Is Giving Up an Option?

February 8, 2012

When I went to New Zealand on vacation, my intention was to leave “work” behind, which these days includes thinking strategicially about the role of evangelicals within Presbyterian Church. So on one of our long-drive days around the North Island, I was startled to see a Presbyterian church on the main street through a particular town. I just hadn’t thought about it in advance, and therefore was surprised to find a kin on this Pacific island. Now on the lookout, I discovered several congregations, although most were union churches, often paired with the Methodists.

When kayaking was ruled out one Sunday, due to choppy, windy conditions, we decided to go to church instead (we were on vacation, after all, and worship was always an option but not a mandate for us). We found the union church in town, and showed up for the 10 a.m. service. The average age of those attending was predictably older, though there were several international visitors like us, and a Tongan contingent off to the side. Otherwise, the members were European, and, later I learned, the fruit of an early 20th century immigration of Scots to the island.

The congregation and its pastor, an eloquent poet and a Kiwi, were in many respects frozen in time. It was not “high church” Reformed worship, but it was a relic of times past, a museum piece of a proper Presbyterian gathering. It was totally familiar and foreign at the same time. What was foreign to us was the almost complete isolation of this group of people from what was going on in their town, their families, or their country. Nothing in the service was particularly challenging to the people present; there was no obvious alertness or aliveness to the vitality of the gospel; but it was a proper service and the people gathered, had tea, and went home afterwards. The pastor and his wife graciously invited us to their home for lunch, too, which was generous and lovely.

What struck me most, in a country where only 4% of the population are affiliated with a church (much like the Bay Area), there was absolutely no evangelistic impulse at work among these Christians. It was shocking really to realize that these dear, comfortable people were happy to meet together, delighted if someone foreign found them, but under no obligation and exerting no effort to make Christ known in what I perceived to be an amazing missional setting. That subject was closed as if they had given up in this remarkable secularized society.

As orthodox evangelicals in the PCUSA get used to the idea that the Presbyterian culture around them is secularizing or heading in questionable directions theologically, they may feel themselves to be in a numeric minority ready to give up. (I do not think we are there yet, but the day may be coming.) With numeric minority, some are feeling the need to leave via the EPC or the ECO, but for one reason or another a good number of congregations are going to need to stay in the PCUSA. The question is, How are they going to be? How are they going to think of themselves within the Presbyterian context? Are they going to isolate themselves on a shelf as a museum piece of proper (and orthodox) Presbyterianism, or are they going to retreat into a remnant mindset hopelessly cast off into irrelevancy?

My hope would be that those evangelical congregations that remain in the PCUSA would do so out of a commitment to pursue vital, robust, and bold expressions of the true gospel to their fellow Presbyterians. My hope would be that they would choose courage over complacency, engagement over isolationism, suffering over comfort, bold and true application of the gospel over “safe” topics, and evangelistic spirit over institutional survivalism. It must never be appropriate to give up on evangelistic witness, faithful preaching, the administration of the sacraments, and church discipline. But we are going to be tempted, after the current troubles seem “settled,” to entrench and retreat into a comfortable Presbyterian life. We must resist this temptation.

There is another side of the issue to consider, that of “being” versus “doing.” Tomorrow, I will share my one last reflection from New Zealand life to illustrate.


3 Responses to “Is Giving Up an Option?”

  1. Mary, I have really enjoyed your reflections on your trip – it is a wonderful gift to see the world through spiritual eyes – and your observations have been very insightful.

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