“We are going to have to figure out ways to change the culture of the church; that we’re not looking for members who we want, we are looking for people who want to be closer to the Lord, and that’s a different kind of evangelism. Come whoever will ought to be able to come,” said Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), during the December broadcast of “Good Medicine,” hosted by the Rev. Gregory Bentley and Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart, Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly (2020).
The son, grandson and nephew of Presbyterian pastors, Nelson is the first African American to lead the PC(USA). Prior to becoming Stated Clerk in 2016, Nelson served as director of the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. His service to the denomination also includes calls as pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, and organizing pastor of Liberation Community Church in Memphis.
The discussion revolved around “What are the barriers to the church fully embracing its call to serving the whole community without fear of those we perceive as others?”
Nelson started by turning to some history. “We have been in many ways a predominantly white denomination,” he said, “and one of the pieces in this particular time is that we have cultivated a group of individuals from outside this country through our mission work who are now standing at the borders of the United States of America looking for the freedom that we in a sense shared with them in the mission field.”
This creates a “struggle” for the church and the society, Nelson said. “It’s threatening to understand what our churches will look like with regard to who we are evangelizing, who we will have to reach out to in the new frontier of Christendom in the United States.”
Bentley said he remembered about 40 years ago when the PC(USA) “wanted to diversify the membership, which at that time was about 90% white. And here we are 40 years later, and it’s still 90% white. Why couldn’t we get it done?”
Nelson said it is part of an identity struggle for the denomination. “Who are we in the 21st century? We’ve been trying to live in a lot of ways on the old record, that really is not even valid anymore … the reputation of who we want to be.”
He used reunion between the northern and southern Presbyterians in 1983 as an example. He said it became more clear in the years following the merger that “there was very little we had in common.”
“When both denominations were losing numbers, it made sense to try to come together, reconcile whatever differences, and at the same time engage in the struggle of who is going to push the other one out — who can’t come in the church and what are the ways by which we interpret who’s worthy,” Nelson said. “We knew it wasn’t a working proposition unless we did some significant soul changing.”
Now “we’re dealing with the remnant of the fallout and figuring out how to navigate this in an age that has brought about many changes not only in our society but the world.”
He thinks the church is poised to meet these challenges, but “what it’s really going to take is ridding ourselves of some of the habits we have … and also recognizing we are one church, and how to reconcile differences and begin to see ourselves anew.”
Street-Stewart pointed out that the church’s habits of marginalizing people and not recognizing them for their credentials and life experiences occurs at all levels of the church and has left a whole generation of people behind.
Nelson said marginalization of individuals in the life of the church is “in the DNA of how we have erected our faith understanding in the United States of America.”
“We are in no way ahead of the curve in this denomination. One of the challenges is how do we really begin to co-opt the whole person that comes? That means their experience, but it also means who they are, what have they been through. Historic racism in the United States of America … how do we treat it and understand it?” he said, adding, “I’m convinced that we’re in a period right now that if we don’t challenge it, it’s going to challenge us.”
Nelson sees hope for a societal shift among the younger generation, who have a broader world perspective and are moving away from viewpoints and behaviors that marginalize other races and cultures. “Our young people have a deeper grasp on things earlier in life than we ever did. They are finding that the church has to catch up with the ways of the world.”
The church is “tragically behind” not only on issues of race but on creating opportunities for young people to engage. “You shouldn’t have to wait until you’re 30 or 40 years old to be actively engaged with responsibility,” said Nelson. “How to we begin at a younger age to train young people to be disciples of Christ? And not this kind of military drill to learn these two or three books and then be confirmed. We’ve got to help invite them into what it means to a part of the diversity of this world.”
Nelson says he’s also watching a trend among big steeple pastors, not just Presbyterians but across denominations, who since going through the pandemic are quitting. He said that Christianity is for the first time in the history of the nation now below 50% of the population, attributing much of this to “how we have not been consistent with our gospel teachings.”
“This may be a time of purging our theology about one another,” Nelson said. “God may be up to something here. The theology we’ve been teaching for a lot of things, including the offering plate, now needs to be a theology of health and hope and healing and have a dynamism around promoting those who have been left behind. That’s the Jesus I read.
“There’s something about the radical nature of the gospel that the 21st century church has really forgotten. If we’re going to live faithful to the gospel, we’ve got to live dangerously. We have to be on the redeeming edge of society.”
To see and hear the entire broadcast, click here. “Good Medicine” is presented live on the second Wednesday of the month at 2 p.m. (Eastern time) on the 224th General Assembly Co-Moderators Facebook page.