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‘Meeting of Great Minds’ opens with smart, high-powered worship

Experts gather at Presbyterian Center to strengthen Vital Congregations initiative

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Denise Anderson, coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, preached during a Vital Congregations worship service Friday in the Chapel at the Presbyterian Center. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — Friday’s “Gathering of Great Minds” opened with inspired, Spirit-infused worship in the Chapel of the Presbyterian Center.

About 15 people — seminary faculty members and a president, mid council leaders and national staffers — are spending the day Friday looking at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Vital Congregations initiative and planning for its future.

According to its website, Vital Congregations works with pastors, church committees and mid councils to provide training, materials and consultation for all worshiping communities and in planting new congregations.

Leading music during worship Friday were, at left, Carlton Johnson, associate for Vital Congregations, and the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, associate for Theology and Worship. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Before rolling up their sleeves Friday, the group heard powerful preaching from the Rev. Denise Anderson, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice. Anderson preached on two well-known biblical passages: Ezekiel 37:1-10, the “Valley of Dry Bones,” and 1 Corinthians 12:12-26. (“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you! … On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty …)

Listing the seven marks of vital congregations — lifelong discipleship formation, intentional authentic evangelism, outward incarnational focus, empowering servant leadership, spirit-filled worship, caring relationships and ecclesial health — Anderson called that last one the most important.

“Without reasonable health, we can’t do much of anything,” she said. Both congregations and individuals “can’t do what they were created to do if the body isn’t coming along for the ride.”

Just try turning a doorknob with an arthritic hand. Stub your pinky toe and you’ll “learn just important that toe is,” she said.

And bodies can’t function without breath, as Ezekiel learned when the Spirit of God sat him down in that valley full of bones. Can these bones live? Only when Ezekiel prophesies to the breath, God’s ruach, the Hebrew word for “breath” or “spirit.”

“God’s Spirit adds to us and grows us,” Anderson said. That body may get leaner or bigger, “bubbling with energy or hunched over in pain. The skin covering it may be a little darker or a little more wrinkled. But as long as there’s ruach and pneuma (the Greek word for spirit), the Spirit is there and the church is still the church.”

Do churches want the jolt of a cup of strong coffee or the sustained energy that comes from eating the right things?

“Jolts are good if you just need help getting started,” she said. “But they can’t sustain us. We look for the jolt that comes from programs to put people in the pews. But Vital Congregations is not a jolt, friends. It seeks to return us to our breath.”

The Holy Spirit “is not a fairy godmother,” she said. “She encounters us to change the world.”

“Flesh decays and bones dry up, but the Spirit gives life. We have got to prophesy life. We won’t be silenced anymore.”

Communion is available to us not because we’re worthy, but because we are part of God’s family, according to the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Presiding at the communion table, the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, reminded the three dozen or so people in worship that they weren’t at Christ’s table through their own merits.

Add to that list “James and John, who had anger issues,” “Peter and his compulsive self with his switchblade in his pocket,” and Thomas the doubter, she said, also naming other disciples whom Jesus called to follow him despite their shortcomings.

“You got to the table because you are part of a family,” Moffett said. “We come with gratitude in honor of the One who has supplied the elements.”

After worship, the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill, coordinator of Vital Congregations, said she was eager to hear from the gathered great minds.

“We are very excited to have this group here today,” she said.

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