‘Riverside Conversation’ was deep and wide
By Carmen Fowler, The Layman, July 3, 2010
MINNEAPOLIS – Gradye Parsons and Linda Valentine, the highest elected officers in the Presbyterian Church (USA), said Saturday that they are committed to growing the church deep and wide through discipleship and evangelism.
Parsons, the stated clerk of the General Assembly, and Valentine, executive director of the General Assembly Mission Council, outlined their seven hopes for the assembly during a gathering called the Riverside Conversations.
- Prayerful decision making. “The spirit in which decisions are made at the assembly is a prayerful and careful witness of decision-making for the entire church, Parsons said. “Even though we have opposite views, we are all trying to discern the mind of Christ.” He said the Association of Executive Presbyters has been praying for 40 days. Other groups have also been praying, including the Presbyterian Elders in Prayer and Presbyterians across the country and around the world.
- A “deeper awareness of the whole PCUSA.”
- It is hoped that commissioners and advisory delegates will gain a deeper awareness of the length and breadth of the PCUSA, realizing they are part of something much larger than themselves.
- An understanding that the issues before the assembly are issues facing real congregations. “In too many places, we have churches that have lost their way,” Valentine said. “We need vital and healthy communities of faith. We are working on the national level to nurture healthy and vibrant congregations. One of the ways we do that is by equipping, inspiring and connecting congregations” by telling their stories. One of those stories was in a video featuring the revival experienced by Greystone Presbyterian Church, Indian National Presbytery. The video concluded with the observation that “from the brink of death, God heard Greystone’s desire to live again.”
- That commissioners would discern their common calling to a changing church and emerge to actively engage with the reality of change. Parsons cited trends reported by the Pew Forum and Barna Group, noting that “only 37 percent of Christians across the country attend one church.” The observed trend is that Christians worship at one church, their kids go to youth group at another church, they serve on a mission team from yet another church, and they are in a neighborhood Bible study sponsored by a fourth church. People are not exclusively committed to one denominational expression nor to one congregational expression of the church. They are picking and choosing and creating their own Christian experience of community. What Parsons described as “an adventure time” and George Barna describes as “revolution” is marked by home-grown associates, bi-vocational or tent-making ministries, and giving that stretches far beyond support for one organizational expression of the church. How will Presbyterians respond to such change? “God is calling us to look at how we do church and try to understand what it means to really engage people,” Parsons said. “God is changing the church whether we want to or not.” Valentine also cited demographic shifts. “By 2039, the U.S. will not be majority Caucasian,” she said. In response, the PCUSA is putting renewed energy into mulit-cultural ministries. More than 500 people attended the denomination’s mulit-cultural conference in Chicago earlier this year.
- That our attention will move beyond ourselves to a world in great need, committing ourselves to Gospel work: making disciples, feeding the hungry, welcoming the outcast, encouraging the fainthearted, working for peace – all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Parsons celebrated the creation of the World Reformed Council in June as an example of the partnerships Presbyterians enjoy. “We are 2 million people that are part of 80 million Reformed Christians around the world,” Parsons said. “We are small or provisional part of the Church universal.”
Valentine in turn celebrated that “we have 30 mission networks connecting internationally and around certain issues. Congregations, presbyteries and individual mission groups are connecting all over the world. These relationships are transformative. This is a way of bringing together Christians who share a calling for a particular part of the world or a particular concern.” She said that through networking, everyone involved can have a greater impact.
- The sixth hope is for the enthusiastic sharing of the faith.
Parsons acknowledged that Presbyterians are “often called the shy, quiet people. It is a falsehood to say that Presbyterians don’t do evangelism. It is true that we need to develop a readiness to share our faith. We need to find our tongue, to find the words to describe the great stories of what God is doing in our lives.” Turning again to statistics to support his message, Parsons said “85 percent of those surveyed know they are called to share their faith; a very small percentage actually do.”
Attendees then watched a video featuring First United Presbyterian Church, Guthrie, Oklahoma, where young skate-boarders not only transformed the life and ministry of a congregation but were themselves transformed.
In recalling the transformation, the pastor said that when the teen-age skateboarders in the parking lot were asked, “Why do you guys come here?” they responded, “Because we know we’re loved.”
Nate Hibler told his story on camera. “Because of skateboarding I started hanging out with friends who were here. If it wasn’t for the church family, I’d be nothin’ right now.” Nate wants to be a youth minister.
The pastor concluded, “God is working miracles in people’s lives and God is working through the Presbyterian church.”
That is the contagious message of enthusiastic good news that Parsons and Valentine want to see shared by Presbyterians across the country – beginning with those who attend the assembly. Parsons encouraged commissioners, “At this General Assembly let’s work together to make something good happen. Let’s not just cross our fingers, grit our teeth and hope that nothing bad happens. Let’s focus on the good things that God is doing.”
- That at the end of the assembly, commissioners and advisory delegates will have a deep sense that what they did will further the mission of Christ in the world.
Valentine reminded attendees that “we are here to grow Christ’s church. We want to lift up stories that inspire and encourage.”
It was then time for those in the room to identify and share their own hopes for the week and then go and seek to realize those hopes.