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Learning to Pay Theological Attention

January 26, 2017


This week, I had the privilege of attending my first West Branch Meeting of the Pittsburgh Presbytery. It was my first because up until a few months ago, I thought we were in the North Branch. Turns out that Mt. Nebo is just barely west of highway 79, which puts us in the West Branch of Pittsburgh Presbytery. We do, however, hold the distinction of being the northern most church in the West Branch.


Branch meetings are different from regular Presbytery meetings. They are smaller. More intimate. They begin with a meal, and end with small group discussions. They are also much shorter than regular Presbytery meetings. And the ruling elders (Session members) outnumber the teaching elders (ministers) by a 3 to 1 ratio. There is a real sense at these meetings that we are all in this, the ministry of being church in 21st century America, together.


For 2017 we are going to be focusing on re-thinking church as a missional community at our branch gatherings. And for that we pulled out the big guns. Presbytery invited Scott Hagley, Assistant Professor of Missiology, at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, to come speak to us. Scott was my Missiology professor at PTS. His class convinced me that every church is called to engage in Christ's mission, regardless of the size of their mission budget. The opportunity to listen to him speak about mission is one of the few things that will get me to stay out past my bedtime.


Boy am I glad I went to this meeting.


Scott shared with us that missional communities begin when a group of people learns to pay theological attention. Which is a fancy way of saying when a group of people commits to praying and reading Scripture together. He gave us some shared practices for paying attention. Examen Prayers and Dwelling in the Word. 


Examen Prayers are simply a way to prayerfully reflect on your day. You pay attention to where God granted you peace and joy, and where you felt God's absence. Dwelling in the World is a way for groups to engage in Examen prayers together. The group reflects on where in the previous week we encountered a person of peace, or been hosted by a stranger? When did our offering of peace 'come back to us?' Might we develop a relationship with this person of peace? What might God be teaching us in this?


Our meeting ended with small group discussion where we reflected on how we could practically situate these practices within the life of our church. A few people suggested Dwelling in the World might be a good way to begin a session meeting. One elder suggested that learning how to pray the Daily Examen might make a good Sunday School curriculum.


Whatever way we situate these practices within the life of our church here at Mt. Nebo, these practices challenge us to re-think how we do ministry. If I begin our Session Meetings by leading Session in a Dwelling in the World practice, it changes the entire conversation. No longer are our Session meetings just about taking care of the business of the church. But they are about discerning what God is up to in our midst, and how might we get in on what God is already doing. Through things like approving financial reports, attending to pastoral care concerns, and reaching out to the unchurched in our communities.


I'm delighted to be a member of a presbytery that takes its missionary call so seriously. Especially when a part of that call is teaching congregations how to take the best missiological practices and apply them to the everyday work of ministry- such as meetings.


On that note, it's time to log off. I have a January Session Docket to prepare.


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