You can take the pastor out of the church, but you can’t take the Church out of the pastor.
Things I miss from my evangelical days
I love much about being Presbyterian, but it’s time for these “frozen chosen” to thaw out beside the fires of our evangelical brethren.
by Derrick L. Weston
I have a confession to make. I wasn’t raised Presbyterian.
I know. Shocking.
Not only am I a black man in a denomination that is 91.3 percent white, but I’m a black man who chose to enter this denomination.
I grew up first in an Assemblies of God church, then in a Pentecostal, non-denominational church. How I made my way over to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is another post for another time, but the moves were intentional. As I got older, there were some things that made me very uncomfortable with my church of origin, particularly its emphasis on the prosperity gospel. The idea that the state of one’s finances and health is in direct correlation to one’s faith in God (and to God’s will) contradicts so much of what Scripture teaches us. It is a poison infecting many, primarily in oppressed communities. These preachers build their wealth off the desperation of their congregants and achieve a pseudo-celebrity status that flies directly in the face of the humility and simplicity commanded by Christ. Even at a young age this bothered me. The fact that these congregations were also mixed up in right wing politics wouldn’t hit me until my 20s.
All that said, there were some good things about my background—things that draw upon some of the richest parts of our spiritual history, things that have felt like losses in my progressive, mainline world. We jokingly refer to ourselves as the “frozen chosen,” and while I appreciate the ability to laugh at ourselves, I often see it as doubling down on an unwillingness to change. There is some thawing out that needs to happen in parts of our church, and I want to highlight just a few places where we could stand to be warmed by the moving of the Spirit. I should warn you, there will be a few broad generalizations along the way.
There was nothing “decent and orderly” about the worship of my childhood church. It was Spirit-led. The musicians—an accomplished group that could have performed at any number of venues—fed off the energy of the congregation. Sometimes we’d spend 15 minutes on one song, reprising the chorus or a line that seemed to hold particular energy.
The idea of charismatic worship seems to terrify most mainliners. For some, it is simply about the style of music. I have heard friends refer to praise and worship songs as “happy clappy” or “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” music. There’s an emotionalism in contemporary forms of worship that our heady churches tend to shy away from, and yet I think we miss the ways that heart, head, and hands connect when worship becomes so pre-packaged and pre-programmed. Yes, I think that this form of worship can be emotionally manipulative at times, but traditionally oppressed people have relied on their places of worship for their emotional purging. Worship can be catharsis. It can be release. It can be cleansing. I just don’t see that in many mainline churches.
It makes me sad to say that the most diverse churches I have ever been to are churches where I could not buy into their theology. The church I grew up in was intentionally racially diverse. It was the cornerstone of the church’s identity, and they put their money where their mouths were by hiring a diverse staff, having diverse styles of music, and making sure that you were never at any church function without seeing a face that looked like yours. We have to own the fact that many of our mainline churches were planted in order to maintain homogeneity and that challenges to that homogeneity have led many churches to relocate or decline in numbers. A warming to the idea of diversity means being ready for uncomfortable culture clashes, conflicting ideas of “tradition,” and wrestling with understandings of identity. In other words, it requires letting go of control.
Ironically, the church I grew up in was initially located in a building that was once a Presbyterian church. The congregation, for reasons I can easily imagine, had decided to locate to a different neighborhood. I wonder what would have happened if that congregation would have decided to stay in that place, minister to the people of that community, and adapt to the changing environment. Maybe I would have grown up Presbyterian.
Last week, a new friend said she would like to pray for me. Not “I’ll be praying for you” or “You will be in our prayers,” but “I’m going to pray for you.” Right here. Right now. When I ran in more evangelical circles, this was a regular occurrence. People dropped what they were doing to pray. We prayed for the sick. We prayed during hard meetings. We prayed when something awesome had just happened! Prayer was spontaneous, free, and heavily relational.
Many of my colleagues in the Presbyterian world have a hard time with spontaneous prayer. Unless a prayer is written out before them, they fumble over words. It feels inauthentic, as if they believe the audience for the prayer is the other people in the room. Evangelicals tend to teach from a young age that prayer is simply conversation with God. It is speaking your joys and concerns to the air, knowing that they will not fall on deaf ears. I worry that our prayer lives have become cold and mechanical.
I chose to join the PC(USA) because there were things that I felt were missing from my childhood church experience. We have a rich history and tradition. We value educated pastors, and we have built-in systems of accountability that, at their best, keep individuals from abusing their power. I appreciate all those things. I just hope that, as we dream of what church can be, we loosen our grip on old ways of being and become the warm, welcoming, Spirit-led church we are meant to be.
Derrick L. Weston is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a community builder for the 29th Street Community Center, and cohost of the podcast God Complex Radio.