I spent the last week with the teenagers from our church and a couple other chaperones at the Montreat Youth Conference Week III. Montreat is a retreat/conference center (as well as a college) nestled in a holler outside Black Mountain and adjacent to Asheville NC. It is a beautiful valley with an entranceway built of stone (though a large U-Haul truck just destroyed half of the stone gate three weeks ago). I’ve written of the magic of this place in a previous blog, and that’s not what I want to focus on here. For the past three weeks I’ve been mourning the divorce of the Presbyterian Church.
Two weeks ago the PCUSA (the denomination in which I grew up) held it’s bi-annual General Assembly where all the Presbyterian churches in the country gather to worship and carry on the business of the church. News from the assembly was troubling. Apparently someone had the idea, in the hopes of being more inclusive and ecumenical, that they should invite a Muslim man named Wajid Said to participate by offering a prayer as the assembly began. In Mr. Said’s prayer (to Allah btw) he thanked Allah for all the prophets including Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Muhammed, and Jesus. I would expect a prayer like this from a Muslim. What is striking is that a Muslim was invited in the first place, to lead Christians in prayer to another god (Allah is not YHWH and that is a much longer blog/theological conversation) in which he included Jesus as one of the gang of prophets; striking because for Christians, Jesus is the Lord of the prophets, not simply one of them. Even more striking was the apology offered by the Stated Clerk of the assembly to those offended. His apology was simply that they were offended, not that the prayer had taken place. Thus the impasse between those leaving the PCUSA and those staying was highlighted, and the divorce was validated. But it doesn’t mean I don’t mourn.
Last week I stood and worshipped with close to 2000 PCUSA high school students in a stone auditorium at the Montreat Youth Conference. I can’t be certain, but I believe we were the only church from the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). It was a wonderful experience! The worship contained depth and a creative Christian spiritual mystery that is lacking in most evangelical churches. Granted, it was a week of services that took two years to plan and close to 50 volunteers to pull off, but it was so incredibly rich and inspirational. Before I go on I must say there were things said from the stage, and ideas expressed with which I greatly disagreed. There were nuanced arguments for acceptance and love with which I couldn’t disagree on technical grounds, but with implications which are antithetical to my view of scripture and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I won’t go into detail but suffice it to say these were some of the reasons why many churches are in ECO now. However, the great takeaway was that Jesus was truly exalted! The preacher was actually (surprisingly) evangelical in the way she prompted these teenagers to allow Jesus to be Lord of their lives. She used words like “sin”, “atonement”, and “blood”- words that have been shunned in many PCUSA circles. She emphasized identity in Christ as it affects our relationships with our peers, families, communities, and churches, and how it affects our own self-worth. Part of my surprised delight is with what has historically been preached at these conferences like social activism in the place of true Spiritual renewal, or at times, new age Spiritualism in the place of true conformity to Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This year had a surprising orthodox that was unexpected and joyfully welcomed.
Yet, following the conference I feel as though I had just visited a divorced parent that I hadn’t seen in a while. Don’t get me wrong. I am so grateful for where God has led me in ECO. There is an energy and excitement about the work God is doing planting and revitalizing churches, building strong leaders, and making disciples. Our gatherings, locally and nationally, have been unapologetically and completely centered on the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of scripture in our lives, and strategies for advancing Jesus’ gospel in the world. I can’t say as much for my former denomination given the General Assembly news from two weeks ago, but it does make me sad for all that we’ve lost in this divorce. To say that an entire denomination has been given over to heresy would be ignorance and presumption. There are many issues where we are irreconcilably divided, but just as many where we are still strongly united. I can’t see us ever coming back together based simply on trajectory, but I can hope, and do hope that we can continue to work together on some of our common mission emphases; like the promotion of the Good News of Jesus Christ in a world that is desperate for hope and answers to its problems. I mourn this divorce, but I also recognize its necessity. I pray for my brothers and sisters in the PCUSA that their theology would genuinely spring from Scripture and orthodox reformation history, and that their practice would conform to the standards of Jesus rather than the standards of the surrounding culture. And I pray for my new ECO family; that we would carry on in this mission with the cross of Jesus before us without neglecting the rich heritage from which we’ve come.