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Riverside Conversation: Nature of the Church in the 21st Century

June 30, 2012

Pittsburgh

A fresh approach to starting and supporting new churches was presented to about 200 commissioners and visitors in the Riverside Conversation on the Nature of the Church here June 30.

The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, chair of the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century Committee, and the Rev. Stephanie Sorge Wing compared the PC(USA)’s present moment with Pentecost. “What if they [the disciples] had stayed in that small room?” Wing asked. “What if they had not gone out into the streets? Will we as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leave the comfort of our sanctuaries and embrace the diversity that is out there and begin planting new congregations and discern how the Spirit is calling us into the world?”

Merritt said, “None of us had a crystal ball, but we could look out on the streets and into our congregations.” She said the population is becoming more diverse and that Caucasians will not be the majority in the future. And she noted that the median age of Presbyterians is “over 60” and that they are 90 percent white. She said ten churches a week close mostly because their congregations have become too old to support a church.

The new approaches they are recommending are to develop more resources and support for “bi-vocational” ministers – those who are pastors but also work another job – and embracing immigrant fellowships, removing some of the barriers to their being recognized as churches.

They also suggest using funds from churches that have been dissolved and their property sold to pay for new church developments.

Merritt said, ”We have to get over our cultural bias,” and she cited a Somali worshipping fellowship that did not share western ideas of membership, “so the presbytery could not figure out how to count them as a congregation.”

She said, “We aren’t allowing new church developments to become established. Sometimes we close them before they can reach self-sustaining status even if they are bringing in the same budget and have the same size as existing churches.”

Merritt said the committee would like the denomination to study both the challenges faced by ministers who want to consider bi-vocational positions and the matter of just compensation.

During the question-and-answer session, the presenters were asked if the committee had developed a theology “of being the church when church is no longer recognizable to us,” for example, when the church is in a coffee shop.

Merritt responded, “At the end of the day, there were so many things we just couldn’t get to because there was so little time.”

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