It was the last day of the 222nd General Assembly meeting of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and for the first time the word “evangelism” came up. It was quickly shot down. Commissioners argued that “evangelism is hard for us,” and “evangelism means something different in every community and you can’t teach that.” Emily Williams, a Young Adult Advisory delegate said, “we’re not supposed to preach outside the church,” and “our resources are better spent on deeds not words.” She then concluded, “if we’re worried about filling pews, just put a $50 bill in every bulletin.”
It is no secret that the PCUSA has suffered a precipitous decline in membership from a height of 4.5 million members in its two predecessor denominations prior to Reunion, to just over 1.5 million today. Projections are of another 400,000 member loss by 2020. So one might imagine that evangelism strategies would top the list of agenda items for the General Assembly but one would be wrong.
Was the assembly being asked to do something new for the church? Quite the contrary. The assembly was being asked to affirm the first Great End of the Church as articulated in the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity (F-1.0304), namely: the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind. 25 years ago the 1991 General Assembly was able to approve and issue a church-wide call to evangelism. They adopted a document called “Turn to the Living God” and in 2016 the document was updated and posted on the denomination’s website in a 25th anniversary edition. The 2016 GA was not able to affirm nor commend the same.
The motion before the assembly required no amendment to the Constitution, no new resources, and had no financial implications as the document is already on the denomination’s website. The action simply asked that the document be recognized and commended for study and action. Further, no mandates were made in the proposal to PCUSA related seminaries. The language of encouragement was used. But in the end, the assembly eschewed any and all evangelism in a vote of 270-279.
Here’s how it went down:
The ill-fated evangelism overture known as item 06-02 arrived at the assembly floor with a 38-18 committee recommendation for disapproval. Commissioner Gale Watkins of Grand Canyon Presbytery moved to amend the motion to disapprove with comment.
The 222nd General Assembly (2016):
1. Recognizes the 25th anniversary of General Assembly approval of “Turn to the Living God: A Call to Evangelism in Jesus Christ’s Way,” and commends this outstanding resource, which is still relevant and is easily accessible on the denomination’s website, to the whole church for study and action.
2. Encourages all of our theological institutions to do all they can to prepare their students to be faithful and effective in the communication of the gospel in our swiftly-changing world, fulfilling the call to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5), learning from the best practices of their counterparts both within and beyond the Presbyterian Church (USA).
In presenting the amendment Watkins cited II Corinthians 5 and highlighted the sermon the assembly had heard earlier the same day from Rev. Dr. Jerry Andrews about being reconciled to God now. Watkins appealed to the assembly to encourage the members of the PCUSA to share the life-changing good news of Jesus Christ. A sufficient majority of his fellow commissioners were not convinced. In fact, many were openly opposed to the idea.