by Case Thorp
Moderator of the 39th General Assembly
Michael Jordan, I am not. Yet my stocky frame came into its own during middle school basketball. While I wasn’t the one leading in the number of baskets scored, setting the standard in layups, or scoring on average more than four points a season (yes, a season, not a game), my pivot was something to behold. I could take the ball, swing my hips, and redirect the ball in a new direction with my mean pivot. All the skinny boys who weren’t slammed to the floor by my moves—and my hips—were in awe at such skill. I got a nickname from my feats of athletic prowess: The Enforcer.
I find this move, the pivot, an analogy for today’s church.
As Presbyterian Christians, we instinctively appreciate our past and recognize the movement that Reformed Christianity was in Europe, the Americas, and beyond. In theory—and from theological conviction—as Reformed Christians we seek to continue the reform begun in Christ’s Church in the glory days of Calvin and others.
Yet the danger of focusing upon our past is that we focus so much on where we’ve been that we can grow lethargic about our future as a church and where the Holy Spirit is leading us.
I see the church as needing to pivot as does a basketball player, who keeps one foot planted while being free to move the other as the situation in front of him or her unfolds. The church today needs to keep one foot firmly grounded in Scripture and our confession, and yet pivot in our methodologies in order to make the pass or attempt the shot. We must push harder on the work of reforming due to the cultural decay around us.
With a smart pivot, our shot toward the goal can result in flourishing Reformed churches for the 21st century that have a robust mission, a clear note of praise for the Father, and sightings of the Kingdom of God that abound.
Over my term serving the Evangelical Presbyterian Church as Moderator, my aim is to advance a conversation. This conversation occurs between us all: church planters, solo pastors, ruling elders, and stated clerks. It is the conversation that seeks honesty and realism about the state of today’s church, and likewise a focus on methodological changes that will lead to the future to which Christ calls us.
Besides traveling to be with many of you, I will be creating a series of blog posts and podcasts focused on issues of pivoting toward a rich and robust future of ministry, spiritual growth, adult conversion, and more. And so I begin this journey by sharing my opening remarks upon investiture as Moderator.
My intent with these remarks made at Cherry Creek in June was to present to the church and her leaders some past challenges to inspire us for present ministry threats, and then illustrate some of those headwinds. For cultural headwinds are nothing compared to the Spirit of God who fills our sails.
Remarks delivered on June 19, 2019, at the 39th General Assembly of the EPC held at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Englewood, Colo.:
In September of 1866, my great-great grandfather—the Reverend Charles Thorp—left Noke, Oxfordshire, England, to serve as a missionary, first in Canada, then in the frontiers of America. The challenges and obstacles during his ministry were great, yet the records indicate he never lost his zeal for the gospel or Christ’s church.
Charles lost the companionship of his beloved older brother, who took off to pursue the Australian gold rush of 1851—never to be heard from again. Charles found his oldest child and namesake, at the age of 3, dead in the home’s cistern, which someone tragically had left open. Years later, and four more children later, Charles lost his first wife to death.
Despite these dreadful setbacks, Charles raised a total of ten children, remarried a parishioner four months after conducting her father’s funeral, built three church buildings and a school on the wooded frontiers of Jacksonport, Wisc.; Tampa, Fla., and Mansfield, La. All this time, records show that his highest salary was $800 a year. He got two days of vacation after Christmas, and two Sundays away from his church for mission work. Described in letters as the “indefatigable missionary,” Charles never let a challenge get in the way of the gospel.
115 years later (and just 38 years ago), Bart Hess and Andy Jumper locked arms with Ed Davis, George Scotchmer, and Jim Van Dyke and launched out on their own journey. They dared to explore a frontier where Christ’s church could be both Reformed and evangelical.
They had to minster and creatively lead the church through the issues of their day:
• The 20th century rise of evangelicalism;
• The impact of the long awaited civil rights movement on society;
• The explosion of the church in the global south;
• Progressive theology undermining the authority of Scripture and uniqueness of the gospel; and
• Social revolutions in America for women and human sexuality;
Our founding fathers, even some here in this room today, began this experiment in theology, polity, church culture, and missional effectiveness that we inherit.
If you were present 38 years ago at the first General Assembly of the EPC, would you please now stand.
Friends, we have our challenges.
The Greatest Generation increasingly join the great General Assembly in glory. Baby Boomers retire at the rate of 10,000 a day, and corporations are preparing for three out of four top executives and management leaders to be gone in the next five to seven years. Gen-Xers and Millennials find themselves taking the reigns of leadership presented with both missional challenges and evangelistic opportunity. Such as:
• Adult conversions have bottomed out for us, and we recognize the paltry discipleship we’ve offered our people the past 50 years;
• Post-modernism has redefined the meaning of a man, a woman, a child, even the in-utero child, such that a Christian anthropology seems like a foreign, political threat to our neighbors;
• Many churches in America today give us Presbyterians a run for our money reaching the masses while perpetuating the false gospel of prosperity, starry-eyed pastors seeking fame, and worship-tainment dislocated from her historic moorings; and
• We are only beginning to taste and see the impact of technology and a connected world on our own politics, economics, interpersonal relations, and ministry.
The challenges are great; the horizon darkens.
And yet, we are here. We are here.
We are here because we know our God is sovereign. Amen? Amen.
We are here because we know the gospel of Jesus Christ works, brings salvation, change, and restoration. Amen? Amen.
We are here because we know that the Bible tells our story, the story of our God, and the story of God’s mission to the world!
We are here because we know the words of our confession to be true: “The primary and highest purpose of human beings is to glorify God and to enjoy Him completely forever.”
We are here because we know our mission as Reformed, Evangelical, Missional, and Presbyterian is the best expression of church as illustrated in Scripture.
Oh, we have challenges, but if we didn’t we’d already be in the New Jerusalem beholding the beatific vision.
As Moderator, I stand with you; here. I pledge to serve you well and with humility. I pledge to face the horizons ahead of us arm in arm because with the Holy Spirit as the wind in your sails, Christ’s church will shine.
Case Thorp is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean. He serves as Senior Associate Pastor of Evangelism for First Presbyterian Church in Orlando.