Calvin Brown is a former Executive Director of The Renewal Fellowship.
Loving nearly all things Presbyterian, I was excited to find at my local optometrist's office a pamphlet on our denomination. (We can use all the publicity we can get!)
Taking a closer look however I realized it wasn't about Presbyterians but about a condition called Presbyopia. As I read the pamphlet, however, it occurred to me that there were a great many similarities. Let me review the brochure:
First it asked: What is Presbyopia?
When the focusing ability of an individual's eyes has decreased to the point where vision at his reading distance becomes blurry and difficult, the condition is known as Presbyopia.
As I reflected on the condition my mind raced to the General Assembly Report of the Study Group to Research Denominational Membership Decline. It is clear we Presbyterians have a vision problem. In the report vision is defined as the picture of the desired future. And it goes on to say, We must see beyond only ministering to ourselves and our congregations. Are we advancing the Kingdom of God through acts of justice, service, mission and ministry through our vision?
It would appear that the consensus is that we are not. Statistically at least the report points out that as a denomination we have declined 16% in attendance over the last ten years. Some suggestions from lay leaders of congregations that have experienced growth point out the vision they had by:
- exercising faith by relying on the Triune God;
- relying on the Bible and emphasizing biblically-based teaching during worship and all other activities;
- attending to the needs of your community
- keeping aware of the fact that the people are the minister of the congregation. The minister's role is to enable them to serve;
- remembering that the session's primary role is to discern God's call for the life of the church and taking steps to see that call fulfilled; and
- remembering that the church exists to serve the needs of the world not for its own sake.
The pamphlet then asks: At what age does Presbyopia occur?
The answer is that it occurs between the ages of 40-45.
Our statistics show that we reached our numerical high in the mid-sixties which was about forty years following the re-defining of ourselves in 1925. The re-defining, caused by the formation of the United Church of Canada, may have been unwilling on our part but, like it or not, it was a new beginning. And with dogged determination we defined ourselves as the continuing Presbyterian Church in Canada.
The following forty-year period — 1965-present (perhaps to be compared to the 40 years Israel spent wandering in the desert!) — saw a slow but steady decline. We are now at the threshold of renewal (regaining God's vision for us) or a new and deadlier period of decline (which may be our last as a viable national institution if we do not find and embrace God's vision for us).
Question three: What causes Presbyopia?
Presbyopia is not a disease: a gradual loss of focusing ability is normal for everyone.
When I first joined the Renewal Fellowship I thought perhaps after a period of time (maybe one that extended beyond my own life span) everything would be renewed and then the Fellowship could be disbanded, having done its job. I now believe (partly from reading the words of Jesus about renewal) that renewal will be an ongoing part of church life until Jesus returns. The church that doesn't renew will be a church that dies in the wilderness of its own self-centredness.
The pamphlet makes an interesting point. Presbyopia (blurry vision) often seems to come on suddenly, but actually it does not. The rate of focus loss is gradual but once it reaches the critical point the changes in focusing ability are much more noticeable and seem more rapid.
We have seen throughout the church many who think we are the same as we always were but then suddenly become aware of the extent of our numerical decline and institutional crisis and realize it wasn't just last year's revision of the membership roll or some other short-term issue but the decline goes on and on and on. Suddenly there is talk and debate about things that would have been unheard of in former times and members are asking what does the Presbyterian church really believe after all. The focus is changing — the vision is impaired.
Question 4: What are the Signs and Symptoms of Presbyopia?
Blurred and difficult vision at normal reading distance, a need to hold reading material further away, or symptoms of 'eyestrain' (such as headaches, fatigue, or concentration difficulty) while doing close work may be caused by Presbyopia.
As we lose our vision of Christ what once was a normal reading of the Bible is no longer obvious and clear. In fact, as a church, we are tempted to hold reading material further away — that is, we no longer use Scripture as the only rule of faith and life, as our forebears did, but question its authority and suggest that we need to give equal weight to science and sociology and other expert opinion in our decision-making.
Question 5: How is Presbyopia corrected?
There is no way to prevent Presbyopia although its effects can be compensated for by the use of properly prescribed glasses — either 'reading glasses' or some type of bifocal or multifocal lenses.
This is not a cure, only God can effect a cure by his miracle-working power, but properly prescribed glasses can help us overcome the negative effects of this condition. The proper prescription is found in the Bible and only as we single-heartedly commit to seeing things as the Holy Spirit through the Bible teaches will we overcome blurred vision and be given clear insight exactly where it is needed.
The Report to Assembly, speaking of recovering church health, says:
Based on the turnaround literature and on our research, we believe that these things contribute to a turnaround:
- it is a spiritual process;
- leadership that incorporates a shared congregational vision, a vision plan, and acting on the plan;
- think mission, not maintenance;
- willingness to change;
- making evangelism a priority;
- working to create a healthy congregation.
They go on to explain that the spiritual process they refer to is a gift from God given to us in Jesus Christ, who is the head of the church. Church growth is when people grow in their faith in Jesus Christ. Changed lives change churches…. Begin first with prayer…. Creating a Shared Vision points out that the "mission of the church is clear and simple: to carry on the works of Jesus Christ. This has not changed in 2,000 years. What has changed is the vision of how the church is doing its mission. Congregational vision comes from God… ." It is sad that the Assembly gave this report almost no consideration or discussion. I commend that you find a copy of the Acts and Proceedings of the 127th General Assembly which will be sent to every congregation this fall and make it a means of study and prayer.
The eyesight pamphlet concludes: This material has been printed in the public interest by the American Optometric Association.
I will add that this editorial is also printed with the public interest at heart, especially the Presbyterian public.