A Reflection on the 186th General Assembly
A couple of times when I was young, my family made a vacation out of traveling to and from General Assembly. The most memorable Assembly for me during those years was the 135th, held in San Francisco 51 years ago. For a naïve, twelve-year-old kid who had grown up in Memphis, a town that a scant three years later would be described by Time magazine as a “decaying Mississippi river town”, a journey to the city of cable cars, the Golden Gate, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Chinatown could just as well have been a trip to the other side of the world.
Of course, given my station in life at the time, I didn’t have to concern myself with the 18-hour days, committee meetings, overtures and resolutions, and business sessions that consumed my father’s time. He never complained about it (well, not directly to me, anyway) but while my friends and I were off exploring what seemed very much like a foreign land each day, my dad went about the church’s business.
I have some recollection of having attended a portion of the business meetings, and frankly, what I remember is that I was bored—eager to get back to the hotel swimming pool, or out into the strange but wonderful sights and sounds of that international city. On the other hand, I recall my father’s intense interest and engagement in the proceedings, and his concern about how this, that, or another report was received or memorial vote was decided. From where I sat, as a pre-teen uninterested in the intricacies of church polity (and politics), it was an emotional roller-coaster that I was OK with foregoing.
Now, however, some five decades later, I find myself in a position similar to that of my father’s so many years ago, and I have a much better understanding of—and indeed, an appreciation for—the importance of our annual get-together. As an adult who cares deeply about this denomination and feels a great deal of concern about its future, I’ve found that our General Assembly can at various times be a source of great hope or of disappointment (and sometimes both), but it always seems to rekindle in me a conviction that ours is a denomination worth saving.
This year’s 186th General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, held in Nashville, TN, was one of those Assemblies. Evangelism occupies a significant part of our denominational DNA, so it seems perfectly logical that this year’s theme, lifted from the letter to the Hebrews (13:13a), acknowledge that: “So let’s go outside, where Jesus is…” And indeed, our evening worship on Wednesday of that week was a celebration of new ministries—ministries that, not coincidentally, take those who engage in them outside the walls of the church.
We heard moving and inspiring stories from: Still Waters, a single parent family ministry; Room in the Inn, a sheltering ministry for those made homeless; the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry, Iona—A Community of Faith Burrito Ministry, Sacred Sparks, and Nashville Burrito Ministry, each dedicated to providing meals and support for those made homeless and living on the streets; and A New Day in Christ, a jail and prison ministry. Each story of these new ministries was narrated by a representative who mounted the dais in a clerical robe, but who, when it came his or her time to speak, symbolically removed it to reveal “normal” clothing—just like any of us would wear outside… where Jesus is… where it’s hot and humid, or frigid and damp, sometimes dangerous, and often dirty, but where there is always significant need…
As I see it, that is the kind of evangelism to which we’re called in these United States today. It’s not about a focus on increasing attendance on Sunday mornings. It’s not about bringing people to Christ through browbeating, shaming, and apocalyptic warnings. It’s not about building beautiful buildings with gymnasiums to attract folks looking for those kinds of things. It’s about going outside. Where Jesus is. In alleys and public parks, in prisons and jails, in nursing homes and elder-care facilities, in places where people may not be looking for us, but where they need us to be. No strings attached. Just putting our love into action without condition, without expectation of personal or corporate benefit.
The Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the United States has been heavily involved in mission work beyond its shores for many years, as we should have been. We’ve taken the gospel to places of darkness, spreading light where it might not otherwise have been. And we’ve seen peoples’ lives improved—saved through a knowledge that they are loved. Surely, our missionary families through the years have been the hands and feet of God, healing, teaching, feeding, clothing, and loving the very least of these.
But I cannot help wondering if we have sometimes pursued that work at the expense of needs that are just as critical in our own neighborhoods. Ministries such as the ones highlighted at our General Assembly this year have done so much good on the one hand, but on the other, have revealed to those engaged in them that the need is beyond what we’re currently able to address, by orders of magnitude. As I see it, God wants us—needs us—on the frontiers of our own society as well. Many of our congregations are already ministering in this way, with wonderful results, but it seems to me we ought to be a denomination that is characterized by and known for moving beyond its walls.
We have talked about the phenomenon of the “nones” numerous times in these pages—that growing segment of the population that claims no affiliation with any religion. The thing is, a significant percentage of nones report being “spiritual” and desiring to associate with people who put their faith into action. They see hunger and homelessness, intolerance and injustice, fear and bigotry all around them, and ask “where is the church in all this?” I find myself asking the same question sometimes.
Perhaps it’s time for our denomination to rethink what we mean by evangelism. Perhaps it really does mean simply to go. Out there. Where Jesus is.