A Review of “Flawed Church, Faithful God”

A review of Flawed Church, Faithful God: A Reformed Ecclesiology for the Real World by Joseph D. Small (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018)
by Allen McSween

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Small is exactly the right person to write a much needed Reformed ecclesiology for our time. He is a consummate churchman, having served as a pastor, theological educator, ecumenical delegate, and for many years Director of the PC (USA) Office of Theology and Worship. In this book he offers the whole church a deeper understanding of its essential identity. Small insists that the church is not merely a human construct or an idealized abstraction. The church is a communion of flawed human beings that is called into being by the Triune God who guides and sustains it through its often stumbling journey through history and who alone can fulfill its promise “in the fullness of time, when all walls will fall, all who are scattered are gathered, and the multitude will live together.” (219)

What is most commendable in this challenging and compelling book is the way in which Small combines a clear-eyed realism as to the flaws and failings of the church with a profound biblical/theological understanding of how the risen, reigning Christ is fully present and powerfully at work in all aspects of its life through Word and Sacrament in the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Small opens his Preface with an intriguing quote from John Updike: “A company of believers is like a prisonful of criminals: their intimacy and solidarity are based on what about themselves they can least justify.” (xiii) In similar fashion, Small says, “the church is a communion of intimacy and solidarity because of what it cannot justify about itself coupled with recognition that its justification lies in the grace of God. Only as the church knows that its life is not self-generated and maintained can it witness faithfully to the God who generates and maintains it.” (xiv) That theme of the radical dependence of the church on the covenant faithfulness of God runs throughout the book.
Small has no illusions about the church. He knows well the church’s captivity to the consumerist ideology that seeks to manage and market the church as if we were in control of its faith and life. He writes, “As purveyors of religious goods and services in a consumer-driven market economy, churches are susceptible to the short leaps from the commodification of the church to the commodification of faith to the commodification of God,” (21) which is precisely the idolatry of which the church is always tempted, especially in our American context.

But even more importantly, Small knows and explicates clearly the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” that continues to form and reform the church as the living (wounded) body of Christ in and for the world. “The call of the Christus praesens comes to the church: turn around, reorient your life, trust the good news and follow me…. The church’s all-too-evident reality of division, accommodation, exclusion, and forgetfulness is judged, but it is only known fully in light of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose call to repentance is his invitation to hope that does not lie in human capacity but in the capacity and purpose of God.” (199-200)

Throughout his career Joe Small has been involved in ecumenical conversations, and throughout this book we hear his passionate call for the church to be the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” God intends it to be. Over against our too easy acceptance of our myriad divisions, Small insists that “Christ’s call to unity among the various congregations, denominations, and world communions into which the church is divided is clear and audible. Nowhere in Scripture is there a hint of satisfaction with the disunity of the people of God.” (200) That is an important word for those of us who are all too comfortable in our cozy ecclesiastical cocoons.
Of particular importance are Small’s chapters on “People of God” and “In our Time” in which he explores the relationship between Israel and the church and contemporary Jewish-Christian relations. Small rejects any Christian supersessionism, insisting that, “If the New Testament is read in ways that denigrate Israel and the Jewish people, Christian understanding of who God is and how God acts in the world is diminished.” (144) We both and together are the People of God.

Flawed Church, Faithful God is by no means a quick and easy read. Throughout the book there are sentences that jump off the page and demand to be pondered at length. On every page there are remarkable insights into the history and theology of the church that shed light on a wide range of contemporary issues. (The Bibliography itself is eight pages!) It has rightly been suggested that this book is the summa of Small’s long and distinguished career in the church. As such, it could serve well to carry on his service to the church if this book were required reading in all our seminaries and if it was strongly commended, as I hope this review has done, to all who serve as pastors and educators in the clearly Flawed Church that nevertheless is upheld and empowered by the ever Faithful God. Tolle lege!

Open Hearts, Open Doors

Here is a big question: What is “the church?”

As hard as it is to admit, sometimes we fall into the trap of reducing “the church” to the buildings where people gather on Sunday mornings.But let’s move past that idea of buildings, of structures. Of walls. “The church” is the people—it is you and me.

