You Can’t Be Serious, Can You?
Do you know what steams our broccoli? Promoting expediency over integrity, selling for cheap a priceless spiritual practice in pursuit of a greater share of the religious market. The very idea! Who died and made Success God?
In the January-February 2011 issue of Presbyterians Today — a magazine we know and love — the cover story expresses a hope that “educational standards” will not get in the way of the opportunity for “rapid expansion” of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) provided by a rising tide of immigration into the United States. The statement flummoxes us into cliché´: C’mon man! Really?
The writer is Michael Parker, coordinator of international evangelism for the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He compares the present situation to the growth westward in this country during the early 1800’s. The end of the Revolutionary War opened up the American frontier to a mass migration of people looking for land. During this period, Parker writes, “the Presbyterian Church was one of the largest and most influential churches in the country. But because Presbyterians insisted on an educated ministry and were ambivalent about revivalism, they were not able to keep up with the westward movement of the population. In the space of only 50 years, Methodists and Baptists, small denominations before 1800, became the dominant Protestant churches in the nation.”
Anyone who has studied American church history of that time and place knows that there were multiple reasons to be at least “ambivalent” about frontier revivalism. In and around those camp meetings, some good things happened and some crazy things happened. Included among the latter were church schism, displays of mass hysteria, and the reduction of theology to manipulative techniques aimed at public conversions. Presbyterians knew enough to back away from the Great Revival precisely because they were educated. Wise ministers and elders of the time could see that the worst way to bring people into relationship with God and God’s kingdom is to scare them into it.
Doubtless the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) needs to undergo extensive changes to help people do the mission of Jesus Christ within the present, immigrant-rich landscape. So great are the challenges that one could argue for more educational requirements for elders and ministers, not less. Ordaining an uneducated Presbyterian ministry would be like arming fire fighters with water pistols.
Baptists and Methodists are good people. Some Baptists are smarter and better educated than some Presbyterians. Likewise for Methodists. As such, members of those churches are not closer to or farther from the Holy Spirit than Presbyterians. If they have different educational standards than we, so be it. If their numbers soar over ours, the reign of God is not harmed, is it? But just because Baptists and Methodists out-number us doesn’t mean that we should become them. Someday, the world and the church at large may again cry out for a distinctively Presbyterian-style witness. There may yet be a call for a thoughtful, disciplined, and reflective group of Christians to play a role within the church catholic. We ought to be ready if and when that call comes.
Were I an immigrant, I would be insulted that the church would even consider lowering its educational standards in order to count me among its leadership. Am I intellectually deficient? Am I too backward to learn Greek and Hebrew, too ignorant to gather the knowledge necessary to pass ordination exams? I don’t think so. There may or may not be some catching up to do because of cultural differences, but the wait, should there be any, will be worth it. Any reach for quantity over quality, in any endeavor, proves unsustainable over time.
The idea behind the aforementioned article exposes a floating anxiety that comes upon institutions when they seem to be caving in on themselves. We think we can tinker with this little part of our system or that part and things will come round right for our shrinking denomination. Church growth is neither a function of tinkering nor of marketing. It’s a function of faith. Growth in numbers comes from growth in the spiritual lives of church members, creating dynamic, outreaching congregations which attract new people. The spiritual energy spins from inside out and outside in, building interior excitement which produces an abundance of hope focused on the church’s exterior. The faithful — long term members and new ones — are thus pointed toward living meaningful lives meaningfully engaged with the world as they pursue Christ’s peace and wholeness, Christ’s justice and mercy, Christ’s beauty and truth for all the people God made and God loves, indeed, for the whole creation.
Presbyterians should understand all of this because they are disciples, which is to say students of the master Teacher. Presbyterians are rarely (probably never) at their best, but when they approach maturity, they are rigorous students of Scripture, theology, church history, and the practices that support faithful living. Presbyterians are not the only denomination that appreciates education, but no denomination has blazed an educational trail across this nation wider and deeper than ours. Commitment to education defines us. It’s why many of us are Presbyterians in the first place. It’s why many of our people were able to rise from poverty and become contributors to a better, healthier world.
Even if the institutional name, Presbyterian Church (USA), were to vanish from history, a righteous remnant of presbyterian-ish sorts would remain. They would be dedicated to the patient and nonanxious life of scholarship. With honesty, humility, and good humor, they would be conscientious servants of the Holy Spirit, devoted to the love of Jesus Christ, and looking forward to the commonwealth of God as it comes.
So let she or he who would work to weaken educational requirements for church leadership beware. Some of us otherwise sleepy Presbyterians will wake up and defend a blessing we consider core. Our hackles raise at the scent of anti-intellectualism. But this has been a rousing little church fight. At least it got our broccoli steamed. And there’s nothing better in the springtime than that, served with a pat of butter and a dash of salt. Good and good for you!