Presbyterian Death Match: NEXT Church vs. The Fellowship

“so what’s the difference (other than theological perspective) between #nextchurchindy and the fellowship/whitepaper? any takers? #pcusa

I’m fool enough to take that bait, laid out by @gspcrobert yesterday amidst the waning reaction to the NEXT Church gathering in Indianapolis earlier this week. I quickly tweeted:

“@gspcrobert I’ll take that. #nextchurchindy is a gathering looking for answers. The Fellowship is an argument looking for a gathering.”

That answer generated a couple of responses that I want to get into here. @Suzemb replied:

@yorocko @gspcrobert do the answers being sought exploring ways for both sides to find common ground so the denom isn’t torn apart?

And @charlesawiley added:

@yorocko Wonder about your distinction between Next and Fellowship. Next had irenic tone-but with a pretty like-minded group #nextchurchindy

First, the basic background for the uninitiated. Several months ago, a group of Presbyterian pastors, many representing what you call “Tall Steeple” churches from the progressive/liberal regions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), were invited to Kansas City to start a conversation about the future of the denomination. The invitation came from Tom Are, Pastor at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, and it went out, as best I know, to people he trusts and who’s insight he values. Specific areas of concern had to do with mission and the need for a different way to engage the denomination’s areas of conflict that aren’t dependent on a political winner-take-all model.

The NEXT Church Indianapolis gathering was an outgrowth of that Kansas City conversation (and, I think, another conversation or two). The organizers invited all interested parties to come to Indy and explore different ways of doing mission, vocation, and governance in the PC (U.S.A.).

Meanwhile, last month another group of Presbyterian pastors, also representing mostly “Tall Steeple” churches but from the  church’s conservative regions–and calling themselves The Fellowship of Presbyterian Pastors–distributed a letter and an accompanying white paper that asserted that the denomination is “deathly ill” and that invited folks to an August event  that would explore the formation of a parallel Reformed body separate from but related to the PC (U.S.A.). That letter and white paper were followed by a brief video posted online in which Jim Singleton, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs, that further laid out the strategic vision of this Fellowship.

So what’s the difference between NEXT and The Fellowhip?

One difference is very clear.  NEXT organizers want a conversation among like-minded Presbyterians. That conversation is about very specific things, and the way it’s been structured so far, it could plausibly produce a number of varying–even competing–results. It is a conversation looking for answers–and new ways of engaging the denomination’s problems.

The Fellowship, on the other hand, is proposing the answer at the outset. It is inviting like-minded Presbyterians to join in a process that has clearly articulated outcomes. The organizers have set in motion a process, and people will gather in August to join in that process.

@charlesawiley’s observation that both efforts appeal to like-mindedness is apt, as is @suzemb’s concern that NEXT transcend that like-mindedness in search of common ground. But I don’t think like-mindedness is a problem. Shared convictions and common ways of viewing problems are the fuel of effective movements for change. Both The Fellowship and NEXT are appealing to people who think like the organizers and who like and trust one another. There’s nothing wrong with that.

(Try to get people to join a gathering populated by people they know they don’t agree with and whom they don’t like–I believe that’s called a presbytery meeting.)

And, practically speaking, both efforts are intentionally trying to get beyond the tired effort of finding common ground among liberals and conservatives that leaves both feeling ignored and wronged.

In the end, the biggest difference is how NEXT and Fellowship are using like-mindedness, the former as food for an open-ended (but topically delimited) conversation, and the latter as a vehicle for accomplishing precisely defined aims.