The church’s makeup may be determined by opening its doors and welcoming people in, but the church’s identity is defined by opening its doors and joining with the most vulnerable of God’s children in the world. In Isaiah 58, God issues a call and a challenge—to open our doors and share what we have with those in need. The church’s identity reflects the call of Isaiah to become repairers of the breach.

One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS) is our direct response to the ways in which God has called us to share, to repair, to bring hope. It is the single, largest way Presbyterians come together to become the church with all the people we see.

Through OGHS, we open our doors to join those dependent on outsiders for food, those who now receive seeds and silos to sustain a future for their children and communities; to partner with those whose land and livelihoods are threatened and who now receive legal aid and protection for the land that is rightfully theirs; and to work alongside those whose homes and loved ones have been lost to a catastrophic event, offering hands to help rebuild and prayers to help restore.Let us open our doors, again and again, to see the vulnerable we’ve been called to stand with and to serve, to share through this offering the love of Christ by ministries of justice, compassion, and joy, and to become, not THIS church on THIS corner, but CHRIST’S church in the whole world.

Join us for One Great Hour of Sharing.  Find resources here.

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Christian Ethics for a Digital Society

Book Review
by Rev. TJ Remaley (Associate Pastor St. Giles) 

At first glance, there seem to be two competing narratives about the prevalence of digital technologies in our society. One perspective holds that the incredible advances and benefits offered by modern technologies are evidence that such products are inherently “good” for humanity. The other perspective, citing troubling statistics of increased isolation and adverse health risks, render such technologies as “bad.”

The reality, as with virtually everything else in postmodern society, falls somewhere between the either/or binary these two perspectives would suggest. Suffice it to say that modern technologies – like all technological innovations that have come before – can be used both for the wellbeing of society and for evil, destructive purposes. (For just one example, the same social media product that helped to fuel a democratic uprising in several oppressed nations also provided the platform for outside forces to influence democratic elections in our own nation!).

In what ways have digital technologies improved the health and wellbeing of society? How has the power of technology been used to foster the peace and justice of God’s Kingdom? In what ways have digital technologies led to toxic habits and forces individually and societally? How have we as technological consumers been complicit – perhaps even unknowingly – in those forces? For the Christian community, most studies of the use of technologies to this point have arisen from one of the two aforementioned binary perspectives; the literary landscape is ripe for a more thoughtful, nuanced approach. To adequately navigate the complexities of the modern world, we must first be aware of, and have a basic understanding of, the broader ethical questions that arise from them. Naturally, this can only be accomplished through obtaining a working knowledge of the subject.

Enter Kate Ott’s new book, Christian Ethics for a Digital Society. As a theological ethicist and seminary professor, Ott has spent much of her career focused on matters of human sexuality. Through her newest scholarly work on technology, however, she argues that for Christians to utilize technologies in an ethical, life-giving manner, they must first become digitally literate. Ott practices what she preaches here, beginning the text with an acknowledgement of her own limited understandings before demonstrating her efforts to become more digitally literate alongside her research of some of the most compelling ethical questions of our time.

The text examines several important topics, each through her cogent ethical voice: the use of algorithms and predictive analytics, the creation of a digital identity, the rise of ethical hacking, the presence of archives as limitless memory, and technology’s often unseen impacts on ecological and social issues. Her detailed review of these topics – each paired with appropriate theological and biblical perspectives, and coupled with a “ripped from the headlines” excursus –  offer a wonderful contribution to the field of Christian Ethics. Each of these topics includes plenty of fodder that would serve as a foundation to delve even deeper. Fortunately, to encourage such study, Ott offers extensive bibliographical endnotes.

It will be no secret to most readers of this review that I am thought of as being digitally literate and technologically aware. My thorough engagement with technology has undoubtedly become a part of my identity: from my childhood using the earliest full-color Macs, to my time as a technology educator, to my current pastoral ministry that includes a passion for the creative use of digital technologies in furthering the mission of the church. I am also a self-proclaimed news junkie, particularly around topics of modern technologies and their impacts on the world. I nevertheless encountered numerous theo-ethical considerations in Ott’s research to which I had never given any real thought. That is to say: technological power-users and digital novices alike will be challenged by this text, and readers of all levels of technological knowledge and ability will discover plenty of food for thought. Christian Ethics for a Digital Society is a timely contribution to the field of Christian Ethics, and a wonderful resource for anyone wishing to more deeply examine the ethical ramifications of their technological life.


