“An Expansive Gospel: Retooling Congregations for a New Era”

September’s Presbytery Gathering was hosted by Canyon Hills Presbyterian Church on a sunny and very hot Saturday. The day began in the recently rebuilt Fellowship Hall with a presentation on Vital Congregations from Rev. Dr. Ray Jones, Director of the Office of Theology, Formation & Evangelism of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Dr. Jones shared stories from his years of ministry, talked about his love for the PCUSA, and explained the purpose of the Vital Congregations Initiative, which is “to work alongside leaders of existing congregations continually assessing, discerning and living into faithful actions that increase vitality through intentional spiritual practices that take them deeper into following Jesus Christ, so that their own lives are changed, congregations are transformed, and the mission of God spreads throughout particular communities and the world.”

Following the presentation, we moved to the sanctuary for worship. Leaders and participants in this summer’s presbytery sponsored trip to the Montreat Youth Conference shared their stories and expressed their gratitude for the blessings of experiencing More Than Enough with youth from around the country. The celebration of God’s goodness continued with music, prayer and an encouraging word for these anxious times from Dr. Jones. His sermon, based on Luke 24:13-32, recounted the walk along the Emmaus road and how the despairing travelers’ eyes were opened to the presence of Jesus in the breaking of the bread. He reminded us that this same Jesus is among us in the here and now, waiting for us to open our eyes and our hearts to his presence. He concluded with the promise, that with the Spirit’s help, we can be the vital church God is calling us to be.

Canyon Hills Presbyterian Church

Heartened by all we had heard and seen, we prepared to continue on with the business meeting. But unbeknownst to all but a very few, we were about to remain right where we were. Shortly after the worship service began, the church was contacted by the Anaheim Police Department telling us to shelter in place, because, after robbing a nearby business, an armed suspect had been seen in the church parking lot. Pastor Lissa Smith delivered the news and led us in a prayer challenging us to trust in the police and their procedures and to be patient in the face of altered plans. While asking us to remember those for whom the presence of gun violence and the circling of police helicopters was a daily occurrence, her non-anxious presence assured us that all would be well.

Some guests, who planned to be present for the worship service only, were detained, while more than a few commissioners arriving for the business meeting were not able to come on to the property. Some of those commissioners waited nearby, sending reports via text or email or contacting colleagues to report for them.

Rev. Dr. Ray Jones, Rev. Tom Cramer and Rev. Lissa Smith

The challenge to be flexible was met with grace, and the Business Meeting was called to order in the sanctuary. Among the highlights was the examination of Ethan Park, son of Rev. Marion and Daniel Park, via Zoom. The presbytery unanimously voted to move him from Inquirer to Candidate. We welcomed our new Interim Stated Clerk, Rev. Jennifer Pattee, and said thank you good and faithful servant to Acting Stated Clerk, RE Pat Niles. The commissioners to the 225th General Assembly reported on their committee assignments, the work of the Assembly, and their experiences discerning God’s will for the church with colleagues from around the country. A lively and timely discussion surrounded the presentation of revisions to the Child, Youth, and Vulnerable Adult Protection Policy; final approval was postponed until November with all agreeing that getting the language of the policy just right was more important than immediate action. The meeting was adjourned ahead of schedule, and shortly thereafter we were given permission to leave the building, as the suspects had been apprehended without incident. Just in time for lunch to be served in the Fellowship Hall.

We re-gathered around tables, broke bread together, and celebrated God’s protection and provision. Following the meal, Ray Jones led a Learning Conversation centered on the mission resources available from the Office of Theology, Formation & Evangelism. The resources span the vast areas of responsibility of the Office and include printed and downloadable pamphlets, Quicksheets, and curriculum, and videos. In addition, the Office hosts Zoom conversations, conferences, and other gatherings both large and small. To learn more, be sure to check out the Mission Resources document.

Saturday, September 24th, was, indeed, a day of challenges and celebrations. To paraphrase Julian of Norwich, all was well. And all was well. And all manner of things were exceedingly well.

Thanks be to God.

Fun fact: Your reporter was told by someone who heard it directly from the horse’s mouth that it was not the drones, nor the helicopter’s high-tech heat-seeking apparatus, but the good ol’ police dogs who located the suspects and were, thus, the heroes of the day!