Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
June 10, 2018
Text: Matt. 28:19-20, O.T.: Lev. 19:15-18, N.T.: Matt. 28:16-20
It was hard to hear. Even harder to accept. But it was true.
I have served Jesus Christ as a Presbyterian minister since 1980. I am a life-long Presbyterian. I never thought I would hear what I heard last Saturday from our denomination’s highest church officer, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. His name is Jay Herbert.
The meeting was a gathering of mid-council leaders from western Pennsylvania who were concerned about the General Assembly raising per capita 43% for 2019. For those of us who pay per capita assessment, it meant raising the General Assembly’s portion of the assessment by $3.71 per person.
Not all church members pay their per capita. This forces responsible Sessions to use church members’ benevolence donations that are intended for Jesus Christ’s mission to pay the costs of General Assembly, synod, and presbytery meetings. Per capita expenses have increased in recent years for many reasons.
The reason most cited by Church leaders is congregations left our denomination. There are fewer Presbyterians to pay the per capita expenses that support the Church’s supervisory councils.
Within our own presbytery there are mission supporters like Don Dawson who say benevolence donations should not be used to pay per capita expenses. When a church member makes a benevolence gift, she or he does not expect their gift to be used to pay a per capita assessment. They expect their donation to be used for mission. Per capita expenses do not directly support Jesus Christ’s mission to make disciples. They pay expenses for supervising the Church.
Don Dawson argues making disciples is the church’s primary mission. Supervising the church as an institution does not directly involve being sent to make disciples. Don has directed the New Wilmington Mission Conference for 16 years. He also directed the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary during the same time.
Don retired from both last year. His commitment to Jesus Christ’s mission of disciple-making sent over 125 youth mission workers overseas from the New Wilmington Mission Conference, which included our own Jonathan Gusew.
The New Wilmington Mission Conference has sent over 400 students overseas in Christ’s mission since the Summer Service Program began in 1961 in its commitment to mission.
As director of the World Mission Initiative of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Don sent over 500 seminarians on mission trips overseas.
Don has supported General Assembly funding of over 100 foreign missionaries like Kay Day and Shelvis and Nancy Smith Mathers amid declining congregation support for General Assembly mission.
His commitment to Christ’s mission is without question. But his effort to bring accountability to the Church’s use of church member donations has fallen on deaf ears.
Since 2004, Don wrote four overtures to presbytery that benevolence expenses be used solely for mission and not to pay per capita. Presbytery finally approved his vision, in 2012. The Synod of the Trinity’s Permanent Judicial Commission rejected the presbytery’s practice on a protest by a Pittsburgh Presbytery member.
Presbytery leaders from around the country, routinely use undesignated benevolence donations from Sessions for funding synod and General Assembly per capita assessments. They defend the mostly unchallenged practice.
Most Sessions are unaware that presbytery leaders use donations intended for Christ’s mission to pay per capita expenses. Most clergy and elders don’t understand the byzantine world of church funding. Those who do remain silent about the practice. The deafening silence speaks volumes about the state of Christ’s mission in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
There is another reason, a greater reason why per capita funding is in jeopardy today. Beyond the theological arguments that led church members to leave the denomination, there is a hidden unaddressed reason for the decline in Church funding. It isn’t the increased number of Sessions who designate their benevolence giving for specific missionaries and mission outreach.
The hidden reason why per capita funding is in jeopardy is the loss of the church’s first mission field – her children. The second hidden reason why per capita funding is in jeopardy is the non-existence of the church’s second mission field, adults in the communities in which congregations are located.
The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly admitted that on Saturday. This was his shocking admission. “We don’t do evangelism in our congregations!” It was a stunning remark.
Finally, a statement of truth by a church leader. Jesus said, “The truth will set us free.” We have heard the truth.
Jay Herbert said even more. There is a fight going on over the distribution of church funding at the General Assembly level amid the decline in church membership. That fight is consuming the highest level of the church leadership.
