Why I Stay

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Last week, the Office of the General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church (USA), released its 2013 statistics on church attendance and the number of congregations in our denomination.

You can read that report by clicking here.

Since the report’s release, Presbyterians have engaged in the usual ritual of nail-biting and finger-pointing over the current state of the church. Various pundits have offered their opinions online and in print, analyzing and interpreting these statistics.

I’m not going to do that.

What I’d like to offer now are some of my thoughts on why I came and why I stay in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

I’m a young pastor in the Midwest who falls somewhere on the line between GenX and Millennial. I’m young and married with kids… exactly the kind of demographic that most of our churches are trying to court.

Yet, we’re not just attending church, my wife and I have given our lives to it as pastors. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe this denomination capable of carrying the Christ-light into the future. So, here’s a little advice from your target demographic…

We are so DONE with whining about mainline decline and finger-pointing over whose theology is to blame. When Boomers and members of the WW2 generation give voice to that spirit of despair, they belittle the commitment we’ve made. What’s even worse is that their belly-aching ignores what it is that makes us the Church:

I was born in 1980, so I never saw the “glory days” of the 1950s. I never saw the packed pews or overflowing parking lots that others remember so fondly. I’ve only known a Presbyterian Church in numerical and fiscal decline, but that hasn’t stopped me from coming or staying.

I didn’t grow up Presbyterian. In fact, I didn’t even attend a service at a PC(USA) congregation until I was in my twenties. I grew up in an evangelical mega-church with contemporary worship, dynamic preaching, and no bureaucratic ties to a denomination that might hold the congregation back from following the Spirit’s lead. It was a pretty good place and I’m thankful for the gifts I received there.

But when the time came for me to follow God’s call on my life, I came here.
Did you get that? I’ll say it again:
I. Chose. You.

Here’s why:
There is depth here. This is a place where I can connect with something greater than myself. This is a place where I am forced to encounter the presence of Christ in the face of those who disagree with me. This is a place where I can be rooted in tradition, yet inspired to branch out in new directions. I’m rarely comfortable here. In fact, I feel like a fish out of water most of the time, but I stick around because YOU have convinced me, in your preaching and praying, in your singing and voting, and most of all in the Scriptures and Sacraments, that personal discomfort is the surest sign that Christ is at work in me, continually calling me toward new life and growth in faith.

If that’s not worth sticking around for, I don’t know what is.

When it comes to reading statistical reports and fretting over what our future will look like, I want to re-direct our attention back to what matters most: to the Christ who comes to us, walking on the water, calling us to step out of the boat in faith, daring us to do the impossible. Let’s not tremble in fear at the wind and waves that threaten to overwhelm us, but fix our eyes instead upon the Author and Perfecter of our faith, the One who began this good work in us and will see it through to completion in God’s time.

I know this little rant of mine won’t solve any of our immediate problems. We still have a General Assembly to convene, budgets to balance, buildings to maintain, pastors to pay, and missions to support. The cause for concern is real. My purpose in sharing this is to give you hope by offering a testimony of faith from a young voice who has come to and stayed in this denomination, not because you have big buildings or budgets, not because you have slick worship or good preaching, not because your theology is evangelical or progressive, but because Jesus Christ loves and challenges me through you.

That is the gift you bring. That is what makes us the Church.

As you read the above statistical report and gather for General Assembly in Detroit, keep that in mind.

Remember how our elder brother, St. Paul, said it:

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

15 thoughts on “Why I Stay

  1. We at my church are trying to live into your challenge, Barrett. It is hard not to moan, though. I think we are making a place where anyone can base oneself to leap into one’s own worship and ministry. “How can we help” rather than “How can we get you to come.”

  2. Christopher Lawton

    I am 35 and have been involved with the UK Methodist Church and have been an organist since I was 15. However, last month I resigned as organist and terminated my membership and have not been back since. Why? Because I could no longer stomach people who were demonising the poor as bone idle and workshy ‘scroungers’ (I am unemployed so I must fall into that category then) and then those same people reading from the bible about how we must have compassion. I am afraid for me the church (at least in the UK) has become a Sunday drama class. I know I am not the only one who feels like this. In fact, another person left just before me for the very same reasons. I could no longer tolerate the hypocrisy that was going on and was coming out of church feeling angry and not spiritually refreshed. I have not lost my faith – far from it – but as far as the organised church is concerned, it no longer speaks for people and I can now fully understand why people no longer attend church and choose to go shopping, play a sport etc etc.

  3. Anonymous

    I am a commissioner to GA this year – and I am taking your words to heart! Thanks for the hopeful reflection.

    1. That’s wonderful! I hope this will bring encouragement. Thank you for this ministry, the rest of us in the church do not take it lightly. I will think of you and pray for you when I watch the Live-Stream. I don’t know your name, but God does! Be blessed and be a blessing.

  4. Sheri

    I hope you don’t mind that I shared this on my FB page. I can delete it but it speaks to many in our congregations. Thank you for your thoughts.

  5. Ellen

    Well-said, Pastor Lee! After years in conservative evangelical churches which, as you said, gave me a lot, I found a home seven years ago in an unusual and wonderful PCUSA church, where I experience everything you spoke of. It’s God’s place for me!

  6. Anonymous

    Well said…as a former member of a different denomination….I love your definition of our denomination…thank you

  7. Dios te bendiga

    My wife and I both grew up Presbyterian, and we left the church a year ago. I went to presbytery once and that was a big part of the undoing of me. Many of the people I met there won’t be satisfied until they get to rewrite the Bible themselves. They desperately attempt to intellectualize scripture to their agenda. Elders in our church commented that much of the Bible is just an ancient history book and has little to do with the modern society. The PCUSA is on a slippery slope trying to adapt to society by being unashamed parts of the Bible.

    1. Barrett, this correspondent’s comment shows, I believe, the line a demarcation between the two camps in the Christian faith. There are those who believe in a God who is omnipotent by means of love and support, lifting all souls to the heights they can achieve and accepting us in our humanness, including our arrogance and hurtfulness. The other sees lines of demarcation, God demanding conformity not to rules of love but of inflexible, inescapable laws. there is a need in all of us for the latter, and I struggle with my impulse to turn to that route every day. But in my heart, I fear that in every religion, not just Christianity, the second way will win, and we will become not religions with two poles, but instead warring camps. See what has become of Christ’s body!

  8. Pingback: On the Shoulders of Giants | The Pastor's Blog

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