U-C: What I See

Friday, July 29, 2005

Pentecostal Presbyterian Churches? This is NOT your fathers Oldsmobile

Sisters and Brothers,

Sorry to load you up with several posts in one day. I've been working on these for a week but haven't had time to post them. (This one is quite long - if you're not particularly churchy, you may want to skip it. :)

In the last two weeks, I’ve visited two churches that are similar to one another yet unique among all the other churches I’ve visited this year.

On Sunday, July 10th, I was invited to preach at First Presbyterian Church, Atlantic City, New Jersey. This is a stately old building that looks like many other inner-city, “First” Presbyterian Churches I’ve visited. However, it is surrounded by the gambling casinos that have replaced any identifiable sense of downtown community, and immediately across the street is the Trump Taj Majal. I’m told that in the early 1980’s the small group of remaining members were offered several million dollars by Donald Trump, who hoped to tear it down and replace it with a parking garage. The members insisted that, although they were unclear about God’s plans for them, they were sure that God had a ministry in mind for them in downtown Atlantic City (and that it wasn’t to be a parking garage).

As their numbers continued to dwindle, they eventually offered to share their sanctuary with a small, African American Pentecostal Church pastored by Bishop Charles and Dr. Diana Lyle. Charles is an accomplished musician who regularly performs in England, and Diana is a well-known evangelist who has been invited to speak all over the world. Though the two churches had extremely different worship styles (as you might imagine), there was some affection and affinity between the members, and the African American congregation grew as the mostly white congregation continued to decline in numbers.

A few years ago, Diana and Charles approached their minister colleagues in the Atlantic City area, as well as the West Jersey Presbytery, and expressed interest in affiliating with the Presbyterian Church (USA). They appreciated the form of governance of the PC(USA) and were attracted to the way that Presbyterian churches have a sense of connection and accountability with one another that helps our churches to develop an identity that lasts beyond the personalities of a particular pastor.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. The Presbytery Committee on Ministry worked with Charles and Diana to help them to pick up the training background in reformed theology and Presbyterian Polity to complement their strong skills in ministry, and they became Commissioned Lay Pastors. Then, the members of their church also studied Presbyterian polity, history and reformed theology, and eventually eighty of them were confirmed as members of First Presbyterian Church. Today, the church is intentionally multi-cultural, though largely African American, and decidedly more lively in worship than the typical Presbyterian Church. The church houses a large ministry called “Sister Jean’s Kitchen, founded because they followed the spirit of one of their members who lives a few blocks away and who simply started feeding homeless folks out of her own kitchen. Nowadays, they’re feeding fifteen hundred people each weekday out of the church, with dreams of supporting a dramatic expansion in services to the homeless in partnership with the Atlantic City Presbyterian Mission Council (check it out at: http://www.wjpresbytery.org/committees/ac_council/) as they expand the program into an abandoned synagogue a block away.

The other two churches in downtown Atlantic City are also seeking to remain a faithful, viable witness in that difficult place. Chelsea Community Presbyterian Church is a somewhat smaller, traditionally white church about twenty blocks south that has now become a small, Indian, Urdu speaking congregation. I shared a wonderful Indian meal with Pastor Suppogo and his congregation, and they shared their efforts to maintain a vibrant presence and outreach to the remaining neighborhood around them. The other is Jethro Presbyterian Church, an African American Congregation that has a smart, dedicated, and dynamic preacher named Dr. Delrio Liggons-Berry who is trying to help revitalize the congregation and strengthen its historic witness that stands in opposition to all that the casino empire stands for.

Another church story. . .

A few months ago, I was visiting Shenango Presbytery in Western Pennsylvania, and I asked E.P. Dave Dawson what the most exciting new thing was in their presbytery. He immediately became animated as he launched into a story about “Word Centered Fellowship” and Pastor Angel de la Cruz. I knew that I would be back in the area this week for the New Wilmington Missionary Conference held at Westminster College, and I asked Dave to arrange for me to visit the church.

After I preached at the conference last Sunday morning, Dave was waiting to whisk me away to Sharon, Pennsylvania, an old steel town on the Shenango river sitting right on the border with Ohio. Twenty minutes later we arrived at a modest, brick building formerly used by the Knights of Columbus as their lodge, with a simple, painted metal sign on the wall that said “Word Centered Fellowship” in big letters. Though worship had ended, eighteen or twenty members had waited to meet with me and to share their story.

Pastor Angel is a Pentecostal preacher who has a D.Min. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A couple of years ago, he set out to create an intentionally multi-ethnic (his word) church that would be especially hospitable to inter-racial couples. Though he is clearly at home in the Pentecostal tradition, he approached the Shenango Presbytery to ask whether he and his congregation might be welcome there. Once again, they were quite clear that they valued the sense of accountability, connectionalism and the rich theological traditions of the Presbyterian Church. Their members also had been deeply moved by the warm embrace they received from First Pres. Sharon when they needed a place to worship as they began their ministry. That welcome was what helped them to feel safe enough to explore the possibilities for uniting with the PC(USA).

As we settled down for conversation over coffee and sandwiches, I expected that Angel would probably do most of the talking. However, when I asked about the goals and the mission of the church, a young man named Luther immediately began to speak. He spoke with conviction, but everyone chuckled as he earnestly began to describe the church’s mission, and within two sentences, all of the members joined in unison to recite their mission statement from memory. Here it is:

“We are a word centered cell church, effectively presenting the gospel to all races and persuading them to become disciples of Christ. We are equipping disciples by teaching the faith, encouraging intimacy with God and demonstrating perseverance to live holy; empowering our youth for tomorrow through prayer support, biblical teaching, education and church support.

We are utilizing the seasoned saints wisdom to build the Kingdom of God and serving the seasoned saints by providing viable ministry for them and excellent nursing care.

We are worship filled, prostrating our lives before the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are utilizing a variety of music to heighten the desires of the people to true koinonia.”

During our conversation, every single one of the members present was anxious to share the way this church is the center of their lives. Though they are clear that they value and are anxious to maintain the Pentecostal spirit of their worship, they’ve also been studying the first four chapters of the Presbyterian Book of Order (something I wish all of our churches would encourage), and they spoke excitedly of the ways in which they have been empowered to provide leadership for their life together. They were particularly impressed by the role of the ruling elders in our polity.

Angel is now a pastor in good standing in Shenango Presbytery. The church has received a New Church Development grant totaling 25,000 dollars each from the Presbytery and the Synod and 50,000 dollars from the General Assembly Council National Ministries Division. That money will come in at $20,000 per year for the next five years, and it will primarily be dedicated to paying a youth pastor’s salary. The members of the church are giving sacrificially themselves to the tune of almost eighty thousand dollars a year. The church will confirm its first members and install its first pastors in late October. Once again, the Commissioned Lay Pastor provisions of our Book of Order are being used in a way that I believe is both creative and God-inspired to recognize the special gifts of the spirit that leaders in the Pentecostal church have been given by God. Three members have entered into a special program with the Committee on Ministry to prepare to become CLP’s so that their leadership and support of the church’s ministry will continue to be recognized and affirmed.

God is clearly working a new thing in these churches, but God can’t do it without long-time Presbyterians who are willing to embrace this new thing in their midst, nor without Presbytery leaders who are willing to think outside the box. It makes me proud, and excited, to be Presbyterian. It also makes me wonder just what our unpredictable God might have in store for us next.

Hang on,