Ott, Kate M. Christian Ethics for a Digital Society. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Stretching our Faith in Westminster

By: Reverend Audrey Reese

“The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” ~Job 33:4

On January 7th, 2019, a diverse group of women gathered in Gossett Hall. These women ranged in age and ability, political ideology and faith formation. Among us were almost 18 year olds and nearly 80 year olds. One woman came in and said, “I can get down, but you’re going to have to get me back up.”

What type of church gathering would require someone to make such a statement? Holy Yoga. Lead by young Clara, a newly certified Yoga instructor and a child of Westminster Presbyterian (Westminster,) this group of diverse women began a spiritual and physical journey of stretching our faith.

Clara began our weekly gatherings with Scripture, and after some stretching and strength training, she gave us a minute to catch our breath (literally) and read more Scripture. The first week, Clara took it easy on us, and focused on stretching and breathing. She found various Scriptures about breath, including the Scripture above from the book of Job, and asked us to think on that—what does it mean that God’s breath is the breath of life?

As our joints snapped, crackled, and popped, we couldn’t help but let out a grunt or a giggle. In most studios, many of us inexperienced yogis might have been reprimanded, or at the very least given a hard stare. But Clara embraced the noises coming from those of us a little less flexible. In the first session, a very devout woman who takes all things seriously leaned over as she was attempting to get into “Downward Facing Dog,” and said to me, “Where’s the floor?” I couldn’t help but let out a loud guffaw. Soon all of us were giggling.

And yet, as we met each week, we got a little more serious, were able to stretch a little further, and embraced something new. At our last Session, Clara, who has become quite the preacher, read from 2 Corinthians 12: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” Clara began our final session with a statement on how society teaches us to “fix” our perceived weaknesses, but God calls on us to rely on God’s grace to sustain us and make us stronger. She even went so far as to say that we are made perfectly in God’s image, just the way we are. As someone who is currently dieting and trying to lose a little weight, I felt like I had just heard a three minute sermon. It was a powerful and humble moment to hear a child of God, one raised in my church, proclaim such a powerful word and bear witness to God’s grace, love, and mercy.

But here’s what stands out to me about this small,but mighty in Spirit church: A thriving church will try new things, and not be afraid to embrace something that may seem “secular” or “different.” We had some folks drop off throughout the month, mostly because of physical limitations, but that nearly 80 year old who couldn’t find the floor found a chair, and learned how to use the chair to achieve a modified downward facing dog. It was beautiful to me to watch these women gather weekly and share silence, breath, and meditation with one another. We were studying God’s Word but we didn’t have to talk. (That was a big bonus for one woman, who is a licensed therapist and spends most of her day talking.) We were stretching ourselves physically and exploring new aspects of our faith. We laughed and giggled when a pose was uncomfortable or we found ourselves flopping to the ground during the “chaturanga” thing that lead us to a lower plank and back onto the ground.

And as we ended our final session in the prayer pose with a “Namaste,” I couldn’t help but give thanks to God for this special church that is so willing to be organic in how we do ministry.

Reflections Bonclarken 2018

I am Lucas, and this is my second year on the Presbytery Youth Council. I have been to Bonclarken five times. The first three with my church, and the other two as a PYC leader. On our planning retreat, we talked about issues that we dealt with when we were in middle school and eventually came up with the theme, “Perfectly Imperfect.” Our keynoter shared her vision for the keynotes talking about how we are all made imperfectly for our own purpose by God. This year [due to Hurricane Florence] we really didn’t have a lot of planning time. We had one meeting where every team had to get all their planning done. I was placed on the Recreation team, and we wanted to design a small group rec event with a variety of games which gave everyone opportunities to get involved and have fun. We also tried to pick games that require teamwork. I think the keynotes were very relevant to many people and connected with them. What was the most powerful thing, to me, was the worship service on Sunday morning.

