Whither Culture in the Fellowship of Presbyterians?

I happened to spot this note from Jim Singleton of The Fellowship of Presbyterians (FoP) a few days ago. The claim made by Singleton and the FoP is this: “The Fellowship of Presbyterians and the NRB (New Reformed Bodies) are designed to be missional at their core.” I find myself both sympathetic to the overall concerns of the FoP, that is to say, a recovery of biblical and confessional resources from the Lord with which to participate in mission as a congregation, and discomforted by the lack of reflection upon biblical data and cultural context.

For those tuning in…the FoP is a large chunk of evangelical plus disappointed Presbyterians from the PCUSA. Most recently, the General Assembly (GA) determined in its polity to create space for the ordination of homosexuals to the office of teaching elder; this determination has been previously attempted and rebuffed several times over more than 30 years. Suffice it to say, this kind of polity represents a significant departure from the Bible. The FoP has always been in the making, so to speak, and coalesced this year once all of the presbyteries confirmed the GA decision. I should add a couple more items here: I am an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacrament of the PCUSA, and I agree with those of the FoP regarding the wrong-headedness of the GA’s polity decision: it is a decision that endorses a lifestyle at odds with the Bible.

Now, with those preliminaries, let me move to my sources of discomfort.

First, there are several attempts by the FoP leadership to cast the movement as missional. Let me add my voice to the chorus: those who employ this adjective have assumed far too much regarding its intent, and with the movement of the usage into the ecclesial vernacular, the same people have evacuated it of any prophetic or nourishing meaning. In short, “missional” is becoming “boring.” How unfortunate.

In a personal conversation with one of the authors of the text Missional Church, I asked if the current use of the adjective avoided the pain associated with the change in identity that accompanies the recovery of such ecclesial character. He lowered his head as he nodded in agreement. He added that most pastors and elders are simply unaware of how sweeping the personal changes that take place when one follows the Lord into becoming the missional church.

Second, latent to the missional church philosophy but completely missed within the FoP regards the biblical identification of and concern for “the nations.” The ongoing affection and desire of Jesus aims for the people of God to extend their experience and joy of redemption and mission to those who are ethnically and culturally different from themselves.

One doesn’t have to journey too far within the PCUSA to determine that it is largely an Anglo-dominated community. That Koreans within the PCUSA- ever joyfully and powerfully witnessing, making disciples, and enacting justice near and far- do so with greater impact than the bulk of PCUSA could be an all-important sign of what is possible when the church takes seriously the extension of the Gospel into and among people different from themselves. That there is such a presence of Korean Presbyterians is, humanly speaking, a function of earlier generations of Presbyterians from the US preaching the Gospel in the Korean Peninsula. Now, it would be worth posing the following question to Koreans within the PCUSA: How are they serving and proclaiming among people ethnically different from themselves? Valuable as that may be, the more urgent concern is whether Anglo elders and pastors of the FoP perceive this explicit Biblical mandate as an imperative to be engaged, deferred, or optional as part of the identity of the missional church it aspires to become.

Finally, there is the massive question of culture. Fortunately, a spate of slogans and colloquial stories used in a variety of western cultural contexts throw light on this challenge, which largely is a problem of shared self-awareness. I am thinking of one story I have used for years, but find that it is hardly original: Talking-Fish Lake. To cut to the punch line: the fish replies to the fisherman, “What’s water?” What “water” is to the fish, “culture” is to humanity. Following the anthropologist Ward Goodenough, culture is “what people need to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.” We’re constantly surrounded by culture, yet rarely aware of how we shape and encourage and sanction each other because of this “water” that we’re immersed in. And, it is worth stating the obvious: in the West, there’s a lot of “water” out there…

A few comments on culture, then, with which to close out this post.

First, all of the energy and focus upon recovering the Confessions by the FoP in a conscious and concerted fashion may have some salutary benefits for the developing New Reformed Bodies: but in and of itself will not provide the analytic or diagnostic tools with which to interpret our western culture. I am totally in favor of recovering the Confessions! Make no mistake about that! My motives here, though, will be for a post at a later date. That energy and focus upon the Confessions will soon be consumed and diverge as a consequence of unfamiliarity and disconnect from the culture the church dwells within.

Second, I noticed that at the initial meeting in Minneapolis back in August that Tod Bolsinger hosted a meeting on leadership. He introduced the leadership theory of Ron Heifetz, and specifically, adaptive change. I can’t find the link I was sent, but I received a copy of Tod’s slides of his presentation: perhaps if you contact Tod, he can point you to the link. Here’s the important point: This theory of leadership may hold the key to unlocking questions of (and resistance to) western culture. I am a big fan and learner of Heifetz’ literature. Yet, I also noticed in an FoP letter after the meeting endorsing Bolsinger’s approach: yet the letter strangely departed from it, through a description of what the desired outcomes of such an approach would be. Perhaps that was a political move on the part of the FoP leadership, an advance source of comfort for those who were rightly disturbed by the possible horizons if adaptive change were implemented by the FoP. Or: it represented some unfamiliarity with the implications of Heifetz’ theory and practice. To be sure: none of the outcomes described in the letter could possibly be known in advance of the process described by Bolsinger.

In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin recounts what one of his critics described as his attempts to understand western culture while participating in mission within the same: trying to ride the bus while pushing it from behind. It’s never been clear to me- as yet- that Newbigin aimed to make adaptive changes in the church; the implications seem to be littered everywhere in his writings and preaching. Yet, he was earnest that the church in the west take up the question of how to give witness to the Gospel within western culture. He was not nearly as concerned with the creation of new ecclesial orders or missional churches; he certainly was as adamant as the FoP is about the PCUSA regarding how egregious some polity decisions in the UK were departing from Scripture.

The best of our praying and listening to the Lord, as well as listening to each other, could now be arranged so as to give our energies and attention to the culture we’re immersed in. That there is a renewed presence of the Confessions is acknowledged everywhere; that there is any sense of what kind of culture the churches of the FoP/NRB are conducting their mission within remains unaccounted for and absent.

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