Jesus said, our heart follows wherever we share our treasure. (Matthew 6:21)
Your partner in ministry,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister