Does Future Presbyterian Witness Require Younger and More Colorful Churches?

Does Future Presbyterian Witness Require Younger and More Colorful Churches?

By Betsy Lyles and William Yoo.

Presbyterians in the United States have always sought to be a faithful Church and a diverse Church. Looking back at our history, we clearly see positive developments and grave mistakes in our desire to be a community of faith, hope, love, and witness (F-1.0301). For example, we give thanks for the gathering of the first General Assembly in 1789, and the ways in which Presbyterian leaders established our connectional patterns of church governance that unite all of our congregations. We also lament the moral failings of Presbyterians in the nineteenth century who either supported the cruel practice of slavery or compromised their abolitionist convictions for the sake of maintaining an unjust but familiar order to their daily rhythms of life in their churches and wider society.

It is more difficult to assess Presbyterian efforts toward becoming a more diverse Church. On the one hand, Presbyterians in the nineteenth century took the Great Commission seriously and invested enormous resources in world mission work. Some white Presbyterians even gave their lives to this cause, dying in foreign countries from disease and arduous living conditions. In the middle of the twentieth century, Presbyterians (and other mainstream denominations) designed innovative programs for youth that blended religious education and popular culture to ignite and sustain the faith, witness, and church involvement of many teenagers. On the other hand, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) remains overwhelmingly white – 91% of the denomination’s membership was white in 2014 – and some young adults in their twenties and thirties are searching for their place in local congregations. Some find themselves in the margins because they are “too old” for youth or college ministries but “not quite” at the life stage of most other adult members, deacons, and elders.

A survey of Presbyterian history reveals the following problem: Too often Presbyterians treated diversity as the ultimate aim of their ministry and regarded the “other” persons needed to fulfill this goal as “objects” of mission. In 1889, Presbyterians produced a report for the General Assembly that included a strategy to convert recent immigrants by taking advantage of their vulnerability as strangers adjusting to a new country. Some Presbyterians have also conflated diversity with inclusion in the ways they celebrate the presence of the persons – racially, ethnically, and generationally – that make their congregation diverse without seeking how to truly embody a faithful congregation in which every member has an equal voice in discerning the future direction of the church. Nobody wants to be treated as an “object” of mission or lifted up as an “example” of ministry success.

Although not congregations, Presbyterian seminaries have fallen into the same patterns as our congregations: seeking to be faithful and in the process, creating a system where the “other” becomes the “object” of the mission. In the past ten years, Columbia has seen a shift in the student body. The data tells us we’re diverse and it would be easy to lift up statistics stating that currently only half of our students affiliate with the PC(USA) or that 40% of our student body identifies with a racial-ethnic minority group to substantiate these claims of diversity. But, if we’re to learn from history, we must recognize that diversity cannot be conflated with inclusion.

So how do we – congregations and institutions of the PC(USA) – create inclusivity? Working toward diverse communities is a start but it mustn’t be the end. It’s simply a means to an end. A diverse community is an opportunity for conversations and leadership meetings with diverse perspectives about our next steps. Regardless of how well-intentioned it may be, a leadership team of dedicated and faithful, but mostly homogenous, (whether it be race, class, age, sexuality, gender, etc.) leaders will struggle to think effectively about creating an inclusive witness for our church. Inclusive communities begin when the leadership reflects the diversity of the community. The current national leadership of the PC(USA) is a great example of this – Jan Edmiston, Denise Anderson, J. Herbert Nelson, and Tony De La Rosa – representing several racial-ethnic groups and a range of ages. With a leadership team that embraces more and more the vision of what we hope the PC(USA) can become we can begin asking the question: does our future witness require a younger and more colorful Church?

Rev. Betsy Lyles is Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at Columbia Theological Seminary. Dr. William Yoo is Assistant Professor of American Religious and Cultural History at Columbia Theological Seminary. Betsy Lyles and William Yoo are co-leading a workshop on this topic at the PC(USA) NEXT National Gathering in Kansas City, Missouri, which takes place from March 13 to 15.  

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