Every church group had their youth group involved in one aspect of leading worship. I believe this allowed a lot of the youth to really think about, and reflect on, the things they heard throughout the weekend. They wrote some amazing Prayers, a Call to Worship, Call to our Offering, etc. It really showed that they were hearing, and what the PYC was hoping they would hear. Thank you all who support PYC: All our churches, ministers, and youth leaders are appreciated because none of our work is possible without their support.

Lucas Conti
Senior at Ft. Inn Presbyterian

My name is Ella Casto-Waters, and I’m an active member of First Presbyterian Church Greer. I’m also serving my first term on the Presbyterian Youth Council. I’ve attended the Foothills Presbytery Middle School Retreat at Bonclarken three times: twice as a youth and once as a PYC leader. Each time I’ve been to Bonclarken I’ve had a great experience that has helped me grow in my faith. The PYC started planning this retreat back in August at our leadership retreat. We gathered and discussed our middle school experiences and what themes represent those experiences. Together, we decided on “Perfectly Imperfect.”Lauren Slingerland was the keynoter for the weekend, and we were fortunate enough to have her at our planning meeting. Lauren thoughtfully contributed to our discussions and brilliantly turned our ideas into worship services. At our last meeting, Lauren worked with us to make props and visual aids for the different keynotes. Everything came together beautiful. Every aspect of the retreat was well thought-out and put together. The small group manual was extremely well-written and included activities that were directly related to the scriptures of the weekend. I was impressed by how natural the connection between keynote, small group, and recreation seemed. My favorite part of the retreat was watching the youth lead worship on Sunday morning. It was such a joy to listen to the kids’ interpretations of the theme and what they were taking away from the weekend. Retreats like this past one at Bonclarken are made possible because of the support from Foothills Presbytery. So, thank you. To the churches and individuals that support the ministry of the Presbyterian Youth Council: thank you. Your commitment to our organization means so much to us and to the youth of this Presbytery.

Ella is a Sophomore at Greer High school



Forever Memories

By Gracelyn and Ali Latham

Two sisters share how the summer mission opportunities at Easley Presbyterian created memories for a lifetime.


Middle School Mission Ministry:
Going to Asheville Youth Missions is an empowering experience that middle schoolers at Easley Presbyterian Church have the opportunity to go through for three years in a row.  Unfortunately, this past year was my last attending AYM, seeing that I am in my first year of high school now, but the memories I have made will stay with me forever.  While in Asheville, we are tasked with many different projects that help the less fortunate in and around the area.  During the week, my group went to 12 Baskets Cafe, the Veteran’s Restoration Quarters, Vance Peace Elementary School Garden, and the Homeward Bound Donation Center.

The first day at Vance Peace Elementary, we were able to go to their garden and help spread mulch and pull weeds.  Although it was very sunny and hot, we all were inspired by the children that attend the school and were able to meet one of them, and she told us all about how much she loved going to a school that has a garden they are able to tend to and learn from.  The second half of the day we went to the Homeward Bound Donation Center.  This is a place where anyone in the community can donate household items, anything from microwaves and kitchen knives to couches and desk chairs.  These items will then be inventoried and given out to people who just recently bought a place to live, but still don’t have enough money to be able to afford simple things that are needed to live abundantly.

The second day we went to 12 Baskets Cafe, a restaurant that receives donated food from local restaurants and cooks it new the next day and gives it out for free.  While there, my group was able to talk to people who explained their life stories to us and gave us advice on how to become better people and better Christians.  Personally, I saw God in every single one of those people that I talked to because I was able to hear their own unique life experiences and how God helped them through all the bad times and how He was there for them through all the good.  On the last day, we went to the Veterans’ Restoration Quarters, or VRQ.  The VRQ is a place to keep veterans from living on the streets.  My group went to the one that housed only male veterans, and we were able to eat lunch with them and sort out clothes that were donated to the VRQ.

Overall, Asheville Youth Mission 2018 (insert link) was an amazing trip that I was lucky enough to experience.  God was with every person on that trip, along with everyone we were able to meet and talk to.

Senior High Mission Ministry:

Getting to go to New Mexico for the mission trip was an incredibly opportunity that I will never forget. God truly led me to see so many amazing things and new experiences.

