Curing Presbyopia

By Rebecca Gillespie Messman

prebyopia“One in five Americans is now a NONE.”  It’s a clever word to describe those who when asked their religious affiliation respond simply – none. Not surprisingly, what jumps out to Presbyterians is the decline in mainline Protestantism in the last ten years, especially in people ages 18-35.

We grieve what was. We wring our hands about the future. Presbyterians start sounding like Eeyore, the sad, gray donkey-friend of Winnie the Pooh who always has a rain cloud over his head. It’s hard to bear good news when all you talk about, all you see, is bad news.

Do you know the technical term for the eye condition that develops as we age? The one that means you lose the ability to see things that are close?

It’s called presbyopia. It means “old eyes.”

We, as a church, have developed old eyes, presbyopia.

We see the distant past…when every sermon was masterful and coffers spilled over and there were traffic jams of Dodge DeSotos cramming into church parking lots.

We see the distant future…when we fear moss will overtake pulpits and raccoons will take up residence in the organ.

Grief, fear, difficulty moving forward.  These are symptoms of presbyopia.

The cure for presbyopia, I’m told, is either better eyes or longer arms.

Jesus models both. He focuses on what is near and he reaches out in ways that are uncustomary.

Diana Butler Bass, in her book Christianity After Religion, suggests that within the statistics about those who no longer affiliate with churches are some hopeful signs.

These “nones” appreciate what they know of Jesus and his teachings; they just don’t know that much about him.

  • They claim to pray daily.
  • They yearn for community.
  • They value the spiritual life and connect with God in nature, music and art.
  • Very few of them self-identify as atheists or agnostics.

To cure our presbyopia – first, we need to see them. Then we need to reach out in courageous and creative ways.

Research from the Vital Churches Institute says that the main difference between churches that are thriving and churches in decline is not number of staff or the geographic location. It’s not buoyant balance sheets or genius pastors.

The main difference is doing ONE new thing. In the community.

One Thing that draws church into the community.

I have seen that to be true.

I came to serve a church that had been divided by a clergy sexual misconduct case in its history. I came a town that was divided. The immigration “issue” landed the town on the front page of newspapers across the country. The church was caught in the middle. At my second Session meeting one of the elders said, “I think we need to have a lunch here at the church, bring those day laborers here, and I think our new pastor – who speaks Spanish after all – should lead it.”


The meeting got pretty stormy.

Folks were concerned that boots from the day laborers might damage the sanctuary carpet.  Folks were concerned that with our preschool… well, folks might not want their kids to go to a church with those kinds of people in it.

One woman took a deep breath and her words changed the conversation: “I wouldn’t want my child to go to a church that DIDN’T have those kinds of people in it.”

The Holy Spirit moved. It was unanimous. Lunch for the Soul was born. That was seven years ago.

Lunch for the Soul is a ministry of three churches, working together. We feed up to 200 people every week. As a result we have planted a church – 100 people – worshipping every week in Spanish.

There is a man in my church named Dan.  He tears up when he talks about the sacrifices people made at Normandy. He grieves what is going on in our country, in our denomination. He was rabidly against the Day Laborer Center that was at the center of the firestorm that led to the inception of Lunch for the Soul, so you can imagine my surprise when he showed up to help at Lunch for the Soul one day.

I’ll admit I was concerned he was scoping out the ministry to find fault… that was my sin speaking out.

I saw swarthy Salvadorans leaving his shiny white Oldsmobile… Dan stood in the back and ducked out early. We debriefed the experience later. While others benignly shared their insights on serving together at Lunch for the Soul, Dan stood up and said, “You all know my feelings about immigration…..[we sighed, yes, we do….] But, if members of our church were HALF as excited to get to church as those men were to come their church… this church… we would not be talking about decline in the mainline.”

One Thing that gave us all better eyes and longer arms. It started changing the way we saw ourselves as a church. No longer a divided church, a dying church, but a church that reached out. It was contagious. Folks want to reach out more.

Folks said – you know who else is near? The elementary school across the street. We formed a partnership with them. So, now, we do a coat drive each winter. Folks have signed up to help with tutoring. With mentoring. One lady in our church was laid off and instead of atrophying in front of the computer, she got up early twice a week to take two little girls to school – because their mom works and the bus doesn’t come that early. It’s an awakening. It changes the story we tell.

Colleen had been a ghost on the church rolls for years. But she is a Fairfax County School teacher, and she heard about this partnership. Now she is at church again. In her gravelly voice, she offered, “What can I say… you came to my doorstep.”

