Archive for April, 2011

Pastoral Letter

April 29, 2011

Dear Friends and Members of the Presbytery of San Diego,

As you may have been hearing lately, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is currently voting on amendments to our Book of Order. One amendment is a proposal to remove our ordination standard that church officers live in fidelity in the covenant of marriage and chastity in singleness, and replace it with a standard that officers joyfully submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The proposal would shift the full responsibility of ordination decisions from the national level of the denomination to the presbytery and session level. It represents a de-centralization of the denomination. It looks like this new proposal will probably get enough votes to pass.

What does this mean for us here in the Presbytery of San Diego? Here are four things I would like to share with you.

First, this language gives us permission to remain who we are and to act as we always have. The DNA of the Presbytery of San Diego has been shaped by spiritual, missional, and relational strands. Our identity is rooted in Jesus Christ. He is the vine and we are the branches. If we abide in Christ, we can bear much fruit, but apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). This will not change.

In 2003, we approved the Essential Tenets and Reformed Distinctives as guidelines for preparing and evaluating candidates through the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, for directing incoming ministers through the Committee on Ministry, and for educating and training our officers and members. They have helped to shape the spiritual strand of our identity. These tenets continue to articulate what we believe.

In 2006, our presbytery discussed a resolution that expressed a concern that the Presbyterian Church (USA) was moving away from the essential convictions that formed the covenant that we received and entered. In order to answer the questions raised in the resolution that was adopted, the Task Force on the Way Forward was formed. This report recommended a Year of Preparation to devote time to corporate worship, communal discernment, and interactive prayer. It expressed a desire to create a new paradigm for the presbytery. It listed ten areas of concern.

In 2007, the Way Forward Work Group was formed to follow up on these areas of focus. The final report that was approved in 2008, stated that our presbytery is no longer primarily a governing body, but that we are primarily a relational community, and we hope to someday become primarily a mission agency. This helped develop the missional and relational strands of our DNA. This document outlined the beginnings of our missional vision, and some exploratory missional pilot projects, which have continued to grow in the years since. We voted to affiliate with the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, and organized our first Moving Back into the Neighborhood event. We reaffirmed our theological identity, strengthened our local ordination standards, adopted a property covenant, and sought to expand our networks and partnerships. We also stated that we might need to develop responses to future scenarios such as actions to set aside ordination standards. We said we wanted to lead, not leave. We continue to pursue this missional vision.

In 2010, we re-affirmed the Standards of Ethical Conduct. We continue to abide by them. All of these actions have helped shape the spiritual, missional, and relational strands of the DNA of our presbytery. The coming change in our denomination’s ordination standards does not mean that we will all of a sudden change who we are. We will be true to ourselves. We will act out of our identity, and discern people for ministry in the same prayerful, spiritual way we always have.

This language gives more permission to the local level, but we would not be required or forced to change. We will continue to examine pastors and candidates for ministry in the same, diligent, prayerful way we always have. We will continue to take seriously the responsible to discern God’s will as we always have.

Secondly, I believe there are a small number of people who are active in same sex relationships who will try to become ordained under the new ruling. This will not be automatic. A presbytery may try, it will probably be challenged, and rulings would be needed by the Permanent Judicial Commissions of the church before we will know for sure what the actual impact of the new language will be.

Third, this represents a de-centralization of the denomination. The PC(USA) is becoming more like the NCAA, which has 32 different conferences for major college athletics. The Pac 10 has different rules than the Mountain West Conference. The Western Athletic Conference is different from the Big 10. What other churches and other presbyteries do around the country, will be more like what other conferences do in college athletics. We are not responsible for what others do. We are only accountable for what we do.

Fourth, I have been involved in numerous conversations with many people across the denomination over the last two months to understand what the impact of this decision will be, what options are available to us, and how to help us best move forward. I hope that we can all respond together. I believe the denomination gets weaker when individual churches pull out. In addition, a couple of churches have contacted us about transferring into our presbytery. We will be praying and talking about what actions we believe God wants us to take. I would ask that you be patient, pray, and wait upon the Lord as we seek His face and ask for His direction.