Instead of the General Assembly focusing on the most critical problem behind diminishing size and number of congregations, church leaders are fighting over which Church agency will be funded amid declining donations.
The Church’s purpose is to make disciples, nothing else. It’s time we start listening to Jesus and serving Jesus’ command to make disciples.
Jesus Christ founded the church. Disciple-making is the Church’s purpose. Disciple-making is not elective. Disciple-making is Christ’s command. Matthew 28:19-20 is in the imperative voice. It’s Jesus’ declaration before His ascension. It is His last testament to the Church.
Disciple-making is uncomfortable for Presbyterians. It’s not in our DNA to make disciples. We are independent people who are leaders, not followers. Teaching ourselves to follow someone else is against our natural instincts.
We’re born into the Church. Infant baptism doesn’t give a choice. Being Jesus’ disciple is a birthright. It takes being a good person, raised by Christian parents, who rarely talk about Jesus, rarely pray in front of us, rarely encourage us to have a relationship with Jesus, and rarely if ever taught us it was our responsibility to make disciples. There are a few exceptions, of course.
Presbyterians give little thought to disciple-making. Our private lives are mirrored in church discussions. Elders rarely talk about disciple-making.
People joining Presbyterian churches are relieved to meet with the Session once for only a half hour and answer four simple questions.
“Do you renounce sin and its ways in this world?”
“Who is your Lord and Savior?”
“Do you trust in Him?”
“Will you be a faithful member of this church giving of yourself in every way and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?”
New members are expected to work on committees and already know about Jesus. They’re expected to make financial contributions in a pew envelope and be in church at least twice a year.
This is the bottom line of most Presbyterian disciple-making.
Adult baptisms are scarce, if at all. Confirmands are not taught to defend their faith in a culture that disowns Christ’s teachings about fidelity in marriage, loving your neighbor as yourself, prayer, studying and following God’s Word, seeking the salvation of other people, worshipping God.
Senior ministers are not driven to be interested in Christian education curriculum content or a confirmation goal of each youth making a faith statement about Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father. New member’s classes are not approached from the need to mentor and guide new members away from an increasingly secular culture who are biblically illiterate to appreciate the unique and irreplaceable teachings of Jesus Christ about worshipping God.
Bible memory is unnecessary since too many clergy don’t believe memorizing Bible passages helps to form a Christian conscience. Making a personal confession of faith, repenting, submitting to Christ are alien. Daily prayer, daily meditation upon God’s Word, daily service in Jesus’ name are for the overly religious, not the typical Presbyterian.
None of these is alien to Presbyterian disciple-making. Presbyterians embraced disciple-making in earlier times. Presbyterians were once clear. They had a choice to worship Jesus Christ as head of the Church, or, make the prevailing culture and civil government of the Land the head of the Church.
Presbyterians chose Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Yet I have heard young and old Presbyterian clergy today disown disciple-making in clergy conversations about the Church’s direction. I have yet to see national Church leadership make a concerted effort to teach biblical disciple-making to congregations that collectively are the Church.
For too many Presbyterians, disciple-making sounds like the Baptists, the Methodists, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It’s time to recover what was ours from the beginning.
The Church in which we are being reformed was last seen in the first century. Disciple-making was a three-year mentorship in faith formation, following lessons in The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles known as the Didache. It was a curriculum for mentoring adults into the faith. The Apostles were primarily concerned that new followers of Jesus were sincere and committed to Jesus.
Early Christian discipleship focused on knowing the difference between the Way of Life and the Way of Death. This is a lesson that has slipped from our memory and our teaching. We will talk more about this next week when we examine what it means to glorify God as Christ’s disciples.
But today, God’s Word is to accept Christ’s mission. Being Christ’s mission driven people is what Jesus expects of us. He isn’t concerned about whether we go through rituals of appearing to be Christians. He is concerned that we genuinely care about the Way of Life . . . His life . . . which models for us the abundant life God has given us in our Lord Jesus.