Over the years, I have attended a number of General Assemblies and been repeatedly impressed and moved by the breadth and depth of the ways we are missionally engaged as a national church. It is a privilege to be a minister in this denomination. I am proud of its people and I’m a passionate promoter of Presbyterians Sharing – the budget that supports such a wide range of ministries and mission.
At the 138th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (2012), the Rev. Dr. Clyde J. Ervine moved that priority be given to the reimagining and renewal of congregations. The preamble that preceded the motion is recorded in the Acts and Proceedings of the 138th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, pages 44-46. The full text is reproduced below.
That said, I want right now, in the context of the Life and Mission Agency report, to propose a radical reorientation of focus for our denomination. I’m here to plead that our central focus as a denomination be placed on congregations. For a very long time, within a Christendom paradigm, the presence of congregations has been assumed as a given, perhaps even taken for granted. As I read through the General Assembly reports prior to coming to this General Assembly, I found much of interest, yet I confess that I didn’t find a sustained focus on congregations as congregations. They are assumed.
- In the New Testament, and in light of Jesus’ ministry, the earliest disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, began their mission. In Jerusalem and going out from there, they go out preaching Jesus. But to what end? The forming of local congregations.
- Further, the documents we know as the New Testament were written largely to help those early congregations. Congregational formation, congregational edification, congregational health, and congregational mission are the reasons why the New Testament was written.
- Within our own Reformed Tradition, the burning question among the early Reformers was this: Where is the church to be found? The classic answer given was that the church is present wherever the gospel is preached and the gospel sacraments are rightly celebrated. In other words the church is found in local, concrete, embodied communities called congregations.
- I also suggest that as a matter of history, it has been congregations for the last 2000 years that have been the primary bearers of the gospel from one generation to another.
My conclusion: congregations constitute the basic, fundamental fabric of our denomination. But we too often assume that they will always be there.
We know, or perhaps need to be reminded, that fifty years ago The Presbyterian Church in Canada had 200,000 members in its congregations; today the number is 100,000. Fifty years ago, The Presbyterian Church in Canada had 100,000 in its congregations’ Sunday schools; today it is 17,000. This reality casts a shadow over the work of the denomination and of this Assembly. But it seems to me this has not yet moved us seriously to give a nationally sustained focus to congregations as congregations. Congregations themselves and presbyteries, and to some extent synods, pay attention to congregations. But it is at the national, General Assembly level that I plead for a radical reorientation of our priorities.
What might a primary focus on congregational vitality look like? I suggest that it means a vast emphasis on making disciples. The formation of congregations in New Testament times arose out of the fact of Jesus, crucified and risen. Claiming all authority in heaven and earth, Jesus told his earliest disciples, “Go make disciples”. Those well known words of commission need to be burnt into the national consciousness and practice of our denomination.
“Go make disciples”. The commission is based christologically on the crucified and risen Jesus. But the commission needs to be expressed ecclesiologically, as it is in the New Testament, in the creation of congregations, which in turn, according to the New Testament, are meant to embody and express the values of the kingdom of God.
To make disciples begins with evangelism, an evangelism that challenges post-Christian, secular Canada with the claims of Christ. It’s going to be hard; congregations feel intimidated by this challenge. Congregations need help in doing this from a national church that has decided, and that has it in its DNA, that congregations are primary. Congregations need help to exegete an unfriendly, even hostile context. Congregations need help to face the social and intellectual barriers in our society that challenge the gospel. Congregations need help through theological and practical resources that will enable them to understand, celebrate and share the gospel.
But if evangelism is an invitation to discipleship, discipleship does not end there. To make disciples is to create and sustain congregations as counter-cultural communities that in concrete, local settings, follow a distinctive Lord, think in distinctive Christian ways, and live out distinctive kingdoms values. It’s going to be hard.
For the greater part of our history as a denomination in Canada we have been part and parcel of the fabric of a Christian Canada. But our place in the nation has changed. We are no longer as welcome within the reigning cultural assumptions of our society – which is why congregational life and growth are so difficult, and why so many clergy and congregations are so discouraged.
As I look at the reports in front of us, and as I look at the Life and Mission Agency report, I wish that there was a greater focus on congregations as congregations. The particular section of the Life and Mission Agency Report that might be expected to focus on the congregation as congregation would be Canadian Ministries. But on reading that report I note that under the one umbrella of Canadian Ministries we have, as a denomination, placed our commitment to congregational worship, congregational evangelism, congregational Christian Education, congregational Youth Ministry, and congregational development and leadership, all under the mandate of one associate secretary. I have to conclude from this, that at a national level, sadly, we are not at this time serious about the fundamental fabric of the denomination, congregations, and about the fundamental calling of the church – to make disciples.
We need a radical reorientation of our priorities. It’s going to be hard. If we were as a General Assembly to commit ourselves nationally to placing a primary and central focus on congregational vitality, it will involve tough, courageous choices in the use of limited resources.
Yet not just because I want The Presbyterian Church in Canada to survive (and I do) but because of a desire to be faithful to biblical patterns and principles, I move that the 138th General Assembly go on record as giving priority to the reimagining and renewal of our congregations and ask the Life and Mission Agency to consider how new energy and resources may be focused on congregational vitality, and that the Life and Mission Agency share the mind of this Assembly with the Assembly Council as the latter develops a new national mission and vision statement.