While in New Mexico on the Navajo Indian Reservations, my fellow youth members and I got to experience a new culture, worship God, and touch the lives of the natives that lived there. We got to meet so many people and had such deep and meaningful conversations with the locals who were so open to us and invited us into their homes and taught us how they live. It was a wonderful experience because not only did we learn about their way of life, but we got to tell them all about our lives too. They asked about our church and community and loved to hear everything we had to say about ourselves.

During our week in the hot deserts of New Mexico, we got to go to several different houses around the place we were staying and help out so many families. The physical work we did included painting, digging holes and trenches, roofing, cleaning and so much more.

Each mission trip I have been on has touched me in different ways. Also, each mission trip helps me to grow closer to God and the members of my youth group. I never would have expected how close people can get until I went on a trip with Easley Presbyterian Church. I have been going there my whole life and have met some of my best friends there and still, we all grow closer each trip we take.

EPC is definitely my second home and we take that with us everywhere we go. This summer we took our love and fellowship to Navajo, New Mexico and spread our love to so many others!

Gracelyn is a freshman at Easley High School
Ali is a senior at Easley High School



VBS 2018-Together, We are God’s Family


Vacation Bible School, those words can bring excitement, anxiety, stress and worry as churches look for ways to share the stories of faith with our children.

This year, an idea was born when Eastminster Presbyterian, Fountain Inn Presbyterian and FPC Simpsonville celebrated Epiphany together with our children. The Epiphany Party was such a success that someone said, “what if we combined for Vacation Bible School this year.” So, the journey began.

We decided on a one day format and Joan Jones, Director of Children and Middle School Youth Ministries at Eastminster, gathered a group and began dreaming of what this day could be.

Once we decided to move forward with a joint, one-day VBS, we also invited children from the Thornwell Children’s Home in Clinton to come and join us.

Our day was split into two sections. Our morning theme was “I am a Child of God.’ We celebrated each child’s uniqueness and gave thanks to God for the gifts we have each been given. Each child created a beautiful piece of art where they named and celebrated what makes them special.

The morning session included music, art, stories and a discussion for adults, led by Pressley Cox, EPC, and Chris Jones, FIPC, on how we as adults can nurture, guide and support our youth as they grow up in a very different world.

Following lunch, we dove into our afternoon theme, Together, we are God’s Family. We again spent time in music, art, bible story, recreation and also created gift bags for families in Habitat for Humanity homes as well as persons being served by Safe Harbor.

The afternoon art project, led by Jaime Winton, was to create something that each group could take home to their churches or home to remind them that even when we are a part, we are all God’s family. Each person at VBS, children, youth and adults, created 4 sticks. The sticks were used to create a piece of at that says “God’s Family Sticks Together.”

Our day ended with a VBS celebration and cookout dinner. What a gift to gather over 50 adult volunteers, over 15 middle school and high school youth volunteers and 40 children all from 4 different communities who planned, prayed, sang and shared as we gave thanks for a God who calls us into community together.

223rd General Assembly

by Mary Moore Driggers

**Hello, Mary Moore Driggers – Young Adult Advisory Delegate from Foothills Presbytery, and I call for discussion** (Presby Polity jokes…what can I say!)

The Holy Spirit surely works in mysterious and yet wonderful ways. On Thursday morning at 3:30a.m I headed out to the 223rd PC (USA) General Assembly in St. Louis, Missouri and did not return until 11:00p.m on Saturday, June 23. It was ten days full of Presbyterian Polity. I did not quite understand what I was getting myself into when I signed on to serve my Presbytery as a YAAD just two short years ago. It was a huge honor to be selected and I tried to take in as much as possible. Some of the things I took in included looking at the world through a new lens. Often times in our little corner in the upstate of South Carolina we forget that there is a whole world out there that is begging to be reached out to. I was fortunate enough to serve on committee seven which was the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relationships team. In this committee I was pushed to dig deeper about what it means to see “outsiders” with a second lens and build relationships with our communities near and far all around the world.

