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Changing the Perception

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Amantha Barbee

“It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies”

Resolutions are a grand way for an institution to make public statements about issues regarding either a part or whole of a body. Very often, at their core, the resolutions typically hold the studied opinions of those who penned them. They will cause emotive expressions of support, rejection, or lack of care to that small percentage of the institution who actually read them. Unfortunately, an enormous amount of time and effort goes in to denominational resolutions. I think they are necessary more so for those outside the denomination. “Others” will look for documents such as these to learn a particular stance of a denomination. It is just that, a denominational stance, and not an individual stance. We are not the denomination but a part of. This is where the problems lie.

Photo from Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church Facebook page

The “diminution of black Presbyterian congregations” is a serious problem as well as the diminution of Presbyterian congregations, no matter the ethnic background. With the rapid growth of non-denominational mega-churches coupled with the increasing number of families opting out of organized religion all together, we all stand at a crossroad of an “if-then” reality. As much as I personally love the structure of the PCUSA, it is archaic at its core and makes it difficult to maneuver with certain freedoms at certain levels if one does not fully understand the constitution. When the government of the church has very similar qualities of the federal government it poses a problem with those who are ill at ease with the federal government and the church.

This is not great for promoting the institution. Pew Research Center reports that 40% of churched African Americans are Baptist. The closest to that is Pentecostal with 6%. 8 out of 10 African Americans report that religion is important to them. The Presbyterian church is the total antithesis of the Baptist church. The Pentecostal church is even further distanced from Presbyterianism. The PCUSA is fighting a historic battle with how African Americans worship. We are a highly educated, financially charged, and white institution trying to attract a historically oppressed, undereducated, financially underserved people. Our African American numbers should come at no surprise to anyone.

I left the Baptist church after 45 years. The majority of my African American friends are Baptist and many of them have left the Presbyterian church to become Baptist. I left because I felt that as a woman in ministry my opportunities would be greater outside the Baptist church. Additionally, I found the governance of the Baptist church oppressive. If I had not been in leadership I am not positive that I would have made the change. As a leader in the church it made sense to me. As a layperson, it really didn’t matter as much. Most church attendees are not in leadership and, as in most denominations, do not understand the nuances of the government. Therefore, it really does not affect them in the same way.

Worship style has some bearing on the public opinion, but I honestly think that has less to do with the declining numbers than a missed comradery. What can the PCUSA do about that? Perhaps launch a nationwide campaign to African Americans which speaks to freedom of thought, speech, and governance, and encourage African American congregations to invite their congregations to offer a contemporary service to attract those with a more charismatic background. With that encouragement will have to come financial support to hire worthy musicians to include vocalists to assist in worship. This is an expensive undertaking, but in order to attract African Americans we will have to change the perception of the PCUSA. Without changing the perception, the numbers will continue to decline as our older members pass away.


Amantha Barbee is pastor of Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church and chair of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice. She stood between protesters and police with other interfaith clergy when Keith Scott was killed by police in 2016. She is a recipient of the Charlotte City Center Partners Special Achievement Award.

Black and Presbyterian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Paul Roberts

Here’s why I am not a fan of resolution 05-09 from the 223rd General Assembly.

It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies: Freedom Rising Initiative of 2016, black church growth strategies of 2012 and earlier, and the New Wineskins papers of the mid 1990’s.

Photo from Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary Facebook page.

My 30 years as a Presbyterian has in many ways been defined by voices who have consistently named this problem. Yet, denominationally, the problem has only gotten worse. If we’ve known this for 30-plus years, and conventional processes haven’t addressed the problem in all this time, how much longer are we gonna content ourselves with doing the same thing over and over again! This is mind-boggling to me and personally I have no time or energy to devote to this insanity any more.

Also, this resolution assumes that the future of black Presbyterianism is inextricably tied to the preservation of its roughly 400 congregations. I don’t accept that. For sure, these congregations have an important legacy and rich tradition, but history suggests that the relationship between African-Americans and the Presbyterian Church is much bigger than our 400 extant churches, much more complex, and much richer. I believe the same is true of our future.

I believe the way forward is to organize new African-American congregations, new intercultural congregations, and new multi-ethnic congregations and let the witness of black presbyterianism move forward from those new places. Enough with the resolutions. Enough with the investigating and reporting back 12-24 months later. Just enough.

And here’s a challenge!

For the last eight years, NEXT Church has been asking itself–
What is the Holy Spirit doing in the world?
What is next for the church?
What can NEXT Church do to help create what’s next for the church?

Maybe the next frontier for NEXT Church is to use the learnings of the last eight years as a foundation for planting some new churches. Black ones. Brown ones. White ones. Red ones. Blue ones. Mixed up ones.


Paul Roberts is is president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA, a position he has held since 2010. He is a native of Stamford, CT; however, he grew up in Bradenton, FL, which he considers his home. Paul graduated from Princeton University in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture and African American Studies. Prior to his career in ministry, Paul worked in advertising in New York City. He later received the Master of Divinity degree with a concentration in New Testament Studies from Johnson C. Smith Seminary.

Are We Serious?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Pete Peery

NEXT Church is committed to diversity within our network and church — diversity of theology, race, age, geography, gender identification, stage, role, ability, church size, wealth, political views — all of it. We are committed to creating community amidst that diversity, even when that proves difficult.

That is what Jessica Tate, director of NEXT Church, declared in her blog post to kick off this current series. And I believe it is true. NEXT Church knows deeply the eschatological reality declared by Luke, “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:29).

