Written by Pastor Powell Sykes
It’s April of 2014, about two months shy of the 26th anniversary my ordination by Wilmington Presbytery in North Carolina, and I am preaching before presbytery at Montreat College. I’ve never been asked to preach the sermon at presbytery! My wife is sitting in the second row, and my father is somewhere in the middle in a sea of commissioners, men and women who love Jesus Christ and His Church. I even went to seminary with some of them! But at 51, my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, so I can’t pick out all the faces. At least I can see my Bible text, and my notes, and that’s what matters. It’s enough that I can feel the acceptance and encouragement.
How did I land this gig? The moderator of presbytery called me around the first of the year, asking if I would be willing to preach. “We know about your background in music, and the theme of presbytery is the use of art in the Church.” I had to chuckle about that. I started playing guitar in 1975, was in my first rock band the next year, and played throughout college, seminary, and even while pastoring churches. Sometimes it has been in worship, but most of the time it has been in outreach, in secular settings.
Of course, ever since I mentioned it in my 2012 book, the thing most people know about is my high school group, which did three concerts dressed as Kiss. There are photos on facebook! When I was examined by presbytery, one of the members asked me, tongue-in-cheek, “How would you feel about a worship band which wore heavy make-up, dressed in leather, and where the members breathed fire?” “Fine,” I said, “as long as it doesn’t distract from the preaching of the Word!”
Truthfully, I’m sort of a Zwinglian when it comes to arts in the Church. I usually hold up his standard, “A church is four bare walls and a sermon,” regarding worship. So, when the presbytery moderator asked me to speak, I said, “Are you sure? I’m not big on art in worship.” But he was sure, and the presbytery was too. Even the guy who led the art workshops that afternoon said to me, “Between the two of us, we pretty much covered the whole scope of Reformed worship.”
Our presbytery is committed to sharing the good news of salvation, purchased by the blood of Jesus, with those not raised in the Church. Our church revitalization expert likes to say, “There is a difference between outreach and evangelism. Outreach comes when Christians love their neighbors, but if Jesus has not been explained to our neighbors, evangelism has not happened.” That resonates so deeply with me. For years I have observed that Presbyterians seem to grow our churches through three means exclusively: marriages, births, and transfers. We deride the Baptists for their unseemly obsession with “getting people saved” and the theatrics which often go with that, but don’t seem to have much of a Reformed alternative. It reminds me of the woman who once complained to Dwight L. Moody, “Dr. Moody, I don’t like your method of evangelism.” He replied, “I don’t like it either. What’s yours?”
The time has come when all Presbyterians must go out and compel the lost to come in. How? Historically, the Presbyterian secret weapon has been the 11:00 am worship service. Come in! Hear great music! Hear a meaningful, informed sermon, preached with passion and dignity! But it’s not that simple in a post-Christian culture. It worked in the 1950s because most Americans were accustomed to going to church back then. It was expected. It also was a good way to make friends, and to make business and social connections.
But today, in a much more secularized culture, it is very intimidating for people not raised in church to walk into an odd building (including padded benches called “pews”, as in Pepe Le Pew?), with odd rituals, odd music, and mostly OLD people. Besides, where are the bathrooms, and when can I get up and go? New entry opportunities must be created for those outside the Church.
A friend of mine compares this to a chess game. In chess, the most powerful piece on the board is the queen. If you can take the other person’s queen while keeping your own, you have a very good chance of winning. However, you can win without your queen. It just takes more work. For years Presbyterians have had our main morning worship service as our queen. That’s often what brought folks to us. But since the queen rarely gets into the game nowadays, we must start using our knights, other ways of bringing the lost to Christ and into His body, the Church. It’s more work, but it can be done. We have to “do church” in the public square.
I taught a teen-focused Bible study for years, usually in the homes of the high school students. Because it was not functioning as evangelism, I realized I had to change it. I moved it to the McDonald’s restaurant less than a mile from our building, still on Tuesday nights. The immediate change was that, not only were the teens still coming every week, but at least one parent came along too, and participated. Now people in the restaurant listen in to our discussion of Mark. And the employees of McDonald’s love having us there! Many of them are Christians, and appreciate what we are doing. Besides, we always buy food, so it’s not like we’re just taking up space. The size of the Bible Study already has doubled from what it was. Now we are starting a second Bible Study on Thursday nights in the mall. In the 21st century, Christians must make ourselves known and available for questions in the public arena.
Another change which has come over me in the past year is a renewed commitment to reaching across racial and cultural lines. In the world, “Birds of a feather flock together.” But it is not to be this way in the Church. We are to be a strange flock filled with hawks and doves, peacocks and penguins, and even a few turkeys like me! This only happens as we come together to feed upon the Jesus Christ offered to us in scripture. Our church is ready to make this change. We already have an after school tutoring program that serves black, white, and Latino kids from our neighborhood, taught by our members. We help them with their homework, and share what knowing Jesus has done in our lives.
Our youth group has had interracial participation for years; our first African-American member came from there, and she is loved by all. Her mother was raised in the black community, but actually is a member of the local tribe of Native Americans. The mother sings in our choir, comes to Sunday School and Bible Outreach, and serves on committees. If she just would join officially, she would be a shoe-in as an Elder!
But this is not enough. In the 1970s, I went to a newly integrated school system, and made many friends in the black community, friendships which last to this day. One was the editor of my 2012 book. Another is the co-author of my new book. Still another is my local mentor, who I have known since I was 16. They have enriched my walk with Jesus. But what about the Church? The 11:00 am Sunday morning worship service still is the most segregated hour in American society.
For the past year I actively have been seeking an African-American man or woman willing to work with my church as an evangelist, helping both to lead in worship and to evangelize in our community. In that time I have worshiped and worked extensively with two black congregations, even playing bass guitar with the worship band of one every week for the past year during their 8:30 am Sunday morning worship. At one point, it looked like that congregation would begin a service in our building, but then they decided not to pursue it. Though this was disappointing, the relationships are still strong, and we eagerly wait to see what great and new things the Lord will do in this area.
All in all, looking out at, and preaching to, the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic in April of 2014, it has been an exciting year. We no longer fight about sexuality at the presbytery level, or anywhere else. We no longer worry about the essential tenets of the Reformed faith being undefined or neglected. We no longer worry about losing our property. We are free to pursue the Great Commission.
In 2013, my church and I were welcomed into the EPC.
C. Powell Sykes is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Burlington, N.C. He’s a 1988 graduate of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, and was a 1994 Commissioner to General Assembly from Coastal Carolina Presbytery and 2001-2007 Salem Presbytery representative on Council, Synod of the Mid-Atlantic.