The Rev. Dr. Tom Trinidad, vice moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), is making the rounds at presbytery meetings and sharing his perspective on the state of the church. On May 21 the setting was Charlotte Presbytery in North Carolina, and the packed house at Paw Creek Presbyterian Church was eager to engage the denominational official.
After sharing the story of how he came to serve in the position of vice moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the PCUSA, which originally elected another person to the post, Trinidad shared his perspective on churches leaving the denomination for ECO and the EPC.
“In my presbytery we have dismissed seven churches representing 60 percent of the operating budget of our presbytery,” he said. “But more than the money, they also represented seasoned leadership. The void created by their departure is the divinely orchestrated opportunity for smaller churches and people in the presbytery who might not otherwise have been called upon to lead.”
A question and answer session on “The state of the PCUSA” between Trinidad and the Charlotte presbyters then commenced for nearly an hour.
The first question came from the Rev. Kate Murphy, a commissioner to the 2012 GA, who said, “I rise to share with presbytery my deep concern about what I experienced this summer at GA. I serve a church that is a struggling urban church that is becoming diverse and is just on the verge of life and death … While at GA I found myself wondering why I was there. There is such a vast disconnect between what we talk about at presbytery and the General Assembly and the world my congregation lives in.”
Continuing, Murphy said, “I feel called to serve a congregation that grows disciples of Jesus Christ. If we don’t do it, no one else will. We are shrinking and shrinking and shrinking — and I for one think it matters if the Presbyterian Church exists in the world. It is enormously hard for me to understand why we don’t have an evangelism or discipleship committees at GA. We never talked about any of that. ”
Lamenting that it feels to her as if the denomination has given up on congregations like hers, Murphy said, “I want to speak up for what I think matters most, which is local congregations.”
Trinidad answered with a reference to Ecclesiastes: “There is a time and a place for everything. The GA is a time and place for certain conversations that we need to have face-to-face as a denomination. It is the time and place where together we give direction to justice ministries … to bear witness to the wider community … deal with concerns that we magnify together … There are places in the world that we would never go as a local congregation but places where we together must be. The GA affords us that opportunity.”
Indicating that the decisions and actions of the GA involve and affect the whole body, Trinidad instructed, “The hand can’t say to the foot, ‘I don’t need you.’ If the hand is involved in something then so is the foot.”
The conversations that the GA will entertain in Detroit, Trinidad noted, may well have to find support in more than one presbytery (referring to an amendment currently being voted on by presbyteries across the country). That would pare down the work that comes to the GA from local churches but, Trinidad said, “it would make the work before the assembly less local and remote from the concerns of the larger body.”
Trinidad then shared some emerging plans for the 221st GA meeting in Detroit, Mich., in June 2014.
“As our identity as a church comes not out of our Book of Order but in the breaking of the bread, so, in Detroit, we will participate in the Lord’s Supper every day,” he said. “We will also have baptismal stations in every corner of our worship space to remind us that we are all one in our baptism. We are seeking to have the platform moved from the front to the center so that people are looking across and seeing one another as they speak and worship and deliberate.”
Later in the conversation, an associate pastor of a large metropolitan church echoed the concern raised by Murphy. She asked, “How might our seminaries and GA do a better job of producing resources for helping us in the life of the local church?”
Trinidad directed her to, “Seek and ye shall find — spend some time on the PCUSA website.” Then he acknowledged that “nothing can be adopted without being adapted. There is good proven stuff out there — but all of it must necessarily be adapted for your people, your church, your context. It’s a lot of responsibility to seek and find good stuff but then you have some adapting to do — that’s the missional paradigm. You cannot look to the GA to give you answers. Grow up is Christ’s command and follow me — there’s some work to do. Seek, find and adapt.”
The presbyter then followed up, saying, “I do a lot of seeking, but the good stuff is not often from the PCUSA. I find good stuff produced by non-denominational evangelical sources which I then must adapt for use in a Reformed setting. What I’m interested in is how the PCUSA is identifying and connecting local church leaders, pastors and churches — pulling them together and then making that information available to others.”
Trinidad admitted, “I do not know that it’s happening like that or that the GA sees that as its role. The GA is a deliberative body, not a determinative body. In terms of discipling, that’s not the role of the GA but the role of the local shepherd.“
A retired pastor, referring to the systemic and dramatic decline in the PCUSA and the denomination’s adoption of ordination practices that include non-celibate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, asked pointedly, “Are we losing members because of the change in ordination?”
Trinidad answered, “Yes,” then pausing dramatically, added, “and we’re gaining members.” Continuing Trinidad said, “We lost members at Reunion. I lost members when we went to weekly communion. We’re losing members all the time as is every other denomination in the country.”
Then Trinidad suggested that might be evidence of faithfulness, when he said, “On the night of His betrayal Jesus demonstrated that you lose some people — but 50 days later he gathered 3,000.”
Referring to the embrace of LGBTQ ordination, Trinidad said, “When you speak the truth you lose some people. I’m not afraid to walk in the darkness because we have Christ with us. I’m not afraid to walk into the darkness and proclaim that light.”
Returning to the theme of Jesus, evangelism and the loss of a generation of Presbyterians, Andrew Scales, associate pastor of Davidson College Presbyterian Church and the campus ministry director, asked, “I worry that in the field of campus ministry we are not proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ to Presbyterian students nor to others. How is the GA thinking of ways to witness to Jesus not only to students who grew up in Presbyterian churches but to others who have heard nothing about the Gospel?”
Trinidad rattled off a litany of GA efforts, including the 2012 affirmation of a new direction for college ministry, the Engage curriculum and 1001 worshipping communities. Repeating his earlier counsel he suggested that Scales “get on mailing lists for various GA entities and agencies. There’s so much good news about what churches are doing. Really inspiring. See what’s going on — be encouraged.”
Then Trinidad admitted that “we may not focus on Christ because for us those questions have been answered for us.” He admitted that the “culture has shifted around us,” but he did not address the question of how the denomination is answering that challenge nor equipping its pastors and people to do so.
Several other questions centered on Jesus — “Who do we really say that He is?” and “Do we really believe the Apostles’ Creed?” and “Are we really renewing our minds according to the Word of God?”
The pastor of Beulah Church noted the concerns in the room were “concerns for Christ, calls for revival and renewal … yet church is shrinking in our context — one church is going to leave us today. What might we do to humble ourselves, to take a meek posture before the Lord, seek His face — that the Spirit might come — what might we do to humble ourselves on the GA level?”
Answering his own question, he continued, “Real knees on the real floor with intertwined hands uplifted, exalting Him!”
At every opportunity Trinidad sought to return the presbytery to a narrative about covenant, corporate faithfulness, remaining at the table even when you disagree. But the Presbytery of Charlotte wanted to talk about Jesus, making disciples, preparing candidates and growing churches.
The vice moderator of presbytery council and the pastor of the Southminster Presbyterian Church in Gastonia, said, “Sometimes we act as though Christ is dead and has not risen — we perform as though Christ is not alive. It’s time we admit that the GA does not have the resources for us; we’ve got to stop talking about doing something and start doing something. Let’s begin doing what we do in a way that shows Christ lives. The way we’ve been doing it (at our meetings) is not enough. How can we do less talking and more doing?”
Trinidad affirmed her using a story about his physician father-in-law. Trinidad asked about performing a shoulder reattachment, “How do you learn that?” The doctor answered, “You watch one, you assist with one and then you do one.”
Trinidad added, “like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, just start walking, keep talking and expect Christ to transform your walk and your meal and your fellowship and expect Him to give you a witness.”