May 6, 2009
Call me suspicious, but I am usually wary of most denominational evangelism initiatives. Of course I recognize that it’s better than it was before. For Presbyterians, there used to be no such thing as evangelism, especially at the denominational level. At least now we’re trying…kind of.
In my own denomination, the Deep and Wide program is probably the best I have seen so far (from official channels; para-church organizations and local churches usually do much better). Although a theological imperative is almost non-existent (it still is focused on what we do–e.g., service, teaching–rather than why we do it and what God does through us), it actually suggests that Presbyterian Christians share the good news of Jesus Christ. This is definitely progress.
Even our denomination’s Evangelism and Church Growth site is much improved, especially under the leadership of Eric Hoey, a card-carrying evangelical pastor in our denomination.
But other initiatives that call themselves “evangelism” are actually “church growth” programs; and “church growth” is ecclesiastical bureaucratic jargon for “denominational growth.”
For example, The Church Is Alive is a creative program designed to tap into and lift up those pockets of vitality in our denomination. However, in my opinion, The Church Is Alive is tainted with denominational self interest, rather than a pure focus on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and those churches who live in him. This introductory video is somewhat painful to watch, because Jesus is barely mentioned. I see here the fruit of at least a few generations of Presbyterians who have been programmed that Christianity is all about helping the poor and oppressed, being inclusive, and doing good deeds, with no patience for talk of prayer, God, Christian ethics, or the Bible (the one guy in the video who says that the church is alive because Jesus is alive actually comes closest to getting it right). Maybe I’m just suspicious, but the subtext seems to be, “We need to rescue our denomination if we want to have anything left in a few years, so we’re launching this ‘church growth’ program to save ourselves.”
In the same vein, Presbygrow, our denomination’s church growth and transformation Web site, is less apologetic about their goals. They want to grow “healthy, missional churches in the PC (USA)” [our denomination]. Once again, the focus is still on the church (read: denomination) and numerical (possibly spiritual) growth, rather than actually promoting Jesus.
Some have proclaimed that they are sinfully proud to be Presbyterian, but I wonder if pledging allegiance to the Presbyterian Church as our highest good is in our best interest. Here are the questions that churn inside me:
- Isn’t the role of the denomination to serve as a vessel of the gospel message, rather than something itself that needs to be built up?
- Isn’t there a difference between a denomination and “the Church”?
- Shouldn’t we be working and praying to build up the kingdom of God first (Matthew 6:33), rather than working to build up our respective denominational clubs?
- Shouldn’t we be striving to make more followers of Christ (Christians, if you will), rather than more Presbyterians/Methodists/Lutherans/evangelicals?*
- Will God honor our efforts that promote lesser things more than his ultimate purposes?
I have to hand it to our denominational leaders: at least they are trying to promote evangelism in our communion. But there is work yet to be done. We still need to rethink what we are actually trying to accomplish: Are we promoting Christ or ourselves? And we also need to let go and let God, as they say in the recovery community. Trusting in the Lord–rather than in human schemes and organizations–is something we need to practice in the life of the church, maybe especially in drawing others to faith in Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria! (To God alone be the glory!)
* I recognize that our distinct Christian traditions shape how we present Jesus to the world, but even still, our denominational peculiarities should serve as floor joists that undergird the basic Christian message (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-8)