Renewing Disciple-Making

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
September 5, 2019

It was the summer of ’93 and the beginning of a new pastoral call, when someone approached me about plans for the upcoming Rally Day. I had no idea what “Rally Day” might be or how one might plan for it, despite being raised from infancy in the church. And I’d been a minister at another Presbyterian congregation previously.

I discovered that “Rally Day” is a long-established tradition in many Presbyterian churches, the day on which we launch the new program year, usually near the time the school year begins. Children in church school may be promoted to a new class, just as they are at grade school. New teachers begin their work, new curriculum makes its debut. New energy for teaching and learning the way of Jesus abounds once again, following the restorative summer vacation break. Everything is new. Or so we hope.

The God of the Bible delights in doing new things. God’s creative work doesn’t end at the beginning of Genesis; it’s only just begun. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of new things God does. First, God creates new things that are utterly unprecedented and unexpected. Old things are replaced and discarded in favor of something new. This is the nature of what God promises to do in Isaiah: “Do not remember the former things, or consider things of old. I am about to do a new thing….” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

There is a second kind of new thing that God does – renovation, rather than replacement. God makes old things new. (Revelation 21:5) The words “renewal” and “revival” capture this sense of God’s “new thing.” Rally Day usually tries to stir up this sort of new thing, a new investment in established approaches to making disciples.

We need some of both kinds of “new things” in order to flourish. We need some entirely new forms of ministry, and we need to reinvigorate some of our existing forms. We need to beware the tendency to think that if something isn’t working as well as it used to, all we need to do is to work it harder to achieve former results. It’s like trying to turn the dial of an old phone faster and faster to keep up with technology, rather than discarding it for a smartphone.

As we gear up to begin this program year, what brand new things are we trying out, in order to more faithfully and fruitfully make disciples? What have we discarded to make room for these new ventures? And what are we doing to renovate existing programs, so they can more effectively accomplish their goals?

Umberto Eco’s classic novel The Name of the Rose recounts the controversy wracking the Church over the 14th-century rediscovery of Aristotle’s works. The hero, a Franciscan monk, wants the Church to be open to the new possibilities that this discovery has unleashed, while monastery leaders try desperately to hang on to old ways that they know how to control, grounded in the thought of Plato. In one classic scene the abbot describes theology at its best as “Recapitulation, glorious recapitulation!” It is the pathway that leads to the monastery’s horrific destruction.

On Rally Day, or any other juncture in our church life, it is easy to slide into recapitulation mode, which is a sure road to death. The God of new things challenges us to be open to doing something we’ve never done before, for the sake of the Gospel. Reach someone entirely new. Create an entirely new venue for talking about who God is, who we are, and what God has done for us. Take field trips to other congregations that are flourishing, and try something new to you that is working well for them.

Many of our cherished ways of teaching the faith are still sturdy, but their effectiveness may be greatly enhanced with renovation. For instance, we say we want young families, but hesitate to provide them free child care because we’ve never done so in the past. We cloak that hesitation by appealing to liability avoidance. Well now may be the time to provide free child care for any activity in which we hope younger families might participate, whatever safe church policies and practices that might require of us.

A recent study of North American church trends found that nearly all denominations are experiencing some decline in membership. The few exceptions all share one common feature – members participate in at least one church activity beyond Sunday morning worship attendance. And essentially that’s what Rally Day is – an attempt to draw God’s people into ways of nurturing their lives as disciples beyond the formal worship hour. Now that is truly worth rallying for!

Looking for renewal,

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