Re-defining the Mainline’s Mission

I had the privilege of attending graduation ceremonies at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. It was a beautiful event. Being a Presbyterian I had to face facts, the Episcopalians just do a better job at this sort of thing. There were women and men in full regalia, a brass quintet, and the requisite pomp and circumstance surrounding the reading of the Gospel text; it put us to shame, and that was before we got to the Eucharist. They pulled all the stops out for that: beautifully choreographed movements, excellent wine, and then there was the incense – lots of incense – waved to the north, the south, the east , and the west. Then each section of the congregation bowed and the incense was waved toward us, after which we bowed again. (I wonder if I could get away with doing that at my church . . . probably not.) I spoke to someone after the ceremony who said that after all these years celebrating it, the Eucharist gave her a sense of God’s steady, immovable presence even in the worst of times.

A Bishop from Ohio delivered the homily. It was excellent. He described the incredible mission challenge laid before the church in this time and place. He recited all those church death statistics that keep us preachers up at night. He finished with the call to engage in a radically new kind of ministry; he called us to look for the Spirit to do something so fresh that it will likely be hard for we traditionalists to recognize it. (At least that’s what I understood him to say.)

I’ve got to tell you, the juxtaposition of sermon and ceremony was mind boggling. All that incredibly beautiful tradition against the backdrop of a homily that correctly points toward its demise.

I confess I had the very same feeling as I read Gathering at God’s Table: the Meaning of Mission in the Feast of Faith, by Katherine Schori. On the one hand, it provided the reader with a challenge to take up the call, just as it offered a broad, biblically based, “missional” view of church. On the other hand, it did so using such traditional forms of language that it left my head spinning. For the reader who can listen to traditional forms of theological language with an open heart, the questions Dr. Schori offers at the end of each section stir the imagination and the heart to greater engagement with the mission of the church. It is true that the mainline church seems to have lost its direction and purpose, surely a book that understands, and seeks to correct that, is needed. A friend of mine recently said, “The church acts as though John’s Gospel says, ‘For God so loved the Church that . . . ,” but of course it says something very different and that something different is exactly what Gathering at God’s Table seeks to address. For that, I am grateful.

About Sam Alexander

Sam Alexander is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael and also serves as Adjunct Instructor in Homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary.


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