What are Presbyterians? We're glad you asked! 'Presbyterian' is a big word, but it doesn't have to be an intimidating one. The word derives from the Greek presbyteros, meaning 'elder', and has to do with how we organize ourselves.
Some denominations have a top-down structure with a hierarchy that exercises control over local congregations. Others have a bottom-up structure in which each local congregation elects its own leadership and decides its own affairs. The Presbyterian church is essentially a hybrid form: authority flows from both the top down (higher assemblies called 'Presbyteries' exercise limited but important authority over individual congregations) and from the bottom up (members of the local congregation elect their own officers, known as 'elders').
The First Presbyterian Church of Meadville is part of the Presbytery of Lake Erie, which comprises 57 congregations in northwestern Pennsylvania and the westernmost corner of New York State. The Presbytery of Lake Erie, in turn, is one of 172 Presbyteries which make up the Presbyterian Church (USA). Formed in 1983 from a merger of two former denominations, the PC(USA) represents about 9,500 churches and 1.5 million members in every corner of the United States.
But Presbyterianism is more than just an organizational scheme: it's also about how we view Holy Scripture and our relationship to God. To understand this, we must learn a bit about JohnCalvin, who was born in France in 1509. As a young man Calvin studied theology, philosophy and law. He pored over the New Testament in its original Greek, and - like Martin Luther - became convinced that Christianity was overdue for a house-cleaning, so to speak: a purge of all the excess baggage it had accumulated over the centuries. Facing resistance in France, in 1536 Calvin fled to Geneva, a city which had already received a large influx of French Protestants. Calvin became a preacher in the Geneva church, and over time he gained enough civic influence to initiate sweeping reforms. He rejected the authority of the Pope and the notion of a class of celibate clergy. He denounced the idolatry which he perceived had grown up around saints, relics, and the Eucharist. In an effort to return Geneva to the model of the early church, Calvin replaced the Latin Mass with a simpler service in the language of the people. He also stripped churches of their ornate decorations, banished instrumental music, and mandated that only Psalms (rather than human-composed hymns) were suitable for divine worship. Not surprisingly, these changes proved to be controversial, but they marked the beginning of what came to be known as the 'Reformed' or 'Presbyterian' form of Christianity.
Living in Geneva during the time of Calvin's reforms was a Scottish clergyman named John Knox (c.1513-1572), who embraced Calvin's ideas with enthusiasm. In 1559 Knox returned to Scotland where his preaching rapidly put him at the forefront of the Protestant movement. Presbyterianism eventually became the dominant form of the faith in Scotland. With the opening up of western Pennsylvania for settlement following the Revolutionary War, large numbers of Scots and Scots-Irish (Ulster Scots) poured into the frontier to claim the fertile land, bringing their religion with them. Meadville was founded in 1788, and the First Presbyterian Church of Meadville was officially organized twelve years later with Joseph Stockton as its first minister.
Since that time, the pendulum has swung back towards the center as Presbyterians have come to realize that the first 1500 years of Christianity are not the exclusive property of the Roman Catholic Church but are part of our own heritage as well. Thus Presbyterian worship may now include elements which John Calvin originally opposed: instrumental music, robed choirs, ornately decorated churches, and hymns in addition to psalms. While mindful of Calvin's warning against turning these things into idols in their own right, we recognize that some people encounter God through beautiful art and music, in the same way that others encounter God through preaching or through prayer. In short, Presbyterians are imperfect people who know that we are loved by a perfect God! We don't have all the answers, but we're willing to ask the tough questions. And we believe that Jesus was serious about loving our neighbor -- thus we engage in mission projects, both local and international, to try to help society's most vulnerable people. So whether you're a college professor or a soccer mom, whether you're a twenty-something or an empty nester, whether you're a lifelong believer or a skeptic unsure what you're searching for...we invite you to come see for yourself what God is doing in our church today.