In the 87,000 miles that he has traveled since his election as moderator of the 220th General Assembly (2012), the Rev. Neal D. Presa said that although he has experienced the heartache of mid-councils and congregations in the midst of dramatic change in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), he still sees rays of hope.
“Even as we face enormous challenges as a denomination — where our first response might be to restructure our structures or rewrite our bylaws — these structural things are the last thing we need to do,” Presa told the opening session of the Moderator’s Colloquium on Ecclesiology, scheduled from April 23-25 at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (APTS), a sponsor of the event. “What we need is to first consider Christ’s durable and enduring call of what the church is to be and to do.”
Presa addressed his comments to the live audience at APTS at as well as those who gathered for the colloquium virtually via live web stream, teleconference, and Twitter feed to do the very thing that he said is called for in times of anxious change: to discuss the identity of the church.
The basic format of the colloquium—which is also sponsored by the Presbyterian Foundation—consists of seven presentations, followed by responses, panel discussions and a time for questions and answers. All of the papers have been posted on the colloquium website.
The Rev. David Stubbs, professor of theology and ethics at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich., and the first colloquium presenter April 23, commended Presa and GA vice-moderator Tom Trinidad for calling the colloquium together. “It feels quite important to me and exactly the right thing to do for where the church is today,” he said.
“The people of God are intended by God to be a liturgical-missional people,” he said, introducing his paper Locating the Liturgical-Missional Church in the Bible’s Story. “One can see this in the biblical story.”
A “liturgical-missional” vision of the people of God, Stubbs said, “is one in which God regularly gathers God’s people as a body around places where God is particularly present, and in this encounter with God’s mediated presence, the people of God are shaped, trained, and molded into the patterns of God’s reign, into the ways of shalom,” he explained.
“After this shaping encounter,” he continued, “they are sent into the world to represent and partially embody the coming reign of God in their life together and in their life in and towards the surrounding world.”
The central metaphor in Stubbs’s presentation was that of an “upside-down tornado,” which he explained by stating that “the church is a place in the world where the bottom-now-top of the ‘tornado’ comes into contact with God and God’s Kingdom, the ways of the Kingdom are funneled down into the worship and life of the church and then they are spun out into the world.”
He illustrated that image with seven stories— or moments — in the larger Biblical narrative which support a liturgical-missional vision of the church.
One example was the Sinai covenant with Moses, from which Stubbs concluded that the people of Israel “in their acts of confession, their offerings, their music, their celebratory meals in which God was an invited guest, simultaneously served God while being shaped by God.”
In her response, Allie Utley, a graduating APTS senior, said that Stubbs had made “a great case” for the church being both missional and liturgical.
“I particularly liked the example of the covenant at Sinai, where the people are called to be missional but also priestly,” she said. “The way that the patterns of worship shape the people of God is particularly relevant to the church today. Our lives are so saturated by rituals that don’t shape us to be a people of God.”
Utley identified two points in Stubbs’ presentation that she said could have been more explicitly spelled out: the use of patterns of lament in the face of injustice and how mission shapes worship.
In his response, APTS New Testament Professor Lewis Donelson said that while the core of Stubbs’s thesis was nicely done, any attempts to find coherence among the diverse texts of the Bible are fraught with difficulty.
“It’s typically the case with other overarching stories that these readings feel to me to be too general,” he said. “They soften too much the particular edges and voices of these stories.”
Donelson said, for example, that he thought it misleading to impose a single liturgical-missional matrix on the strikingly different theological voices found in the prophets. “I suppose similar comments could be made about all seven Biblical moments [Stubbs cited], and perhaps this is why all attempts heretofore to name the metanarrative that holds the Bible together have been mostly unconvincing.”
Donelson concluded, “The stories of the Bible seem to be so much richer than the big story that supposedly holds them together.”
Emily Enders Odom is communications coordinator for the Office of the General Assembly.