We are – each of us – bearers of holy possibility because we see this world through God’s eyes. When our arms are long and open wide, we may see what Christ proclaimed: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.  The kingdom of heaven is near.”


Rebecca Messman is Associate Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, VA. Want to learn more about Lunch for the Soul? Listen to the webinar led by Becca and Edwin Andrade.


Image credit: shutterstock/paul prescott

NEXT Church Evangelism

by Jessica Tate

We are in an evangelism crisis.cross cut out

You know the statistics. The PCUSA 2012 statistical report came out last month. The news isn’t surprising or good. The decline marches on.

Last Fall a Pew Forum study documented the continued decline in religious affiliation in the United States. “Nones” are now 1/5 of the US population and a full 1/3 of adults under 30 years old. For the first time, Protestants are less than 50% of the population.

According to Pew’s findings, we can’t blame liberal arts colleges and universities for undermining Truth or being hostile to faith, because religious affiliation declines among non-college educated people in the same rates as college educated people. Furthermore, it’s not true that if a church simply offered/hired/advertised [insert your community’s silver-bullet-idea here] the church would be overrun. 88% of “unaffiliateds” aren’t looking for a spiritual home.

Over dinner recently, a friend of mine asked me why I go to church. It was a serious question. He’s wrestling with who God is and what the church is good for.

My first instinct was to say that I’m Presbyterian; we don’t talk about those things. That would be evangelism.

But the truth is, I did have an answer. I had been wrestling with the question as I find myself more and more often in places where church attendance isn’t the norm, where belief in God is intriguing at best. Or I find myself in conversations with people who are so accustomed to the trappings of church that we can’t articulate the “whys” of church.

I answered my friend saying that I believe the central story of our faith is the movement from fear and death to hope and new life. I see that most clearly in the cross and resurrection and believe that movement is what God is about. In a world that feels like it is always tipping between fear and hope, I trust in God’s movement and I need to regularly gather with other people who are trying to embody that trust and movement in their lives.

Regardless of what you think of my answer, this is when the conversation got interesting. My friend said he’s been asked a dozen or so friends and colleagues why they go to church. I was the first person to answer the question theologically. Mostly he’d heard from our Christian brothers and sisters two answers:

1) community.

2) to do good work in the world.

Those are fine answers. But I’m not convinced Christian community is superior to other authentic communities. Likewise, churches do great service projects, but there are a zillion organizations doing good work (arguably in ways that are much more effective than the ways of the church.)

My point is this: we need to articulate the faith we trust. And it can’t just be the pastors doing the articulation, but all of us.

A year or so ago, the Christian Century ran a story that challenged people to state the Gospel in seven words or less. Based on Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly and the challenge he was issued by a friend: State the Christian message in 10 words or less. Campbell obliged saying, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” You can read more answers in the Christian Century blog series.

My challenge to you, gentle readers: What are your seven words?

Articulating our faith isn’t going to be enough to end the march of numerical decline in our churches, but it will remind us of the Good News that has saved our lives. And that is a crucial first step.

Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church.

The Competition

by John Wimberlycalendar

For forty years, I lived in a Sunday morning bubble. I got to church around 7:00 a.m. and left church sometime after 1:00 p.m. As a result of living in this bubble, I never experienced what is going on in the rest of the world during that time frame. Recently retired, I now know. And it is sweet!

As I have become acquainted with the non‐church Sunday morning world, I realize just how many wonderful, sublime options people have during this portion of the week. They are connecting with God in nature as they walk their dogs, work in their gardens, or hike/ride bikes/jog. They are connecting with the love of God through their families as they play with their kids, pack up the car and head out for some day adventure or invite friends over for brunch. They are connecting with the God of justice as they read the Sunday paper, listen to talk shows on important political matters or read books about issues in our society.

It would be easy and foolish for those of us in the church to label all of this activity as secular. It isn’t. As I suggest, in and out of church, people are connecting with God in some important ways through various activities. In fact, many of us preach that our members should spend more time with family, in nature, and become knowledgeable about the society in which we live. Many people are doing just that…on Sunday mornings.

So this is the competition we face when we offer a time of worship, education and fellowship in the middle of Sunday morning. When people choose to come to church, these are the delightful, fulfilling things they give up. They forsake activities that have a compelling spiritual value in and of themselves to come into our sanctuaries.

The church’s Sunday morning activities are competing with family, nature and self‐education. It is stiff competition indeed. If worship attendance statistics for PCUSA congregations are correct, it is competition we are increasingly losing.