While I was at GA I participated in a march through downtown St. Louis in 100 degree heat with hundreds of Presbyterians. We were not the “Frozen Chosen” that day, instead we boldly chanted as we made our way to the City Justice Center where we delivered a message, and also a check for $47,200 for bail relief. That offering will grant freedom to people held under bench warrants and minor offenses as they await trial and it gets them back to their jobs and families. As we arrived at the steps of the Justice Center, our Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson proclaimed that we are in need of returning to the justice understanding of our faith. We are embarking on the days where we can actively engage in this country and call on the powers and principalities to release those from captivity. In participating in this event it was a great way of showing God’s love in the world, it also opened many eyes to see that the Church does not have to have a sanctuary TO BE THE CHURCH! This is what Jesus meant when he says “release the captives” and this kind of movement is actually the way forward for our church in the 21st century.

When there is no justice, there is no peace. I am happy and proud to have stood with my siblings in Christ during that scorching hot Tuesday afternoon. It in fact was what democracy looked like. It in fact was what Theology looked like. It in fact was what community looked like. It in fact was what a family looked like. And more than anything, it in fact was what the KINdom of God looks like.

This term of “The KINdom of God” is what we constantly were referred back to during the General Assembly. Through this we explored new ways to be at the table with others alike and not. As Presbyterians, though we might be reformed, we are always reforming! A new age has come and the church is changing. That day we all lifted our voices with those who were and are incarcerated simply because they don’t have $50 to post bail before their trials. People should NEVER be punished simply for being poor. I stood that day because I knew there were not only human beings in that place, but God was in that place, and when God’s family is hurting, God hurts.

My First Mini Montreat as a PYC Leader

Logan is a senior from John Knox Presbyterian Church who has served on PYC for 3 years. Currently she serves as the Moderator for the PYC. After graduation she will be attending Furman University.

This weekend, I got to spend my first Mini-Montreat as a PYC leader. Having never been
involved in this before, I hadn’t realized how much work really goes into the making of this
retreat in order for it all to come together. You don’t realize how many elements there really are
until you are actually in it, but in the end the work is all worth it.

I got to lead a small group, and it was so much fun to be able to influence the weekends
of these kids for the better, and to be able to show them who God truly is. As a leader, you have
to be able to make it fun and interesting while still being able to give them good information , and I feel like our plan for the weekend helped us do that. At the end of the weekend, I asked our group how they felt about the weekend, and not one of them complained about any of it. They said that it was the best weekend they had had in a long time and that there was nothing to complain about. To me, that shows that all of our hard work and dedication to PYC truly pays off and makes a difference in other people’s lives.

When I joined Presbyterian Youth Council three years ago, I had no clue the journey that I was beginning. The people on this council are truly some of the best people I know; I have no clue what my life would look like without these people and I give all glory to God for bringing them all together through PYC. The ministry that PYC provides is an important part of each youth’s life that attends and leads these retreats in our presbytery. Every member of PYC, around 20 people, plays an important role in the planning of these retreats, Mini-Montreat and Bonclarken; there is no way these retreats would happen successfully without each individual contributing. Growing up, I attended these retreats myself and it is crazy to me to think that somehow, I ended up as moderator of all this. I believe that God had complete control of putting me on this council because this has truly been the best three years of my life.

I would encourage youth to at least consider the idea of applying to join PYC. This council has been a hallmark of my entire high school career and I believe that everyone deserves the chance to experience it. There truly is no other group that I would rather be involved with or that I would get as much out of. PYC is much more than a group that plans retreats, it is a family; the best family anyone could ask for.


No Trivial Pursuits

No Trivial Pursuits—CPM, March 22, 2018
by Allen McSween

Scripture:  2 Corinthians 4:1-2, 5-7 (RSV)

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every one’s conscience in the sight of God…. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.  But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.”

A number of years ago there was a popular game called Trivial Pursuits. We used to love to play it with our family at the beach. At one point they dubbed me “The Prince of Trivia”– not a very good title for a minister of the Gospel.

I’m not sure how many people still play the game, but trivial pursuits have certainly not gone away in our culture. Back in 1985 Neil Postman wrote a book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Things have only gone downhill since then. In an age of Reality television, with a Reality show star playing the role of the President, public discourse has lost virtually all semblance of civility or depth. Everywhere you turn our discourse has been cheapened… including in the church. There, too, it seems that we are fast “amusing ourselves to death.”