As Reformed Christians, we believe strongly in the sovereignty of God. Thus, we do not need to act out of fear, but we believe that God has everything under control. There are some very exciting ministries that are developing across the PC(USA). However, our denomination is definitely changing. We need to monitor these changes, anticipate where they are going, and not be afraid to take the actions we believe are necessary. I continue to be impressed by the people in our presbytery, and I have every confidence that we will continue to make good decisions in the future. Our hope is in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who said, “Upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me, and I will be glad to talk to you face to face, by phone, text, email, or Facebook. Hang in there. God is on the move!

God bless you,

Clark Cowden


Insights Into the American Church

April 5, 2011

On Wednesday, March 30, 2011, the Rev. Eileen Lindner shared some insights into the current state of the church in the United States with a combined gathering of the General Assembly Mission Council Executive Committee and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. Here is some of what she shared:

62% of Americans say they are affiliated with a church, compared to 32% of Europeans.

In the United States, there are approximately 163 million Christians, 10 million Mormons, 7 million Jews, 7 million Muslims, and 3 million Hindus.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been in a membership decline for the last 47 years (since 1964). The first thirty years of that membership decline was because of a birth dearth – church members were dying faster than they were being born.

Out of the largest 10 religious groups in the United States, only three are growing in membership: the Catholics, the Mormons, and the Assemblies of God.

The 15 largest megachurches in the United States have an 80% turnover rate. They are not good at retaining their people. A lot of people enter the church through megachurches, but then they move on to other churches.

There are six main factors in the decline of denominations in the last 50 years:
1. The birth dearth – membership loss – more people are dying than being born.
2. A decline in a moral consensus in the church. We don’t have as much agreement on moral issues.
3. An accompanying decline in the moral authority of the church.
4. An accompanying loss of revenue. With the membership loss of #1 comes a similar decline of financial income.
5. An accompanying loss of identity/brand authority. There has been a loss of Presbyterian identity. We don’t know what makes us unique or special any more.
6. An accompanying divisive ethical debate. As the moral consensus in the church has declined, we have become more divided on ethics – what are the appropriate behaviors that are consistent with the Christian life? As the debate becomes more divisive, some people have left.

Middle Governing Bodies (MGBs) (presbyteries and synods) face STRESS factors from ABOVE:
1. From the dissolution of denominational focus – people question where the denomination is going.
2. From the dissipation of denominational resources – there are fewer things that come from the national office.
3. From the diminution of reinforced authority
4. Middle Governing Bodies have been functionally replaced by parachurch organizations. Parachurch groups do what many church groups used to do – e.g., Habitat for Humanity
5. Denominational resources are inadequate to maintain MGB structures
6. The assignment of unfamiliar tasks. Persons and positions are eliminated at the national level and the MGBs step in and try to pick up the slack.

Middle Governing Bodies (MGBs) (presbyteries and synods) also face STRESS factors from BELOW:
1. We have become more congregational than connectional
2. There has been a decrease in financial and human resources coming up from congregations
3. MGBs have been functionally replaced by parachurch groups in some ways, e.g. Habitat for Humanity
4. Local resources are inadequate to maintain our structures
5. MGBs are an endangered species

Both the national and local levels have expectations of Middle Governing Bodies. Both look to the MGBs for their own revitalization.
The denominational redefinition is closely linked to the MGB redefinition.
The question of ‘what does it mean to be a denomination?’ is changing rapidly

5 Emerging Aspects of Church Institutional Life
1. Presbyteries are taking multiple approaches to redefine themselves
2. Old functions are being done in new ways
3. Presbytery leadership will have to be cultivated as well as identified
4. The measures for church vitality are in flux – by 2030, church membership could be meaningless
5. Congregational crises reveal both continuity and discontinuity with the Middle Governing Body crises

The Impact of a Religious Order

April 3, 2011

There have been some discussions in recent days about whether the formation of new structures like orders would be good for the Presbyterian Church (USA). When we look at some of the examples from church history, we see that the creation of orders became a stimulant for both reform within the church and great missionary activity outside the church. Orders had to deal with issues of mistrust and opposition in the church. They brought some agreement to the church, but never were able to remove disagreement completely. And yet, in the midst of the human imperfection, they were able to stimulate much needed evangelism and discipleship. Mark Noll’s book Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity offers some interesting insights for today from the examples of the Jesuits and the Catholic orders of the 1500s.

