Thursday, July 14, 2011

Worship at the Big Tent Conference

On June 30-July 2 in Indianapolis 1700 Presbyterians attending 10 different conferences enjoyed three joint worship services and plenary together. These times together gave us a sense of our numbers, diversity, and unity. The worship services were planned by the Racial Ethnic and Immigration Group. One of the innovative techniques used to demonstrate and celebrate the richness of our diversity was to incorporate a small group of six racial/ethnic worship leaders gathered around one microphone. During the reading of liturgy they repeated a selected phrase of a statement everyone had just read in English, each in their own language one after another. The effect was powerful. The technique caused us to pause and pay attention to something important just professed, giving time for it to linger in our hearts and mind. It demonstrated the richness of our diversity as the different languages swept over us, but also our unity in professing it together.

Another worship technique used, which I also found very powerful, was the use of brief excerpts from the Social Creed for the 21st Century. The 218th GA in 2008 approved this creed for worship and study. In each service we read an excerpt, then saw a brief video with visual images and music relating to what we professed, followed by a unison commitment statement. This connected what we profess, the challenges in society, and our commitment to action. It connected worship with the life in the world and discipleship.

I was also impressed with the diversity and power of the preachers: Mark Labberton, Assoc. Professor of Preaching at Fuller Seminary, a non-Presbyterian seminary on the west coast with an evangelical focus, opened the conference with a wonderful sermon on Matthew 28:16-20 drawing fresh and unexpected insights out of that foundational text know as the great commission. Labberton lifted up much ignored verse, “When they (the eleven disciples) saw him (Jesus), they worshiped him; but some doubted.” He reminded us that God calls and empowers and commission us like them, worshiping and doubting disciples, to go make disciples of Jesus who do what Jesus did and observe his commandments, his way with God's help. What did he do and command? To not judge, but love your enemy, forgive those who have hurt you, serve the needy, recognize the overlooked, welcome the stranger. This is radical trans formative behavior that changes lives, families, communities, the world! We do so not alone but empowered by God. And yes, God begins and continues to do so with doubting disciples like us.

Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, known as a liberal bastion of the east coast, followed the next day after morning prayers with a keynote address based on the life and experience of John Calvin. Drawing the parallels between the chaos and confusion of the Renaissance and Reformation and our experience today, she examined Calvin’s witness and theological astuteness in that challenging time as support for the challenges we face. Fifty years after Calvin, the church and human aspirations had expanded such that no one could have conjured up beforehand. Through that time Calvin stayed awake and stood with his feet planted and refused to close his eyes to the chaos. Based on Calvin, Jones’ social theory, strategy and recommendation to us, who live in similar times, “Just breathe! Stay awake! Take in the moment! Cast off from your shoulders the idea that it is up to you to change history. It is happening anyway with us or without us.” Our task, she suggested, is not to force history, but to stay awake and in the saddle holding on to the reins of that horse, trusting God.

J. Herbert Nelson II, Director of Public Witness, at the PCUSA Washington Office, a third generation African American Presbyterian minister, brought the conference to a rousing conclusion with his sermon "Moving from Success to Significance." He addressed directly the angst of the denomination over our lost mainline prominence in society, and anxiety over our recent ratification of Amendment 10-A. He challenged us to stop worrying about the church, our image and success, and be the church and make a difference in the name of Christ. Then he told the story of discussing the state of the church at a family meal with his mother and 102 year old grandmother, both Presbyterian pastor's spouses. Asked what they thought, his grandmother, assured him the church has lived through so much before, it will do so again. Then he stirred us, as so many African American preachers can, with a rousing call to make a difference.

Thanks be to God for all these voices in the church. It's a Big Tent. My apologies if I have misrepresented any of these worship leaders.