“Why would people, when they started a church, decide to call themselves something as crazy as Presbyterian? From a marketing standpoint alone, what does that even mean?”
Excellent questions…one that one of my co-workers asked me when I was working at UMKC and told him I was going to go work at a Presbyterian Church in Parkville with the intention of eventually heading to a Presbyterian seminary. At the time, I couldn’t really tell him why…so I instead gave the classic (and, really, outstandingly Presbyterian) answer: “I was born and raised in a Presbyterian Church. They’ve always been there for me.” As you might imagine, seminary brought me up to speed rather quickly.
I learned that our name stems from the Greek word “Presbuterous”, meaning “elder” or “one called to leadership”. The name was embraced around the mid-17th Century by John Knox and our Scottish forbearers. They were struggling through what we now call the “Scots and Irish Rebellion”, a horrible conflict that was centered not only in national independence, but also religious identity and freedom. The Scottish reformers were pushing back against the English monarchy and its attempt to force Anglican forms of church governance and worship on the subjects of the crown. They chose “Presbyterian” because it reflected something essential and important; they believed that the church body called representative elders instead of being governed from the “top-down” by an (often corrupt or self-motivated) monarchy. They held firm to their belief in two tenants of reformed theology that we still hold close to this day: Jesus Christ alone is the Head of the Church… and this leads us to call leaders (elders) from within to represent the Priesthood of all Believers. Knox and the Scottish Reformers placed this practice at the forefront and named their church and movement “Presbyterian.”
Little did they know that some 500 years later we’d still be using it and that it would still say something vital about our church DNA. In recent years, churches of all kinds have moved away from older denominational labels… mostly because of reactions similar to the ones had by my friend back at UMKC. People read “Methodist” or “Lutheran” or “Presbyterian” and immediately read into them “older” or “stuck in their ways”. And while there might be some truth to those assumptions (another article for another time), it is important that we claim what Presbyterian means. We are (thanks be to God) not a church where the pastor holds all the power and makes all of the decisions. We are not a church where every decision must be made with the entire congregation present and voting. We are a church that believes in calling, empowering, and trusting leaders to seek out God’s voice with the help of the Holy Spirit. We believe that God gives us the gift of each other to help discern. We believe that we are called both as individuals and as a community to follow Christ.
For the four Sundays in August I’m going to be offering a New and Curious Members Class during the Sunday School hour (9:15 a.m.) Please join us if you are interested in joining Northminster or simply learning more about Presbyterian history, theology, worship, and governance. Hopefully you will leave able to understand and articulate what I was just starting to know those years ago.
Yes, I was scared stiff by the prospect of working as an Intern and then maybe eventually becoming a Pastor. I didn’t feel qualified…I still don’t. But what I did know, because I had lived it, was very Presbyterian. I knew that my community of family, friends, and church that had lifted me up for so many years would continue to do so. I didn’t know exactly what my call looked like, but I knew that I would be able to find that path forward in large part because of the Body of Christ. They had always been there for me…and would be with me going forward… and together we’d do our best to invite and empower the Holy Spirit and to seek the steps of Christ.
Please join us as we try to find the words for it together. While sometimes it’s as simple as “They’ve always been there for me”, hopefully we can all think about this place we call Northminster Presbyterian. A time to claim the reality that through Sunday School, VBS, confirmation, comfort in grief, celebration in joys, and so many other ways…we all are the church in Christ and we all have a call.