However, it isn’t a competition we need lose. The act of liturgical worship is a unique way to connect with God. We are offering something people can’t get anywhere else. However, our worship better be good. If our worship and education are inspirational, people will make time for us as surely as they make time for their gardening or jogging. If a sense of community is strong in our congregations, people will view church friendships as important as maintaining friendships with neighbors and co‐workers.

How many of us look out at our congregations on a Sunday morning and think, “Wow, these people gave up a lot of great stuff to be here.”? Well, they did. In response to understanding this choice, how many of us have made preparation for worship one of, even the highest, priorities in our ministry? Have we spent hours upon hours crafting the worship service and writing our sermons? I hope so. Because the competition for the hearts and minds of our members is fierce. Our sermons better be as engaging as the guests on Meet the Press. Our church music better be competitive with the music people listen to as they jog.

We shouldn’t shrink from the competition that takes place each and every Sunday morning. We should welcome it and prepare for it. Aware of the Sunday morning choices people have, we will create even better Sunday morning options for people in the congregations we serve.

John Wimberly is enjoying life as Honorably Retired after serving a church in Washington, DC for many years. John is the author of The Business of the Church: The Uncomfortable Truth that Faithful Ministry Requires Effective Management. 

A Passion for the Reign of God–A Review of Emergence Christianity

by Elizabeth Michael

emergence christianityI heard Phyllis Tickle speak at the Festival of Homiletics this spring.  The speaker introducing her went through a long list of her credentials and accolades and then asked her, “What is your passion?”

I expected to hear that Tickle was passionate about her small farm in Tennessee, knitting, rock-hopping, and sea-salted dark chocolate, or some such things.  (After all, who of us hasn’t wrestled with that last line of a bio, which conventionally includes friends/family/pets, a favorite creative pursuit, a slightly obscure physical activity, and a rather innocuous guilty pleasure?)  Instead, I found myself sitting up straight when I heard her response: “What is my passion?  Still, though it may sound ridiculous, the reign of God.”

That answer got me to pull Tickle’s books out of my “good intentions” pile and open them.

A few years ago, Tickle’s writing popularized the concept of semi-millennial cultural tsunamis: she posited that every 500 years, almost as clockwork, the Western world has experienced periods of enormous upheaval in which every piece of culture has been reconfigured.  Five hundred years ago it was the Reformation, 1000 years ago saw the Great Schism, 1500 years ago witnessed the Great Decline and Fall, and 2000 years ago birthed the Great Transformation.  This, then, is one of Tickle’s gifts to the heart wearied by anxiety for the church and culture in our age: we are right on schedule.

Indeed, it is not the church alone that experiences upheaval: economic, political, and social life are disrupted right alongside ecclesial life.  The upheaval of our own times, christened the Great Emergence, has been the subject of a few of Tickle’s books.  Her latest, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters, published in 2012, serves as an “interim report” on the church-that-is-becoming.

Those who still find themselves uncertain of what emergence Christianity is will find in this volume a helpful introduction.  Here Azusa Street, Taize, New Monastics, the by now infamous SBNR crowd, and theology-on-tap groups find a place in Tickle’s chronicle.  Here the “emerging” and “emergent” camps are differentiated.  Here are considered, if not answered, questions of our present moment: How will Christian community look in an Internet age of anonymous intimacy?  What does the deinstitutionalization of Emergence Christianity mean for the future of professional ordained clergy?  When an Emergence culture finds meta-narratives suspect, what is to become of Christianity’s Grand Narrative?  What does “growth” mean to the church-that-is-becoming?

It is perhaps telling that the final section of the book, “And Now What?” is also the shortest.  Looking ahead to the inevitable reconfiguration of all that is currently being disrupted, Tickle is not prescriptive and minimally predictive.  She identifies impending dilemmas to be revisited, among them atonement theory and the question of what it is to be a human being.  She wonders about the implications for the church of an Emergence culture skeptical of hierarchy and disinclined toward membership.  Most incisively, she raises the question that follows inevitably in the wake of every tsunami: where now is our authority?  Or, put another way, how then shall we live?  The volume is only an interim report, after all.  There is more to come, and readers are left with the implicit responsibility of living into the questions.

Were its first 200 pages useless, the book would be worth purchasing for the annotated bibliography and afterword alone.  The robust reading list offers further fodder for those so inclined; it is evidence of Tickle’s careful scholarship.  But the brief afterword evinces not only her scholarship, but also her faith.  She writes of the mystery of the Trinity and of the story by which she lives her life; she writes like a person passionate about the reign of God.

Elizabeth Michael is privileged to serve as Associate Pastor at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC.  She does love sea-salted chocolate but is striving to be still more passionate about the reign of God.