As Christian people who worship and follow a living, loving God whose story of power, purpose, love, and grace are told in the pages of the Bible, we are always happy when there is excitement created about the Scriptures and something stirs the public to read the stories. It is our conviction that the story of God's providence, intention, love, and mercy carries with it a power of the Holy Spirit so that when people read the story they are engaged in a meeting of the holy and the human. So we rejoice in Bill Moyers project on Genesis on Public television. Certainly it is not a project which is strictly Christian, for it has Jews, Muslims, and agnostics on its panel. Certainly it is a project which is intended to be commercially successful with video and audio tapes, books, and any other commercially possible aspects, but people are reading and thinking about the stories and that will lead to good.
When they began to talk about the creation stories there was lots of attention and interest in the whole question of what it means for humans to be in the image of God. What is it that human beings share with God so that humanity is different from all other parts of creation and is in the likeness of God? Is it the ability to make conscious choices? To have a freedom to decide, to weigh the options and to make decisions that matter? Or was it only when they gained the power from the tree to know the difference between good and evil that they became like God, only when they claimed the moral power to distinguish between good and evil by eating the fruit of the tree. Or was it really that deep down desire to be able to make and create, to build and to develop something that will last and endure and to make something that is good.
The theologians like to claim that creation of all the universe was spontaneous, unforced, un-necessitated and that nobody and nothing compelled God to create. Surely there was a desire for creating in God that God needed to scratch, and surely there was an emptiness for relationship with something other that God desired to have fulfilled by creation. So in one sense we may be in the image of God because as human beings we too have a desire to create, a desire to make something, to build something, to be a part of something that endures, something that will last, something that is good. God seems to have had a hunger to make, to create something and to see it as good, and we human beings have a desire to make, to achieve, to build something that will last and that will say that we have passed this way.
As part of the people of God we express part of that desire to build and to create something that is good. We, under the direction and authority of Jesus Christ work to build the kingdom of God. We labor to create and sustain the community of grace in the world that has fallen by sin. These officers step forward and promise to lead us in the effort to share with God the work of creating the place where light is seen in the midst of darkness; we work to create the place where mercy is given in a world where law and order are spoken so easily; to create the place where truth is sought rather than truth is claimed to already exist; where hope, faith, and love are the motto, not Guns, Guts, and Glory. These officers and this community of faith reflect the image of God in our desire to create, to build, to be a part of the creation of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
But to do that requires, as Jesus suggests, that we be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Loren Mead, who has spent most of his life watching, talking, and analyzing the way Christian people structure themselves as churches: watching, helping, advising congregations on the ways to do ministry, has provided a number of helpful suggestions on how to be wise as serpents. Dr. Mead thinks that Christian people need to recognize that a dramatic and radical shift has happened in most of the major denominations. Ever since the Emperor Constantine took over the Roman Empire and made Christianity the religion of the empire. Christian people have viewed the government as Christian. America is a Christian nation and for Christians to do mission work we will have to send missionaries to non-Christian people, which means people in other countries. So we have developed a very successful structure of levels to support world missions, to support the recruiting, training and sending out of missionaries around the world. But since about the 1960's two things have begun to become very obvious: 1) our missionaries have done a very good job, and there are now strong Christian communities in most of the countries of the world. The Korean Presbyterian Church is stronger and more alive than the American Presbyterian community. There are indigenous preachers and churches. 2.) There has been the growing recognition that Christian churches have a lot of mission work to do right at their own door steps. Why build hospitals in Zaire when so much needs to be done to achieve the goals of healthy carolinians in Vance County?
So the people of God need to see the new situation and discover a new game plan for working on the Kingdom of God in our midst for this new century. The old structures are no longer valid. The mission for Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly can no longer be the same. All of that structure may not be needed any more. Dr. Mead suggests three major areas in which we need to be looking.
First, we have to get the power, the decisions, the control of the people of God, back to the people of God. When one of the new officers was looking at the book of Order and asked the question to a spouse, "Who is head of the church?" the spouse said “the minister.” Dr. Mead says that is a major problem. The body of Christ is run too much by its professionals. The laity too easily yields to the clergy's desires and programs; the laity often is happy to avoid the responsibility for decisions; we clergy too often have the arrogance to think that we know best what needs to be done. "In the process of building and creating religious institutions, we have created a power and ownership structure in which the clergy wield most of the power."1 If the people of God are going to be able to create a place for the Kingdom of God in the future, the fellowship of believers will need to shift the power and ownership back to the officers and laypeople to fulfill their Christ appointed mission.
Secondly, if the old structures are collapsing, then there is a major work of finding new structures; ministry and mission cannot operate without some structure. The structure is not holy, but no community of people is able to function without some form and organization. The challenge for new structures is a part of almost every business and every joint effort in our society. The people of God need to accept that the old structure, the old patterns no longer fit the new reality, and so we must struggle to find new ways to link up, to share in work, to trust and work with each other.
The third challenge is to regain a passion and a power in our journey offaith. When one looks around at the religious landscape there seem to be two major camps, those who are steady, faithful, disciplined, orderly, thoughtful, and have a strong style of witness and worship. They move like a mighty river that is so deep and broad that it seems it is not moving at all. Presbyterians are always talking about doing things "decently and in order." But there is that other side, that loud, spontaneous, shouting, waving of hands, emotional, dynamic, unpredictable, without limits and form, side. At the moment both are critical of the other, both are suspicious of the other. Both think that the other is heretical. But both will die without the other. The traditional faithful, regular and steady is drying up and withering in its congregations. The emotional and dynamic zeal has nothing to offer when the emotions subside and the blast of the moment is gone. When these new officers were examined by the Session, each was asked to talk about their personal life story of faith. And in those stories there was great emotion, great power, and great joy, but somehow that never gets shared with the congregation as a body. Dr. Mead suggested, “that everyone we talked to could describe powerful personal experiences with God. The experiences were unique to the individual but all very real. Some of them had occurred in a "religious" setting, but most had not. Many had been life-changing events. But we also learned that none of the people who told us of these experiences had ever been asked to tell his or her story to his or her congregation or pastor, and none had ever thought of bringing it up."2 We do ask our newly elected offices to share those stories with the session, but traditional spirituality needs to get more of that emotional and powerful religious quality back into its worship, and the emotional and charismatic worship needs to include the disciplines of worship in order to have a means of sustaining their experiences.
If we are to work in the image of God to help build and create the kingdom of God on earth, then as we move into new conditions we will have to work with new leaders to build new structures, to shape a new passionate spirituality, and put the ownership and authority for the church back in the hands of the people of God.
First Presbyterian Church
1. Loren Mead, Five Challenges, The Alban Institute, 1997, p.15.
2. Mead, op. cit. p. 34.