by Jill Duffield, Editor of The Presbyterian Outlook
IF A VOTE TAKES PLACE IN A CONVENTION CENTER AND NO ONE NOTICES, WAS A VOTE CAST? Several times in recent months I have visited churches to present a preview of coming attractions to the 223rd General Assembly. I dutifully present with my journalist hat firmly placed on my head, attempting to have a poker face and give the facts and only the facts. But inevitably the first question I am asked is: So what?
Usually the query comes in slightly more polite terms. Something like: How will this impact local congregations? Or: What difference will it make if the General Assembly makes a statement on X, Y or Z? Or, more pointedly: Where is Jesus in all of this? Occasionally, the blunt one in the room asks rhetorically: Who cares?
Then my journalist hat must be set aside for other less "objective" accessories. I first go for my editor hat. According to our website analytics data, people do care. The headlines on these matters get clicks. The amount of time spent on the pages indicates the articles get read. Engagement can be measured in shares, comments and likes. Evidently, a group of people care, passionately, about fossil fuel, per capita and denominational restructuring. But data only tells part of the story.
If I put on my pastor hat, I must confess that sometimes when I speak to groups of church leaders not a single person knows the Way Forward Commission from the 2020 Vision Team, let alone what the All Agency Review, Governing Task Force, COGA and PMAB are. Now, those in group A (passionate about all things denominational) cannot imagine that group B (Presbyterians who have no idea we have co-moderators) exists. When I venture to let group A know of group B, or alternately, group B know of group A, both groups A and B think the other irresponsible and out of touch.
How can any self-respecting Presbyterian be unfamiliar with proposed denominational restructuring? How can any self-respecting Presbyterian invest their time in restructuring the denomination? Both ask of the other: Haven't they heard that we're losing members? That young people don't go to church? That people are hungry and homeless? We have mission to do!
Then I feel like I need a referee cap and a whistle. Or a coach's hat to call a timeout and huddle everyone together. The truth is that both group A and group B - and presumably a group C that falls somewhere in between "I can't get enough of reading about the proposed amendments to the Book of Order" and "What's a Book of Order?" - all feel in their bones the urgency of following Jesus Christ in our current, liminal, fast-changing, fear-filled context.
That's why I want so badly for groups A, B and C to be in the same room together. I want for group B to ask, not me but group A, "Why does this matter?" and "How does this denominational work draw us closer to Christ and send us out into the world in his name?" Those questions need to be front and center every time group A talks about anything.
I want group A to ask group B (not me or some other go between or SurveyMonkey): What challenges and hopes to do you have in your congregation, home and community? Where does Jesus abide where you are? Where is the fire and wind of the Spirit at work in your ministry? These questions need to be asked and answered by each other every time we gather.
What if group A people (This is my 10th GA!) and group B people (What is GA?) recognized their shared purpose? To glorify and God and enjoy God forever, say. Or, to go out and make disciples, teaching all Jesus commanded and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, perhaps. Or, to proclaim Good News to the poor and release to the captives, maybe. Or, to feed and tend Christ's sheep. If they realized that shared purpose, then group C would come alongside and we might all be headed the same place - not St. Louis, but Galilee. Then the world would notice the difference we make.
Wouldn't that be shocking?