Is it True that Presbyterians “Can’t do Church”?

A pastor-friend once said to me, “The Presbyterian Churches are good boats to fish from – they can be good preaching stations – but they can’t do church.”

The basis of his critique was two-fold. It was based on the philosophy of church that underpins Presbyterianism. It was a critique of a form of church that focuses on the ministry of one man and passiveness of the people in the pews. It was a critique against a philosophy of church that was perceived to think of church only in terms of formal services. A church which fails to facilitate the interaction, relationships and ministries which God has given the people in the pews. In other words, a church which fails to function like a church can never do or be church in the truest sense:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Eph 4: 11-12)

And…

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2: 42-47)

These two scriptures give us a snap shot of the theology and practice of the early church. It is a good mirror to measure our own churches by. Here we see two striking things – we see a relational church and we see a functioning church.

Do our churches have these two qualities? Or was my Pentecostal, pastor friend correct when he said Presbyterian churches cannot do church?

If we look at Presbyterian practice, in the Highlands in particular, we would have to conclude that he is right. Presbyterians don’t really do church. We do religious services, but we don’t do church. Sure, there will be a service, a preacher, a precentor and people in the pew. They turn up, he does his thing, and they shoot straight out the door – until next week.

Whilst this might be the present practice, is it the case that this is how it has to be? – Just because this is how Presbyterians generally do church, does this mean that Presbyterians can’t do church?

I don’t think it has to mean that. Only last week I spoke to the Minister of St Peter’s in Dundee who told me that one of the strongest factors in the church is the church community. They are seeing relational church in action. They have an inter-national church community, and it is thriving. It is thriving so well that the Daily Mail even took notice and spoke highly of it. Describing the church the journalist said it was:

A joyful gathering of many people – from every background imaginable in modern polyglot Scotland; young and old; rich and poor; non- conformist and High Church.

Further it was great to hear the St Peter’s minister talk about the ministry teams at “St Pete’s” and the various ministries that are functioning. This is not only happening at St Pete’s but it is happening in Free Churches all across the nation, some examples being Smithton, Alness, Dowanvale, and Glasgow City Free Church (just to name a few).

In other words, Presbyterian churches are doing church. And they are doing it well.

That being said – the part of the Highlands where I am based is struggling. In my view the church schisms, the liberalism of the National Kirk, Traditionalism and Cultural Christianity have all taken their toll on the churches. The church here is fragile. In a real sense there are great challenges and opportunities – but sooner or later every church, even the larger churches, are going to have to “do or die”. If we continue to allow the past to be the head of the church, we will fail to truly be the church and live like the church. We need to rediscover the heart of local-church mission, the priesthood of all believers and the church as the family of God. We need to be brave enough to lead the church through change.