Is the General Assembly Week Still Important?

Our General Assembly meeting is a little less than a month away.  In the weeks leading up to the Assembly, many people look forward to it with hopeful anticipation, wondering what will happen this year.  In the weeks following the Assembly, many people are angry and frustrated about the decisions that were made and the process that was used to reach those decisions.  After every GA, a number of our presbytery staff have to go around visiting sessions and congregations and pastors and holding special presbytery meetings, trying to answer the “why” questions.  Why did they make that decision?  Why should we still send money?  Why should we stay in this denomination?

Behind all of the emotion is an assumption that what happens during the General Assembly is important.  It assumes that the business of the Assembly is relevant and important to our congregations and to the world.  I would humbly suggest, that at this point in time, much of it is not.  I can believe that General Assemblies in the past used to be important.  And I can imagine General Assemblies one day in the future becoming important again.  But, in this liminal, inbetween time we live in right now, the number of decisions that the Assembly makes that are actually important is very, very small.

Some decisions are important to the national denomination.  I think confirming the election of the Executive Director of the General Assembly Mission Council and electing a Stated Clerk are important for the denomination, because they work all year round and direct the staff.  I think approving the budgets are important because they guide us in what we do in different areas of ministry and set the level of per capita that congregations should pay.  But, even these decisions have minimal impact on our congregations.

Instead, the Assembly spends a lot of time approving papers and studies that few people will read.  Many of them will sit on a shelf collecting dust and we will wonder if it was worth all of that time to write them.  We will tell our U.S. Government, foreign governments, and big corporations what to do.  These kinds of actions indicate we are still living in a previous era, in a former narrative, in an obsolete imagination.  I don’t think any national governments will read what we write.  I don’t think any corporations will pay attention to our pronouncements.  I don’t think these decisions will change anything.  They may make some of us feel good to say them, but even many of our members will ignore these statements.  If we agree with the statements, we will use them to justify our position.  If we disagree with them, they won’t change our mind.  It’s an exercise in futility, but we keep doing it, because we’re still living in this old imagination of what a GA should be and do.

The GA will discuss social issues.  We will talk about sexuality, marriage, health issues, gun control, etc.  But, what difference will they make?  If the GA approves recommending changing our sexuality and ordination standards, the presbyteries will vote it down again, and nothing will change.  People who like the GA decisions will try to use them to further their agenda.  People who don’t like the GA decisions will get angry or ignore them.  But, in the end, very little will change.  Why?  Because the imagination our GA week is living in, no longer matches where we live as a church or as a people.  Why?  Because the overtures and the business that come to the Assembly, still are not asking the right questions.

How many decisions of the GA will help our congregations become more involved in the mission of God in our world?  How many actions will help us figure out how to engage the discontinuous, adaptive change going on around us?  Will the future of our congregations be strengthened by any decisions of the GA?  Does the GA prevent us from, or help us to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to a fallen and sinful world?

Most of the overtures and issues that the GA will spend its time on are not the primary ones that will affect the future viability of our church.  Most of them are secondary issues.  Few if any of the GA’s decisions will make any difference in the life of our congregations.  There is a good overture coming from the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy (St. Louis area) that is asking to re-look at how the General Assembly meetings function.  There are a few others asking to change how the GA week operates.  It would be a step in the right direction if these overtures would pass.  Because, until General Assembly meetings are organized under a new imagination, asking a different set of questions, and around the primary issues we are wrestling with today, the GA week will not be important.

If the General Assembly week was still important, I would probably get mad.  But, it’s not.  So, I don’t.  They key for the future is developing a new imagination for what General Assemblies can and should be.  It means asking different questions.  It means focusing on different issues.  It means cultivating new conversations.  General Assemblies can once again become positive, Spirit-led gatherings of God’s people.  They can learn to re-invent themselves.  We can eventually get there.  But, we are not there yet.

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