By the time you read this post, our 185th General Assembly will have been gaveled to a close. While we who are employed at the denominational Center are still in the preparation stages as I write this, I’m anticipating that when all is said and done, this Assembly may be considered one of the best ever. We know through our primary contacts in Colombia that the presbyteries of both the Andes and Cauca Valley have been hard at work for at least a year on their own preparations, getting everything ready to host their Cumberland brothers and sisters from other countries with a warmth and graciousness that is almost legendary around here.
I have wondered at times if those of us who have spent the majority (if not all) of our lives on American soil, engaged in the “American flavor” of Cumberland Presbyterianism appreciate fully the significance of our mission-field successes in places like Colombia.
When Ewing, King, McAdow, and their like-minded contemporaries headed off into the wildernesses of the southern U.S. to proclaim the good news, they were entering a frontier characterized by, well, its wilderness. The people they found there were, by and large, rugged individualists eager—or at least willing—to hear their version of the good news. By all accounts, the majority of the hostilities with which they could expect to be faced were either from indigenous peoples who were being routed from their homeland, wild animals, or outlaws. In terms of established religions, there wasn’t a lot of competition.
A little over one hundred years later, the forays of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church into other countries—Colombia and Japan, for instance—faced different, or at least additional, challenges. Yes, the Colombia and Japan (to a much lesser extent) of the early 20th century were in many ways still physical frontiers, especially when compared to the United States of that same period. But each offered the additional challenges of previously-established religions as well. Shinto and Buddhism were dominant in Japan (and still are), and in Colombia, Catholicism (which was the official state religion until 1991) was dominant.
While I suppose someone who comes to Christianity having never believed in much of anything is technically still a “convert”, a more difficult conversion, I think, would be to Christianity from another structured belief system. But that’s what our early missionaries accomplished. And that work continues today. In both Japan and Colombia, hurting people heard the good news, found in a better way of experiencing God than they’d known in the faiths there were dominant in the cultures there.
As I see it, much of the success those early missionaries enjoyed—and indeed, much of the success we continue to see today in places such as Guatemala, and Mexico, and even Australia—may be attributed to the emphasis we have placed on service as a necessary component of proclamation. Evangelism is so much more than simply telling the good news. It is doing the good news, breathing life into its proclamation.
Another contributor to our record of success in attracting persons to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, though, is almost certainly the theology we embrace, as documented in the Confession of Faith. It is, as has so often been noted, a medium theology—a theology that I believe speaks clearly and persuasively to a majority of those who read it. How fortunate we are to have it! And how fortunate for those to whom we proclaim the good news—those seeking a better way.
In the July issue of The Cumberland Presbyterian, we are featuring submissions by a couple of our younger pastors, Rev. John A. Smith, and Rev. Derek Jacks—ministers who I believe represent tremendous hope for our denomination as we strive to live the good news not only with those of other faiths and nationalities, but in many of our very own congregations. We live in a time of increasing polarization—whether the subject be politics, social issues, the environment, or religions and theology. If we are to weather the divisions that threaten us, we will need the leadership of persons like them.
Rev. J. M. Howard, in commenting on the 1883 Confession of Faith, wrote, “Let it be understood […] that ours is not a fixed and changeless, but a progressive creed; and that through all the decades we are to seek a more and more nearly exact statement of the truth revealed in Scripture.” This paean to our evolving theology conveniently overlooks the struggles that inevitably ensue when we consciously forsake dogma for discretion, but with leaders like Rev. Smith and Rev. Jacks helping us to remain focused on avoiding, as Rev. Jacks says, “the flattening out [of] the greatest and deepest reality the world has ever known”, the future is bright.
Rev. Smith, in his contribution, explores the nature and calling of our “medium” theology. His is a call “to mission, not confession.” Rev. Jacks urges us toward “discover[ing] a way to keep the major declaration of Holy Scripture at the pinnacle of our discussions—God is for us”. Both of these young ministers speak to us of eschewing our tendency to limit God to the boundaries of our own understanding, and in the heat of disagreement over our individual takes on scripture and our Confession, we would do well to hear them. We hope that theirs will be the first in a series of articles exploring how we can get beyond agreeing to disagree, to a point where we can actually learn from and grow with each other.
Also in this month’s issue, we hear again from Dr. Robert Watkins, Retired Director of Global Missions—this time in reference to our propensity for elevating pedigree to a litmus test for the value of one’s service to the church. We are not the church we used to be—at least in terms of the genealogies of those who worship in our pews, preach in our pulpits, and who fill positions of leadership. We do ourselves no favors if we become a mono-cultural church. Read about Bob’s pet peeve and think about how it might manifest itself in your own congregation.