Gathered Councils, Sent Councils

November 1, 2013


"They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles." (Acts 2:42–43 [NRSV])

When Christ ascended into heaven, through Him the Holy Spirit came and birthed communities … communities that gathered for worship, prayer, song, breaking of bread, sharing their life, the ascended Lord through His Spirit sharing His life with them. But the gatherings, in every instance, even at the first ecumenical Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15 to settle a theological dispute, always presumed the community would disperse to give witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their words and in their witness. And when the Gospel was proclaimed in words and in works, it likewise presumed the community would re-gather again in worship, prayer, song, and table fellowship. And on and on it went. Gather, send, gather, send, ad infinitum.

In 225 days, the PC(USA) community will gather for the 221st General Assembly (2014) in Detroit. We will worship and we have four outstanding preachers who will join me in sharing God’s Word. For the first time in assembly history, we will celebrate Eucharist at every worship service. We will sing, with the new hymnal, Glory to God, having a prominent place. We will feast. We will deliberate around many items of business. The plenary floor will feature several baptismal fonts to remind assembly commissioners, advisory delegates, and, indeed, the whole church, that in our debates and parliamentary motions, we are bonded and binded together in our baptisms.

But is that all that the assembly does or should do. If a Martian parachuted into an assembly, the image would be of a seven-day gathering of 2,000 Presbyterians who are addicted to themselves, to staying together (or fighting together), and who love making parliamentary motions, speeches, and votes.

This past September, I visited the Clean Water U training academy of the Living Waters for the World (LWW) ministry in Mississippi. The LWW started twenty years ago as a vision by then seminarian Wil Howie, who was touched by a photograph of a mother and her child who didn’t have clean water. The LWW trains volunteers to train in-country teams to install and maintain their own water filtration systems while teaching them that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Living Water. Twenty years later, there are 545 LWW water filtration systems in 25 countries, having trained over 1,600 volunteers. At their training academy, there were folks not only PC(USA), but also Methodists, United Church of Christ, Mennonite, non-denomination, and Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Theologically and politically diverse, but united in evangelism and justice, offering spiritual food and embodying the Gospel in a tangible way. The LWW was started with support from a congregation, the Presbytery of St. Andrews, and the Synod of Living Waters. This model of mid councils supporting a ministry caught the eye of the Synod of the Sun, which then set up Solar Under the Sun ministry, where they proclaim Jesus Christ as the Light of the world and where that is embodied by installing solar panels for alternative energy.

The Mid Council Commission report to the 221st General Assembly (2014) will ask that assembly to affirm a maximum of eight synods, and affirm a broad consultative process for 2014–2016 to have presbyteries discuss and discern the best path of how, what, and where mid councils are configured. Rather than engaging in two/four years of ecclesiastical gerrymandering of geography, let’s put missional foci—eight of them—as the conversation starters.

Imagine a synod focused on human trafficking? Or another synod focused on just immigration? Or another synod on climate change? Imagine what future General Assemblies would look like: mid councils coming together to pray, to strategize on eight missional foci, concrete ministries where evangelism and justice are integrated.

Consider this: when the 221st General Assembly (2014) gathers in Detroit, there will be impoverished, homeless populations around the convention center. Detroit, along with Oakland, is a major port of passage for people who are trafficked in the United States. Poverty and modern-day slavery will be right there literally at the doorsteps of the gathered community.

How will we respond? Not only during June 14–21, 2014, but whenever and wherever two or three Presbyterians gather in councils in Christ’s name.

The Holy Spirit gathers us in order for the Holy Spirit to send us.

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