U-C: What I See

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Multiculturalism, Church Transformation and the Missional Church

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Multicultural and Church Transformation Conference at Colombia University in New York City. There were over one thousand Presbyterians there, and all of them attended because they are involved in trying to bring new life to their congregations.

Several years ago our denomination set a goal to be ten percent “racial ethnic” or “persons of color” by the end of 2005, and twenty percent by the year 2010. We have made significant progress toward this year’s goal, though we still have a long way to go, and it isn’t clear that we will hit the target this year. As I’ve traveled this year, I’ve become convinced that our real focus shouldn’t be so much to create a culturally and racially diverse denomination, but instead to create churches that are intentionally multi-cultural. Many of our small churches in rural, suburban, and urban areas are discovering that their neighborhoods are becoming far more diverse than they are, and that their own renewal and hope for the future is tied up in their ability to make their worship and fellowship a place that genuinely welcomes God’s “Pentecost” church of all nations.

I wish that every Presbyterian could have been with me to participate in this wonderful, Christ-centered, Spirit-inspired event, because as I looked from the stage out across a huge auditorium filled with people from all over the world and from across the spectrum of historic, racial diversity in our own country, I was looking at the future of our church. There were workshops on how to transform our worship in a way that will honor our reformed tradition even as it welcomes folks who bring their own rich tapestry of worship traditions. There were teenagers who brought marvelous dance and music. There were lively conversations about “the Missional Church” and “emerging worship” and helping our congregations to become skilled at multicultural communications. Each day began with the entire assembly in Bible Study led by Rodger Nishioka, faculty from Columbia Theological Seminary. Cynthia Rigby, faculty from Austin Theological Seminary, offered daily theological reflections, and the worship itself was moving and full of life. If you’d like a closer look at what took place at the conference, called “Witnessing To God’s Radical Hope,” you can find it at http://www.mt2005.org/index.php.

When I was in Long Island Presbytery a few weeks ago, I met with pastors and lay leaders from 18 churches that have signed onto a commitment to doing the hard work of transformation. That’s almost a third of them. (Long Island Presbytery has a great website in which you can find the covenant and the other documentation for the church transformation project. Just go to http://www.presbyteryofli.org/ and click on “file cabinet.”) In Shenango Presbytery in Western PA, nine churches have covenanted to become “missional churches.” If you don’t know about that movement, you should start with anything written by Darrell Guder, the recently appointed Academic Dean at Princeton Theological Seminary. (There’s much more to be said about the Missional Church – google it and go crazy!) I’ve seen similar efforts almost everywhere I’ve gone this year: the Bayou Cluster of South Louisiana Presbytery, the churches of Oklahoma, small churches that are finding new life in upstate New York.

There is nothing magical or easy about entering into this work. It’s hard work to prepare church members to make this commitment, serious effort to carry out the work in prayer and discernment that this task demands, and a heavy load for both pastors and lay leaders who are helping their churches to become a new thing. Change is slow, and many of our members will be dragged into this new thing kicking and screaming. As Pastor Bill Craxton, (whose church in Mercer, PA has committed to the Missional Church model) shared with me a few days ago as he drove me to the airport in Pittsburgh, it’s hard to quantify the successes. Still, there’s no doubt that these efforts beat the alternatives. Do we really want to sit by and watch as many of our churches see the membership decline and wonder who will still be around to turn the lights out or sell the building when the last members have been buried. Even in some of our apparently healthy churches, the missional church movement helps us to stand against the status quo in which there is little engagement in the mission of Christ, or worse, where there has been a clear capitulation to the seductiveness of the dominant culture. It is clear that we are no longer a Constantinian church of the State, and that faithfulness involves standing against the temptations of a consumer culture that is antithetical to our most fundamental Gospel values. We must be a church that follows that Jesus who demands that we risk everything in his service.

My friends, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that something mysterious and Holy is afoot in our church. Moments like the one we shared in New York are little glimpses of that mystery. No one has a road map, and no one can define exactly what God has in mind for us. This is not a task that can be delegated to our national staff, however dedicated, committed and skilled they may be. The work of transformation begins in local churches, with all the support that Presbyteries, Synods and the General Assembly can bring to bear. I’m so excited to find regular, everyday Presbyterians are gathering to share their challenges and “best practices” and dreams and skills with one another as they seek to follow God into this new adventure.

The Holy Spirit is on the move!