There's a battle raging in our churches. The outcome is being decided every day the congregation is sent into the world. Abundance v. Scarcity; Whose side are you on?
A few weeks ago, the PC(USA) Middle Governing Body (MGB) staff met with executive and general presbyters from the 173 presbyteries to listen and respond to the challenges of common ministry. The annual Association of Executive Presbyters meeting and the Polity Conference was held in Minneapolis to give attendees a preview of the city that is hosting next year's 219th General Assembly.
I appreciate the openness I observe at these national events. Louisville (our denominational headquarters) and Syracuse (our synod office) may seem a bit removed from our life in Newark Presbytery, but these meetings help me better understand their connection to our transforming work as communities, congregations, sessions and pastors.My last visit to Minneapolis was about ten years ago for a youth violence reduction initiative exchange and clearly, the city was undergoing a visible transformation with new buildings, skyways, business expansion and wonderfully hospitable residents.
Shortly after registering, I told a staffer of the host Twin Cities Presbytery what a great city Minneapolis was, to which they responded, "Oh, we have nothing to do with that." Nothing to do with that, indeed.
That remark made an impression on me. How disconnected was that staffer's view of the relationship between their own presbytery's mission and its city? As it turns out, this disconnect became almost a theme as I listened to a denomination perpetually focus on its own survival, even as it tries to help its member presbyteries and congregations to survive. Have we become so detached as congregations and presbyteries, synods, and denomination that we regard ourselves has having little or no relationship to help with the vitality of our region, cities, towns, or neighborhoods we live in?
Our own understandable fight for survival seems contrary to the prophet's advice when he wrote: "Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jeremiah 29.7).
This principle of reciprocity throughout Scripture incentivises our interaction. We are not alone. We are in community. We have responsibility to our communities, and as our community is blessed, we will be blessed, too. Taking Jeremiah's admonishment a step further, we hear Jesus say: "For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:35) NIV. Eugene Peterson adds even more emphasis to Jesus' words:"Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self" (Mark 8:35) The Message.
Survival as individuals versus survival in community is the case in point from Mark 6 in the feeding of thousands of hungry people on a hill. When confronted with their own, and the crowds' hunger (survival), the disciples saw a problem that could only be solved individually: "Send the people to town so they could buy food," they advised. But Jesus saw something different. Instead of a scarcity of resources, Jesus saw abundance. Not limited by individual survival, with money as the solution, Jesus assessed the collective resources available to the disciples (five loaves and two fish), and then extended the frame of reference for a greater blessing to emerge in community.
Jesus organized the thousands into groups of fifties and hundreds. Was this, as theologian Dr. Francis Taylor Gench of Union-PSCE suggests, an example of early community organizing? With the blessing of Jesus, abundance prevailed with plenty of time, food, and resources for everyone. Individually, there wasn't much. That's what the disciples missed. Scarcity was about individuals. Abundance was evidenced in community. Only by transforming together was a transformative blessing experienced and twelve baskets of leftovers remained for even more abundant sharing with those not even present.
Around our world, abundance is winning over scarcity. For example, a previously limited, government controlled resource like clean water is freely given away to allow hope and economic vitality to flow into South American villages once held hostage by scarcity. In Philadelphia, local community newspapers faced closure when their content controlled subscription model failed. Now, partnering with a Presbyterian congregation which invested $100,000 in the project, news is now free, in print and online, promoting community and business life.
We are painfully aware of what we don't have as congregations. I hear that a lot. We can't. We don't. Our understandable response may be to conserve, protect, control, and limit. But Jesus invites us to take another look, not at what we don't have, but instead asking ourselves: "What does our congregation have in abundance?"
Our new Community Transformation Corporation is an example of Newark Presbytery's response. Your congregation offers other examples. It may require imaginative and creative thinking, but every one of our forty-one congregations has been blessed to share. What can we creatively and responsibly give away to show the Good News in new ways, alternate times, maybe in even more compelling venues?Our survival will not be found in saving ourselves. Our Synod has already begun steps in this direction with its new funding priorities.
The PC(USA) cannot save itself through control and reorganization motivated by self-help. Instead, lets ask in what ways the Presbyterian Church (USA) can more boldly release resources to bless a nation and world? This to me is the essential challenge for the 219th General Assembly. For example, could the Presbyterian church in North America be so in love with Jesus Christ and connected and committed to the vitality and wellness of a nation, that Presbyterians would lead a resurgence of volunteerism in every community in America? Imagine the difference we could make.
I look forward to your invitation to listen and learn together with your pastor and session to explore ministries inspired by God's abundance. I want an opportunity to view your communities through your eyes and, with our presbytery, view the world through God's eyes and grow through abundance.
Steps to get started: Could you organize resources differently, organize neighborhood challenges differently? Jesus said, if you want to emerge with vitality, give yourselves away. Pastors and elders: What can your congregation imaginatively redirect, release, empower, collaborate, or time-shift that would evoke more praise to God as it blesses others? The possibilities are endless. Giving ourselves away, establishing new links in our communities through our unique ministries, will result in our own growth and vitality. I am grateful for all of you. As our communities are blessed through our ministries, let's be able to enthusiastically say, "Yes! We helped with that!"
Abundance v. Scarcity; Whose side are you on?
(Here's the text referred to in blog)
Mark 6.35-43: By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But Jesus answered, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “That would take eight months of wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?” “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.” …They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.