Sunday, November 20, 2005

A centrist among eccentrics? Or not.

After reading about the most recent General Assembly moderator endorsement—Tim Halverson of Cape Coral, Florida—I had a couple of thoughts and a question.

First, it’s great that Tim has a degree in evangelism and church growth—elements sorely needed in the Presbyterian church today. It’s also nice that his congregation is growing moderately, again good in this numerically declining denomination. However, although the news story touts over 1,100 new members in the last eight years, the statistics reveal more than 700 members sent packing during that same time, so it looks like one of those demographic situations where Tim and the church need to keep running just to stay in place. Still, this two- to three-percent net annual increase in membership over eight years would look mighty good if it could be replicated in the entire PCUSA!

Second, it appears by the news coverage that Halverson is staking out his territory at the mythical center of the church. One gets that from his statement (“In a left-right world, we have forgotten the center”) and the elaboration by Halverson’s general presbyter (“We need a strong and articulate voice from the center to hold us together in these difficult times”)—which I think was meant to refer to Halverson’s voice and not Christ’s.

Somehow, this brought to mind something I remember youth leaders doing at times when I was in youth ministry. They’d want to hype their activity, so they’d say to the kids, “This isn’t going to be like Sunday school. This isn’t going to be boring old church. Our Banana Madness Night is going to be FUN!” So, in trying to build up their thing, these youth directors would knock Sunday school and put down worship. It always made me wince, like it was a cheap shot and counterproductive besides.

I would hope that Tim Halverson doesn’t make his place in the moderatorial field by attempting to shove to the extremes fellow Presbyterians who have chosen to look clearly at the issues and speak an opinion or work toward an end. Claiming the center and isolating the others at arbitrary poles of an artificial spectrum would not be a particularly noble tactic—kind of a cheap shot for one’s own barren advantage, I would think. “Halverson: The centrist among eccentrics!”

And that leads to the question I would love for Tim Halverson to answer: What do you mean by “the center”? It’s a little facile to say that the center is Jesus, because, on paper at least, that wouldn’t distinguish you from any other commissioner eventually standing for moderator. All would agree. So what constitutes the theological or sociological or political center of the PCUSA, as you are referring to it? What exactly would put other people out of that center but you smack dab in the middle of it? What does it mean to be a “voice from the center” in a “left-right world”? Who are the left, and what makes them so? Who are the right, and what makes them so? And from what vantage point are you drawing your spectrum? From secular society’s viewpoint? From world Christianity? From historical Christianity or classical Reformed theology? From Halverson at the center and then on out to the “fringes”?

This is not a blast at Tim Halverson. Quite the contrary. It is a daunting task to stand for moderator, and even more exhausting to serve as one. He's brave to do this. It’s not a dig. I don’t know Tim Halverson from Adam, and I have no idea yet where the Spirit is leading us in regard to his potential leadership. But I think some more conversation about the meaning of how he is positioning himself will be useful to everyone with an interest not only in who will be Moderator of General Assembly, but also an interest in what is happening throughout our denomination as people look to the issues before us.

Perhaps this announcement by Tim Halverson can bring out a necessary discussion on Presbyterian political nomenclature often alluded to but rarely defined.


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