September 2010


As the title says. I’ll be back next Friday.

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Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matthew 16:24-26)

I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world…. In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love (Mother Teresa).

The Church is called to be Christ’s faithful evangelist… to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ (Presbyterian Church USA Book of Order). 

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6).

Prompted by an e-newsletter I read, I checked out today an essay* by Jack Marcum, of PCUSA Research Services. It’s all about the decline once again in the membership of my denomination. For example, in 2008, the net loss was 3.1%; in the past year, 2.9%. The PCUSA has lost more members than it has gained every year since it was created in 1983 by the reunion of the PCUS and the UPCUSA. In 2009, more than 6 in 10 of the losses were to “other,” Marcum reports, a category that mostly includes people placed on the inactive roll. In other words, they moved to the ranks of the dechurched. And, as Marcum further observes, people join and leave congregations, not denominations. The implication is that local factors like dissatisfaction with some aspect of the life of the church account for folks heading for the backdoor exit. Both my personal and pastoral experience confirms that this is true.

Tom Ehrich, the author of the report** that led me to the Marcum piece, has some other stats for 2009 to share from PCUSA sources:

  • It closed 94 congregations in 2009, most closings in a decade.
  • It lost 3% of its membership.
  • It only opened 20 new congregations, lowest in a decade.
  • The mean size of a PCUSA congregation fell below 100 members for the first time. 
  • 64% of its 10,623 congregations fall below the level of sustained viability. 
  • Non-viability means fewer full-time clergy. One-third of its non-viable congregations have no pastoral leadership at all. Nearly half of its 13,400 active clergy have no congregational employment. 
  • Presbyterians continue to gravitate to larger congregations, with the largest 1,500 congregations accounting for half of the denomination’s total membership.

It’s interesting to read these numbers at the same time I’m working through Brandon O’Brien’s wonderful book The Strategically Small Church: Intimate, Authentic, Nimble, Effective. O’Brien, the editor of Leadership Journal questions the prevailing wisdom that makes mega the norm and numerical growth the measure of success. Most churches of any stripe, he points out, are small churches. Megachurches make up a tiny percentage of congregations in the US. Small is actually the norm, then. If someone should object that 3000 were added on Pentecost to a congregation numbering 120 (Acts 1:15), O’Briend points out that many different nations or ethnicities were represented in the gathered throng to hear Peter’s sermon. 3000 refers to the total number saved, who then dispersed to their respective homes, not to the size of a resulting Jerusalem church.

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Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word
of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life
and in death” (
The Theological Declaration of Barmen, Germany, 1934).

A catalog I have from www.christianbook.com features an alphabet soup of translations of the Bible. There are also niche marketed books, that pair a particular translation with notes from a certain perspective, be it oldline, evangelical or Pentecostal. (The latter has a rather unfortunate title for these days: Fire Bible.) There are Bibles for women, men, teens, college students, and children, with multiple examples in each category.

But whoever the target reader, no matter the translation, all these Bibles point to the one Word of God, who is Jesus Christ. And in all of them, Jesus says: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). He also always says: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Maybe the exact words differ translation to translation, but the sense is always the same.

Similarly, Paul always reminds his readers: “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:16-21).

I’m glad Pastor Terry Jones has cancelled his plan to burn Qurans tomorrow. But if he had simply heeded the words of the One he claims to worship and preach and the message of the Scripture he says he honors, neither he nor his congregation would have even contemplated the heinous act of burning the scriptures of another faith. Instead, he would have asked what Jesus would do, and he would have acted accordingly.

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, attested in the Bible, calls us to love, to seek our neighbors’ good, to refrain from revenge, and to live humbly as the people of God. There is no place in the life of a Christian for arrogance or hatred, no room for grandstanding and PR stunts, no message of violence from God, but rather this clear command: “Love God, love your neighbor.”

If all those who name the name of Christ listened to and obeyed him and lived as he did, we would have a better world. 

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

God our Maker, in the beginning, you called men and women to be stewards of the earth you created and gave them meaningful work to do—naming animals, tending your garden, using their imaginations, observing the world, fulfilling their vocation as those who bore your image and likeness. Still today you call us to do your work and bless us in our activities. We praise you when we find meaning for life as well as the means to our daily bread in our jobs and careers. We thank you for the variety of our vocations, that add richness to society and fill needs in our communities, our nation, and our world. Give your grace to all who labor in our land and across the globe, so they may glorify you through what they do.

We pray particularly that you look with favor on…

  • those who care for people at the beginning and at the end of life;
  • all who help others cope with crises;
  • men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to ensure the safety and security of others;
  • people who inspire our imaginations and touch our hearts through their work;
  • those who do dirty and dangerous jobs that are necessary, but no one else wants;
  • first-time teen workers and workers who have retired after long years of service;
  • all who contribute to the common good in any way by working.

Yet even as we praise you for the provision you make for our livelihoods through our daily activities, we remember and ask your grace for…

  • all who work hard, but cannot make ends meet or provide security for themselves and their families;
  • those who live hand to mouth, with no savings, so they are one unexpected or new expense away from financial ruin;
  • young adults who are strapped and burdened by debt and older adults struggling to live on fixed incomes;
  • men and women who are unemployed and cannot find work;
  • those whose jobs have been made irrelevant or obsolete by technology and a changing culture;
  • workers who have been victims of downsizing, outsourcing, and cutbacks;
  • people whose jobs are a drudgery and who dream of something better but find nothing.

We know, too, that there are some who do their work in an unworthy and godless way. To bring their repentance and salvation, send your judgment on…

  • bullies in the workplace;
  • bosses and anyone else who take credit for someone else’s ideas and work;
  • executives, managers, and any in the workplace who are not held accountable for unethical and immoral behavior;
  • any who produce little or nothing but expect large salaries and perks;
  • those whose work exploits, abuses or destroys others for profit or pleasure;
  • all in power who use their positions to steal from their organizations or other people, to lie, to advance their personal agendas, and to hurt others.

Even as we pray for workers on this Labor Day weekend, we ask your help for all who are sick and grieving, troubled and lonely, hurting and helpless. Especially do we bring you neighbors and friends who are on our hearts, whom we name now before you….

God, you have taken care of your people through the ages. Continue your covenant faithfulness to us gathered here and grant our prayers, even as you help us by your Spirit to turn them into compassionate action. And we will give you the glory. Through Christ we pray. Amen.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham