Reasonable Service: What the PCA’s Latest Controversy Says about Its Understanding of Outreach, Evangelism,

Memorial Presbyterian Church is the same church that hosted the original Revoice conference in 2018, which set off a major controversy in the PCA in 2018.

It seems clear that Transluminate published opinions which violate the seventh commandment and are even contrary to the light of nature. After all, Transluminate featured plays which advocated for women to take testosterone treatments in order to become more like men, for transgender marriage and parenting, and for a human “to transform into another species.” These are clear violations of Biblical morality, as interpreted by the Westminster standards. Indeed, they are shocking proposals which cannot but create a scandal in the PCA.

 

In early March 2020, members of the Presbyterian Church in America learned that one of their congregations had allowed a theatre production titled “Transluminate: A Celebration of Transgender, Agender, Non-Binary, Genderqueer and Genderfluid Artists” to be held at one of its onsite ministry venues. The congregation in question, Memorial Presbyterian Church, is the same church that hosted the original Revoice conference in 2018, which itself set off a major controversy in the PCA. As such, this latest revelation seems to be another chapter in that ongoing saga, turning the concerns of many into an outright state of alarm.

For its part, Memorial Pres. issued a statement explaining its relationship to the venue which hosted the LGBTQ+ theatre event. The explained that “The Chapel” is a “secular arts venue” which “was decommissioned and sealed off from the church in 2007.” As such, they argue, it does not reflect a direct action or program of the church. They clearly state that “Memorial Presbyterian Church does not endorse art at The Chapel.” This explanation is a helpful starting point, but it hardly answers all of the relevant questions. The Church still owns the building and provides the basic utilities. It appears to provide staff for The Chapel as well as refreshments. Memorial Pres. calls The Chapel a “ministry partner” on their church website. Indeed, Missouri Presbytery saw this event as something which warrants church oversight. It felt it important to issue a public statement of their own, expressing that they had “grave concerns about the wisdom of hosting this event.” The presbytery has formed an investigatory committee to learn more.

Jake Meador recently wrote a helpful essay explaining this latest controversy and its significance for the PCA. I would like to add a bit more to what he has expressed. In particular I would like consider the matter in light of the PCA’s own moral teaching, expressed in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and then take up the question of “good faith”– not in the more familiar sense of “good faith subscription” to the Westminster Standards, but in terms of open and honest dealings when it comes to a church’s own mission and ministry. If nothing else, this occasion should be a good opportunity for PCA officers to better organize their thoughts and clarify the way they explain how they carry out the mission of the church.

What Is Transluminate?

Transluminate, the occasion for this controversy, is an arts festival consisting of short plays, and it describes itself as being “A Celebration of Transgender, Agender, Non-Binary, Genderqueer and Genderfluid Artists.” Its general overview can be found here, and a sympathetic review of the 2020 production is available here. The plays promoted transgenderism and even trans-speciesism, the concept that a person’s soul is in the wrong body, not just when it comes to sex and gender but even when it comes to being human at all. The organization behind Transluminate is called “Q Collective.” In one brochure, they explain that they “see that gender, sexuality, and romantic orientation are not binary.” The purpose of their event is to promote this point of view, “inviting you across, to transverse the gender spectrum.” They hope to “change people’s minds” about this topic.

The Chapel maintains that it does not endorse the art that it allows to be shown at its venue, and Memorial Pres. is clear that they do not believe that people should transition from one gender to the other. No one should conflate the Q Collective with Memorial Pres. And yet, it is entirely reasonable to point out that The Chapel is indeed “supporting” the Q Collective by providing the venue and staff for the event. Likewise, Memorial Pres. is supporting the Q Collective when it pays the relevant bills associated with the Chapel and insofar as The Chapel is indeed a ministry of the Church. Indeed, it does not seem to be a stretch to say that Memorial Pres. in some way “sponsored” Transluminate.

Missional Church In Extremis

To understand how the Transluminate event could happen within the PCA, readers should see it as an extreme but perhaps predictable ramification of a certain philosophy of ministry, common in our day. Evangelical and particularly “missional” churches routinely advocate for various kinds of parachurch ministry in the world of arts and culture. Some call for an aggressive or confrontational approach, while others say that mere “faithful presence” is a more effective strategy. This term, “faithful presence,” was originally coined by James D. Hunter in his book To Change the World, but has become a shorthand way, not unlike the term “common good,” to express the concept of Christians interacting with the secular public realm, not in overtly distinctive ways, but simply according to basic morals and friendly manners. This posture is frequently described as winsome or hospitable. It argues against direct criticism or evangelism, at least in any public way, in favor of building more long-term relationships. After these relationships of trust are sufficiently built, opportunities for evangelism may make themselves apparent. Some proponents of this philosophy even deny that specifically evangelistic activity, arguing that the relationship itself or the image and reputation such faithful presence creates will itself be a sufficient Christian testimony. Memorial Pres. certainly seems to promote this view of evangelism and outreach. In their press release, they say:

Our agenda is to love people in the arts. And so the church provides the building and many of the volunteers who help staff the venue free of charge in an effort to build trust and relationship with our secular neighbors in the arts community. The mission for us is to serve non-Christians in the arts, displaying the welcome of Jesus through our hospitality. It is an effort to build relationship with communities that often mistrust Christians.