Yet NEXT Church strives to reflect this reality within the sea in which it swims, within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). And for all our talk about diversity, here is the reality of this communion we love and to which we are committed:

  • The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is 93% white, 3% African-American, 2.3% Asian, 1.2% Hispanic, .2% Native American.
  • The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the fourth most financially successful religious group in the USA. In 2016, 32% of Presbyterian (U.S.A.) households had incomes of $100,000 or more. In the Christian Church, only the Episcopalians are richer (35% of their households are at $100,000 or more). The top richest religious groups in the country are first, Jews, and second, Hindus.
  • In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 64% of adults members are college graduates and 26% have post graduates degrees, one of the most educated communions on the planet.

My experience in this communion for seventy years — forty-three of those years serving in ministry of Word and Sacrament — is that as much as we talk of diversity, when one enters a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) congregation, little diversity is evident.

Congregations certainly are one of the only intergenerational communities we experience today. They are also a place where people of different professions and backgrounds gather. But I wonder how often in our communion do we see a sign of when people of different races or economic status or cultures intermingle. I have seen that it is so. I have rejoiced when entering a congregation where I have found that to be true. But I have only seen that very occasionally.

I wonder how comfortable is it for a person who is of very modest means, of limited higher education, of a different racial/ethnic background than the vast majority of the members of a particular Presbyterian (U.S.A.) congregation to enter into worship and fellowship in our communion? How high stands the emotional threshold to our congregations?

If we are serious about reflecting the eschatological reality of the church, I believe we have to take very seriously the present reality of our communion. We have to take this present reality seriously even as we love, deeply love, the actual people within our congregations right now. Thank God they are there! Yet, even as they are there, how are we nudging the body toward the reality of the church God has in mind?

I’d love to hear a discussion about ways, practical ways, leaders in our communion are facing these two different realities of the church: the eschatological reality and the present reality within the PCUSA.

A couple of teasers I share in conclusion about such ways.

First, hymnody. Instead of primarily singing hymns by WDEM (white, dead, European men) or by 1970’s or 1980’s Christian rock groups (again, mainly white) sung so often in the genre of so called “contemporary services,” how about reflecting in the hymns we sing the eschatological reality of the church? Our new hymnal Glory to God has a vast number of hymns, choruses, and responses from many cultures in this country and around the world.

Second, staff. When the time comes for a search for a senior staff person — pastor, associate pastor, educator, church musician, youth, or children’s ministry director — dare we press to reflect on our church staff a glimpse of the eschatological reality of the church?

If out of faithfulness to the Lord of the church we are serious about striving for diversity, let us be serious about it not just on boards and agencies of the church. Let us be serious about it in the very congregations of which we are a part — for the glory of God.


Pete Peery is the relationship developer for NEXT Church. He formerly served as president of Montreat Conference Center and pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC.

 

Mindfully Anchored in the Word: Nurturing Ministry in a Complex Environment

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Rick Young

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the fabric of our churches and denomination is a constantly changing reflection of our current national climate. This is something we must not only acknowledge, but address directly. I have had the privilege and honor of pastoring four congregations over the past four decades. Each was different, yet the same sort of blessing in so many ways. A pastor plays many roles — and not always the ones we’ve been trained for. While seminary provides a strong foundation, our most important lessons are taught in the trenches of modern day ministry. There are a few things we need to keep in mind as we work together to nurture ministry in today’s complex environment:

  1. The Church is not an easy place to work and play.

This couldn’t be truer today. Recently, one of my colleagues not-so-jokingly said, “I love the ministry, it’s just the people I can’t stand.” As pastors, we enter into the ministry somewhat idealistically, believing that with our leadership, the kingdom of God will be at hand.  

Then reality sets in. A member of one of my former congregations said, “The pastor’s role is to be a medic in a war zone where everyone on both sides is wearing the same uniform.” We are called to be compassionate, healing servants to all of God’s people. As I was preparing to leave one of the congregations, a dear member and friend handed me a framed poem that she had written entitled, “God’s Firefighter.”

The poem read…

“One of God’s great miracles is fire, sent to us on earth. Another of His gifts is a person who understand its worth. Fire can be vicious, it can rage, destroy and consume. It can be gentle, bringing warmth and light to a cold draft room. An evening round a campfire or in front of a hearth ablaze, can bring a peaceful end to even the most stressful of days. A good firefighter knows when to let a fire burn and when to control, when to light a fire under people or down deep inside their soul. I met such a firefighter when my world was full of strife.  He helped me find the fire, and the way to turn around my life. No matter where time takes us, or how many miles we are apart – I will always have God’s fire and His special firefighter in my heart!”  

In my experience, many times the wars were brutal and even unchristian, and the fires ravaged lives and left devastation behind. But with God’s help, we made it through, and so can you. As I said, the Church and congregation can be at times a rough place to play and work.

  1. The denomination is divided, and we must forge ahead together.

The last five years have brought this to bear for many of us, as we have seen dear friends and colleagues depart the denomination. The process has been painful, and the scars are both deep and fresh. There have been arguments, hurt feelings, truths, and untruths told on both sides of the divide. This is a painful divorce, and sadly there are no winners and many losers.

The division has been expressly felt in the state of Texas, where the Texas Presbyterian Foundation (TPF) is headquartered. Presbytery memberships have decreased by as much as forty percent. TPF exists to enable and expand mission — together, which is not always easy in this frayed and tattered environment. But we hope to lead by example. Truly, we’re all on the same side. We stand in the middle waving a flag of neutrality and God’s mission. Why? Because it is what God asks of each of us. We are not naïve enough to think that neutrality protects us from the need to take a stand in the denouncement of evil, as well as the relentless search for peace going forward. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, we keep the door open to help facilitate reconciliation and create pathways for future conversations.  

It’s time. We need to pick up our medic bags, bind up the wounded, and unroll our fire hoses to control the fires that destroy while tending the fires of love and compassion that simmer in our souls.


Rick Young is the President/CEO of the Texas Presbyterian Foundation (TPF) and served four pastorates along the way.