Several years ago, when Wain Wesberry was associate pastor at Fourth Presbyterian, he attended the baptism of his nephew whose family attended a well known mega-church here in town. The baptism was not held in the sanctuary. It was held at a neighborhood swimming pool. The minister said a few words about baptism in general and then threw the kid into the pool, saying, “You are baptized.” The folks around the pool applauded and laughed.

Now, I trust that would not happen in any of the congregations we are part of. But sometimes we Presbyterian are not much better. Michael Jinkins, the president of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, tells of an ordination service that one of his students had attended. In the service the moderator of the ordination commission told a series of jokes, some of which were in very poor taste, and then said to the one being ordained, “Now we have to get on to the boring stuff. I need to ask you these questions.”[i]

Boring stuff”! What he called “the boring stuff” were not just some questions out of the blue. The “boring stuff” was the vows by which the new minister was promising God and God’s people to trust in Jesus Christ as Lord of all and Head of the Church, to accept the Bible as God’s Word, to be instructed and led by the confessions as she leads the church, and to be a friend among her colleagues as she seeks “to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.”

There is nothing trivial or boring about that at all. When we make such vows in the presence of the living God, we almost literally “take our souls in our hands,” as we offer as much of ourselves as we can understand to as much of God as we can comprehend for as long as we are able. Serious stuff!

Several years ago, David Brooks, my favorite Jewish Calvinist, wrote a column  in which he insisted that the time has come for us all to get “a little more serious.” Brooks says that over-against the rising tide of superficiality all around us, “there must be room,” for someone to offer “an aspirational ideal . . . that separates for busy people the things that are enduring from the things that aren’t.”

That, I would submit, is a prime task for the Church of Jesus Christ in a culture vainly amusing itself to death. We are called to proclaim and to embody enduring realities. That’s our distinctive calling. In an Age of Show Business, there are plenty of comedians who are a lot funnier than we’ll ever be. There are better story-tellers on any Podcast you can name. There are better political prognosticators on MSNBC or Fox. And you can hear better music, from Bach to rock, all over the place. But we in the church have the distinctive task of helping people separate the things that endure from the things that do not.

So the question we must ask, and keep on asking, is the question Dr. John Leith put so insistently throughout his lifetime. “What does the church have to say that no one else can say?” (the subtitle to his book The Reformed Imperative)

So what is it that we alone have?  In the words of Paul, “we have the gospel” and we have it “in earthen vessels.” We have a word of Truth to speak openly. We have a deeply serious response, shaped by centuries of profound reflection, to the serious issues that we and all the world face. In a time like this, we do not need a church that tells us we’re OK. We need a God who redeems our sinfulness. We don’t need a liturgy that entertains us. We need worship that links us to best the church has “thought and believed and confessed” across the centuries. We don’t need moralistic advice urging us to try harder. We need a God who raises us from death to life.

In our quest to appear relevant to a generation nurtured on the Pablum of trivial pursuits, we are in serious danger of trivializing ourselves out of business, right at a time when people are increasingly beginning to wonder whether someone, somewhere, might just have something serious to say about the human predicament.

In his poem “Church Going,” the Anglican agnostic Phillip Larkin tells of visiting an empty church one day, more out of curiosity than anything else. Without sharing the faith of those who had worshipped there across the centuries, he was nevertheless struck by the fact that here was what he calls a “serious house on serious earth.” Such a place, he says, can never be obsolete, “since someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious,” and will therefore gravitate with that hunger “to this ground” in which it is “proper to grow wise in.”

I submit that that is our task and the task of the candidates we seek to nurture—to grow wise in the treasures of the Gospel, entrusted to “earthen vessels” like us, by a serious God on serious earth. That never has been and never will be a trivial pursuit.

[i] Michael Jinkins, “Trivializing the Gospel” https://www.faithandleadership.com/michael-jinkins-trivializing-gospel
This entire blog is based on Jinkins’ article, including the quotes from Brooks and Larkin. Jinkins is also the author of an excellent resource for pastors new and old, Letters to New Pastors (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2006).

[1] Michael Jinkins, “Trivializing the Gospel” https://www.faithandleadership.com/michael-jinkins-trivializing-gospel
This entire blog is based on Jinkins’ article, including the quotes from Brooks and Larkin. Jinkins is also the author of an excellent resource for pastors new and old, Letters to New Pastors (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2006).