Similar language can be found in The Chapel’s original vision statement. A 2008 “By Faith” article explains, quoting the relevant section of that statement:

The Chapel is not a bait and switch—no getting people into The Chapel, then making a gospel presentation. …Indeed, The Chapel’s vision statement says “Just as Jesus influences us from below by serving us— being there for us, washing our feet, dying for us— so we will put ourselves beneath local artists and musicians, being there for them, serving them …

“They will not be pressured to attend worship services or be proselytized, but will experience a taste of the community life of the church. Artists will find a community not of judgment, but of welcome and love. Christians will love and serve each other with genuine affection, and this love will overflow to our guests. Those ‘outside’ the church will see in this love the gospel’s power to bring diverse people together.”

Thus it seems clear that this is how Memorial Pres. has gotten to where they are. They have intentionally implemented a specific strategy when it comes to outreach and evangelism.

Whether or not readers find this philosophy of ministry compelling on theological or even sociological grounds, it certainly creates a number of organizational problems for any church. The most basic question is whether activities which involve neither evangelism nor discipleship (at least in any explicit way) are appropriate for the church, considered as an organization. Certainly individual Christians could work together to promote civic activities, even perhaps in a “distinctively Christian way.” But for the church itself to do so is a different matter entirely. If the church is willing to expand its mission in this way, it seems unclear as to how and where it could put limitations or make discriminating judgments and to what extent it would open itself up to civil liability in doing so.

At this point, some may wonder how exactly “The Chapel” is connected to Memorial Presbyterian Church. Is The Chapel a direct ministry of Memorial Pres, or is it an independent organization for which Memorial simply provides a venue? In their response to the controversy, Memorial put some distance between themselves and The Chapel. There they say that the Chapel is a “secular arts venue attached to Memorial Presbyterian Church.” The building which houses The Chapel is physically “attached” to Memorial, but it has been “decommissioned and sealed off from the church.” The Chapel “became a secular arts venue” and “has a separate, subsidiary board, a separate public identity, a separate building and a separate street address.”

This would seem to indicate that the Chapel is an entirely independent organization from Memorial, even if there is an overlap in personel. At the same time, the statement from Missouri Presbytery indicates that both Memorial Pres and MO Presbytery recognize some measure of jurisdiction when it comes to The Chapel. Furthermore, the 2008 “By Faith” article states that The Chapel’s vision statement was submitted to the session of Memorial Pres. for approval. In that vision statement, written primarily by Pastor Greg Johnson, we read that The Chapel is an extension of the church, not the church universal, but the particular expression of the church found at Memorial Pres: “As a church for the city, our vision is..”

A recent post at Reformation21 mentions “a prospectus booklet for The Chapel, dating back to sometime before its formal launch as a ministry of Memorial Church.” That booklet is not (to my knowledge) available online, but it has been shared among members of the PCA. It has all the markings of a public document. It includes contact information and even advertises a way for people to contribute to the fundraising campaign. The booklet explains The Chapel as being one application of Memorial’s, “Evangelism Strategy,” quoting from that document, where the church states:

We are willing to employ deliberate and varied ways to send Christians into sub-communities of the central corridor such as university campuses, internationals, the gay community, the music and arts community the poor, the medical institutions, government offices, and business and financial networks.

The booklet goes on to explain that The Chapel is a form of “community-driven evangelism,” also known as a “catechumen model” which seeks to “get non-Christians into the ‘edges’ of the church community.” A few pages later it adds, “A missional church assumes non-Christians are always present, seeks that, and welcomes them into friendship. At Memorial, we have found that most of our new believers (“conversion growth”) were converted to the Christian community first, and to Christ only afterward.” Clearly, The Chapel was created to be an extension of Memorial Presbyterian Church. The Q&A section of the booklet reinforces this point:

  1. Is The Chapel a ministry of the church, or is it a separate institution?
  2. It is a ministry of the church. In May 2007, the elders voted “to endorse the chapel ministry under the oversight of the Session and authorize the appropriate teams to prepare for a launch” (Session Motion 2007.05.A.05, passed unanimously).

It is certainly possible that Memorial has restructured since it launched The Chapel in 2007. The Chapel may now be “a separate institution.” However, the fact that Memorial did not explain this history in their press release, and the fact that their church website gives the impression that The Chapel continues to be one of its ministries, makes it reasonable to ask the question. Given Memorial’s philosophy of ministry, it would be unreasonable not to ask this question.

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