The Gift of a New Frame

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Brian R. Wallace
Associate Minister
July 25, 2019

When I was in college, I spent a few weeks in Europe studying Reformation History, which means that one of my lectures on John Calvin was in Geneva in his church. The trip was, by far, the most engaging church history class I’ve ever taken. My trip to Europe was also the first time I had traveled with a high-quality camera and, when I returned, I dropped off 13 rolls of 36-exposure, 400 speed film to be processed. When I got all the prints back, I selected a couple that I especially liked and went to the store to find frames for them. I remember learning two things in shopping for frames. 1) Frames matter. The right style and color of a frame can make a picture pop and take on dimensions it wouldn’t otherwise. Conversely, the wrong frame can make a good photo look terrible. 2) Frames are expensive.When we talk about frames in our work, we aren’t often thinking of a literal picture frame, but rather thinking of frameworks – theological, ecclesiastical, etc. More succinctly, frameworks describe the way that we learn to interpret, adapt, and integrate what we’re learning into our worlds. I’ve come to believe that one of the most crucial skills in ministry, in particular as we move into an increasingly fragmented and technologically connected era, is the willingness and ability to re-frame a concept or tool and contextualize for our purposes. An example might help explain.There is a particular ministry organization that I’ve utilized and recommended to others. They write curriculum, they host events, and they develop other ministry resources including volunteer training content, etc. When I mention this organization, I often get two types of responses. In PCUSA-type circles it’s usually like this: “Well, I’m not sure about them, they’re not Presbyterian or Reformed, plus they’re connected to an evangelical mega-church, so I don’t trust them.” In other circles, the response runs more along the lines of “I read a few blog posts about a couple of sermons one of the pastors who is connected to them preached, and I’m not sure they’re biblically orthodox: I wouldn’t trust them.”

To be clear, I don’t take issue with either of these responses as these are legitimate concerns. Rather, my concern is at the seeming unwillingness to adapt, or in my word, re-frame the materials and utilize them appropriately. The truth is that, after years of doing ministry, I find myself continually modifying and adjusting every resource I use. In using a lot of curriculum, I find myself putting a “reformed spin” on it shifting the focus of the lesson a little bit or adding a relevant quote from the Book of Confessions.  But what I find, time and time again, is that re-framing is a whole lot less work than writing from scratch and it often encourages me to explore topics and parts of scripture I wouldn’t be naturally inclined to explore. The truth is that, thanks to technology, our access to curriculum and resources has never been greater. Whether it be traditional print curriculum and digital downloadables or “secular” resources such as YouTube videos and podcasts from all variety of leaders, much of the content around us can be valuable for the church’s ministry when we re-frame it and present it appropriately.

In the world of youth ministry, I’ve run into this for years with one of the hallmarks of youth camps and retreats: decision night (or altar call, commitment night, 20 minutes of silence, etc.). In short, it’s the night that the speaker challenges the kids to commit or re-commit their lives to Christ. If some of you cringed a little in reading that, you’re in good company. And to be clear, there are ways in which this can be done that are manipulative and inappropriate no matter your theological background (at 11:00 PM or with the lead-in of “If your van crashes tomorrow on the way home, do you know where you’ll spend eternity?”). But over the years, I’ve learned to relax, listen carefully, and in our group time afterward to de-brief and to help the kids re-frame what they heard into more familiar language. As I’ve had the chance to do this more and more, I’ve come to enjoy the process because it allows me to deepen the level of conversation about what it means to make a commitment to Jesus Christ and to live a Kingdom-oriented life. Just like the perfect picture frame does for a photo, re-framing a concept or a resource in a way that fits a specific context can bring a depth and richness to something that otherwise just not fit at all.

One of our ordination questions is as follows: Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love? Of those four words, the one that always rings true to me and challenges me the most is that word imagination. I don’t often think of imagination as one of the critical resources for ministry. But I do wonder if, as we approach 2020 and beyond, that using our imaginations amid the media and the resource-rich world in which we find ourselves might not be a critical path forward as we seek to faithfully engage the world around us in being faithful to the mission to which God calls us.

In Christ,

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