“In the summer of 1539, a Spaniard who had begun his adult life fighting for the king of Spain enlisted for a different cause. Ignatius Loyola, for many years a priest, was now asking Pope Paul III to let him establish a new religious order. Five years before, Loyola had taken the first steps in formalizing the intense devotion that already characterized his life. With six companions, Loyola has sworn vows of poverty and chastity. Together they had pledged themselves to seek the conversion of Muslims in and around Jerusalem. At that gathering in Paris in August, 1534, Loyola and his friends also agreed that if their original intention could not be fulfilled, they would agree to whatever service the Pope would assign to them.

Loyola had studied theology for eleven years. At one point, he was so zealous about his faith, that he was investigated by the Inquisition as someone likely to disturb the peace and unity of the church. While some were uneasy with Loyola’s intense spirituality, others were drawn to him as a beacon of truth. The band that pledged itself to missionary service was the result.

Loyola’s petition for a new religious order did not receive an immediate response. He had to be patient. More than a year elapsed from the time of his request to the pope’s approval to formally establish the Society of Jesus. Thus was founded what has been called “the most powerful instrument of Catholic revival and resurgence in this era of religious crisis.”

The founding of the Jesuits revitalized the church, cultivated a new missionary zeal, and shaped the doctrine of the church for the next five hundred years. Even before the pope acted officially to establish the order, one of Loyola’s original companions, Francis Xavier (1506-52) had embarked on the missionary journeys that brought the message of Christianity to India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan. This was done 150 years before anything comparable can be found among Protestants and 250 years before anything comparable among English-speaking Protestants. As they did so, they had to learn how to communicate the gospel cross-culturally, from a European perspective into an Asian context.

The main cause of reform in the Catholic Church was the great surge in creating new religious orders that dated from the 1520s. Just as Benedictine monasticism had sparked broad church renewal in the sixth century, so in the early sixteenth century, concern for the decline of the church moved many of the devout to form new bands for the purpose of prayer and service or to reform already existing religious structures. One group of reforms was inspired by the dynamic leadership of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) whose fervent piety and sharp common sense guided a religious community given over mostly to prayer and contemplation. Teresa’s success in establishing monastic foundations (one for men and one for women) was repeated with several of the new or revived orders in other places throughout Catholic Europe.

The main point that needs to be made about these new orders – which included the Jesuits as the largest and most active – was their attachment to older medieval ideals of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Their focus was on living up to ancient ideals and carrying out reform through practices of prayer, meditation, and service with an ancient lineage in the church.

In 1537, a group of reform-minded cardinals produced a report which criticized the papacy for exaggerating its claims to power in the church and in society. It also called upon the papacy to concentrate on its spiritual tasks. It pointed out the failure of bishops to fulfill their tasks as pastors in their dioceses. Although its recommendations proved both too general and too deep to be implemented, the commission pointed the way toward reform that later popes would follow.

A final emphasis of the Council of Trent in 1562-1563 was the stress upon the missionary mandate. By this time, many of the orders had already begun a much-expanded missionary activity, but Trent put a stamp of urgency upon efforts to carry the Catholic faith to Asia, North America, South America, and other areas far beyond the borders of Christendom. The success of the reform from Trent depended crucially on the assistance of Roman Catholic monarchs like Francis I and Charles V, who though they deeply distrusted each other, shared a desire to reassert church unity in their own lands and throughout Europe.

The active cooperation of zealous Catholic reformers and faithful Catholic monarchs proved to be an extraordinarily effective combination. To be sure, many quarrels remained within the church, especially as orders bickered with each other, with diocesan clergy, and with secular rulers, even as Catholic monarchs continued intermittently to plot against each other. Yet despite ongoing struggles within the Catholic Church, the reforms set in motion at Trent supported a massive renewal of Catholic energy, devotion, and success. So effective were these efforts at reform that the norms defined at Trent remained overwhelmingly dominant throughout the Catholic Church for nearly four hundred years. The uniformity achieved at Trent never resulted in an entirely uniform Catholic Church. National variances made for significant ongoing differences among Catholics. Yet the reforms were also significant. The record of the Jesuits displays remarkable faithfulness to Christianity, as well as remarkable flexibility to their missionary situation.”

The lessons of church history are applicable to our situation today. Today’s church is in need of reform. Today’s church is in need of increased missionary activity, including learning how to relate to the mission field that has moved into our own neighborhoods. The example of orders within the church shows how a disciplined spirituality can not only reform the nature and character of the church, but also significantly improve its participation in the mission of God in our world today.