July 8 – Teaching Elder or Recreational Furniture Specialist?

Our denomination’s new Form of Government takes effect on Sunday.  For most of us this news is about as exciting as hearing that your dentist’s new billing software goes online next Tuesday.  In fact, there may be more to like about your dentist’s new billing software.

I have made no secret of my unhappiness with the new Form of Government, nFOG.  From the bland universalism of its foundational statements to the trendy vacuity of its radical inclusivity, from its anxiety about bureaucratic control to its abdication of responsibility for any ordination standards, there’s a lot I don’t like about the new Form of Government. The best case scenario for nFOG is that it will impact the life of our congregation about as much as my dentist’s new billing software impacts the life of my family. I hope we don’t notice it.

But there is at least one thing I like about nFOG.  I like my new job, or should I say my new title.  In the old FOG I was officially ordained into the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament, which made me eligible to be the pastor of a local congregation.  I am still eligible to be the pastor of a local congregation, but the office I bear is now called Teaching Elder.

Teaching Elder is not a new term in Presbyterianism. In fact, it is a very old and honorable term to which we return after twenty-five years of using the awkward “Word and Sacrament” title, a vestige of some serious liturgy and vestment envy we went through in the 80’s.

Teaching Elder.  It says something about who we are and what we value. I do a lot of administration around the church, but I am not the church’s CEO. I love to see ministry programs effectively designed and creatively executed, but I am not the church’s Program Director. It is a high privilege to come alongside members in times of confusion, hurt, or great joy, but I am not the Therapist in Residence. I want to see our church grow – more people come to a saving relationship with Christ – but I am not the church’s professional Evangelist.

Teaching Elder. There is something to be taught. We have something to learn. The Shema, the Apostles’ Creed of Judaism (“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one…”), commanded the people to teach diligently to their children the words God commanded. The Risen Jesus told his disciples that their task was to make disciples of all nations, to baptize and to teach all that he had commanded. The Apostle Paul told young Timothy that the Scriptures are “profitable for teaching.”

With a slight variation on the familiar phrase, we might say that our job at LPC is to “teach the life of Jesus.”

The Presbyterian Church is not alone in its precipitous decline in membership and vitality.  The North American church as a whole is teetering on an irrelevance that if not reversed will, in time, be followed by its institutional death. Nearly all North American church growth is among immigrant communities or merely membership transfers between congregations. We are not well.

So is our rebranding of pastors as Teaching Elders sort of like rebranding the deckhands on the Titanic as recreational furniture specialists? No. I hope not.

If the church is to regain relevance it will not be in its futile search for relevance. It will be in its ability to teach and to learn what God has given us to teach and to learn. His Word.

At the recent PCUSA “Big Tent” conference, one of the speakers, James Choung, InterVarsity’s Asian American Ministries Director, offered keen insight into three generations of the several that make up our generation. He noted that each asks a slightly different question:

  • Baby Boomers ask, “What is true?”
  • GenXers asks, “What is real?”
  • Millennials ask, “What is good?” (Read more here)

If Choung has it right, and I think he does, then the church with its gospel message could not be more relevant. What is true? The Word of God.  What is real? The love of God? What is good? The mission of God.

And if you phrase the questions just slightly differently – Who is true? Who is real? Who is good? – there is but one answer.

We in the church have a lot or work to do on our teaching techniques, but the content of our teaching needs only be true to “the faith once received.” No need to change the gospel.

By the way, I may be the only Teaching Elder at LPC, but I am not the only teacher. Every parent, every youth group leader and Vacation Bible School volunteer, every choir member and committee worker, every short term missionary and compassionate friend; every disciple, each member, is a teacher.  We have something, someone, to teach. And to learn.