Essentials

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, July 15, 2021

Essentials

 First principles. Foundations. Roots.

We use various terms to describe things that are indispensable to our operations, our products, our projects, and our lives. That which endures the test of time is bedrock for our future, regardless of how different from our past our future may look.

That which changes is much more interesting than that which is always there. We talk about it more, we seek it out, we want to be on its leading edge. Novelty grabs headlines. Who doesn’t want to be interesting?

Durable underpinnings, by contrast, are often taken for granted. They go unnoticed. They are unremarkable, and thus hardly newsworthy. Yet apart from them, no future is secure.

Change is inevitable if we are to survive and thrive in an ever-changing world. But not all change is the same – it is often ephemeral, and as such primarily a distraction. But it can be necessary, and it can prove enduring. Key to making lasting changes is assuring that they are grounded in essentials.

For a church to thrive in its adaptation to a changing environment, it must be clear on and remain true to its essentials. The capacity for making creative changes that persist depends on keeping the core strong.

We have watched with horror the excruciating search for human remains in the rubble of the collapsed Champlain Towers luxury condominium in Surfside, Florida. Erosion of its foundation led to the collapse of homes that had been the envy of many.

If the church is to flourish in adapting to new challenges, it must be diligent in tending to its foundations. It can appear prosperous for a time while ignoring decay in its foundations, but eventually it will collapse.

We have only dim ideas of what the post-pandemic church will ultimately look like. It will take years for the church’s new face to become clear. But this much we know – the church will survive and thrive only to the extent that it stays true to its essentials.

Our Book of Order calls these essentials “Foundations,” and rightly places them at its outset. Over the years I have in this weekly letter explicated various aspects of these foundations of our life together. One small paragraph from that section is, in my view, the “footer” of the foundations for the church’s life. I have commented on it often over the years. We know it as the “Great Ends of the Church.” (Book of Order F-1.0304)

Interestingly, the Book of Order explains in some detail the other foundation stones it sets forth in its opening Foundations section. But not so for the “Great Ends” – they are presented bare-bones, and we are left to ourselves to flesh them out.

Our statement of the Great Ends of the Church may be one of Presbyterianism’s best gifts to the wider church. Fidelity to the Great Ends is one of the most reliable predictors of a church’s vitality, durability, and missional effectiveness, regardless of its size, location, age, or confessional tradition.

The post-pandemic church will need to change many of its rules if it is to adapt effectively to its new context. We will need to adjust our approach to our mission. Our operations manuals will need wholesale revision (and, I believe, significant downsizing). Our ability to imagine and implement those changes faithfully and fruitfully depends on how firmly we are grounded in the Great Ends.

Each congregation has a unique personality and a particular mission unlike that of any other. Congregations are not cookie-cutter franchises; each is an original, constituted by particular individuals and families, and shaped by the distinctive neighborhoods in which they live and serve. I love that each of the neighborhoods in our metropolitan region is unique – and thus each of our congregations has its own peculiar missional shape.

As different as they are, each of our congregations is built on a single foundational cornerstone, Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:11) That foundation, in turn, is built out by those who bear witness to him. (Ephesians 2:19-21) This foundational apostolic ministry is fleshed out beautifully in the Great Ends, which strikingly capture the core of the early church’s life and service. No Christian congregation can dispense with any of these foundation stones if it wishes to be a vital part of the mission of Jesus in the world. Congregations can vary greatly in how they organize, worship, serve, and more – but the essentials are, well, essential for all.

As we contemplate new trajectories for the post-pandemic church, it is especially urgent for us to remember the foundations of the church as laid out in the Great Ends. And so I will be unpacking the Great Ends for a post-pandemic church in the weeks to come. Stay tuned!

Your partner in ministry,

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