19 thoughts on “Presbyterian Death Match: NEXT Church vs. The Fellowship

  1. As someone that personally has some affinity, and some friends, in both ‘camps’ as it were. I don’t agree with your assertion that the ‘Fellowship’ conversation has already determined the outcomes.
    I think it is true and fair to say that they have certainly put forth possible or even likely outcomes.
    But I really think it is unfair to say that the Next conversation is looking for answers and the Fellowship one is just looking for people to get on board.
    I think you get the root issue correct, however, and that is trust. I was really saddened by the many responses I saw to the ‘Deathly Ill’ letter, because while I knew many would not agree with it or those that wrote it, I heard in the letter a real desire for both conversation/dialog about the future of the PC(USA), with both like-minded and those that disagree, and a hope for not-yet-known solution or solutions.
    In both the tone and content of many responses I saw disagreement, but more than that I saw lack of trust and even disdain. (I want to make clear I am not asserting that of you or this post)
    This lack of trust and (what I saw as) out of hand dismissal of what I thought was at least an attempt at moving forward with peace and unity (even if that at some point included a denominational separation) was very disheartening to me.
    Not only am I ‘somewhere in the middle’ of these two camps, I also serve a church that would not easily fit into a denomination that was dominated by either sides vision of the future.
    So I have to hope that we can still find a way for those that aren’t like minded to at least discuss our future together.
    Thanks for the post and the conversation

    1. Thanks, Chip. The Fellowship letter and White Paper, with their numbered suggestions, are far more than invitations to conversation. I seriously doubt that the August event will invite people to the kind of open-ended discussion that marked NEXT.

      That said, you point out a limitation in my perspective. I know some of the NEXT organizers personally and believe in their integrity (full disclosure: the HOS at the church I serve is one of them). I can’t say the same about the Fellowship organizers (or even the signatories to their letter). I know of some of them, but have personally me only two. I wouldn’t count any of them among my friends. I wouldn’t call them enemies either, though.

      1. Rocky and Chip…
        I don’t know if you know one another, but I just wanted to say I know you both pretty well. So you’ve got that in common.
        As I’ve said before – The Presbyterian Church is (unfortunately?) a small world.

  2. Matt, Rocky and I have never met and just started our first ‘conversation’ today. PC(USA) is a small world, but big enough for the Left hand to not always know what the Right hand is doing and vice versa – not to mention any of the body parts in the middle.
    Rocky – you are right, certainly the white paper was much more than an invitation to a conversation – but I still believe (maybe I have to) that it is still an invitation. The suggestions, I think came from the fact that the ‘fellowship’ discussion has already been going on for a time.
    It might be true too that the discussions (Next & Fellowship) have different aims – thus different modes and outcomes. I think, from what I can gather that the idea of Next was really to ask that question: what is the next church (which is certainly a broad question, with lots of room for discussion). While I think the fellowship group, might really be asking a different question, namely: how do we resolve practical issues of connectivity and relationship (not to mention property and ordination) when there are broad theological divides that are only becoming more entrenched.
    Not only a different question, but a different kind of question too. (Not more practical, per se, but certainly more immediately tangible)
    I am just happy there is a discussion to be a part of.

    1. Chip, you’re certainly right about the different effects brought about by different types of questions. I hadn’t really seen that.

      Still, I don’t hear the Fellowship asking questions. I hear them making assertions (The church is deathly ill). And they are assertions that I fundamentally disagree with.

      The Fellowship discussion has indeed been going on for a long time. First under PFR, then New Wineskins, then Presbyterian Global Fellowship, and now The Fellowship. The issues haven’t changed and neither have the people pushing the conversation.

      I’m glad to have a new conversation partner. Any friend of Matt’s is a friend of mine.

    1. Rocky, have you seen some of Matt’s friends??? That is a dangerous proposition. . . .
      But it is, indeed, good to have a new conversation partner.
      As far as the fellowship assertions, which they clearly are making – I guess it again comes back to how you hear/perceive it/them. I agree with some of their assertions, disagree with others – but for whatever reason, I heard them as an opening statement to a dialog.
      But I think the truth is we will know which one of us is closer to the truth once there are some actions to match.

  3. Paul, I think history is against you here. I’m interested in what makes you say that. Are you persuaded that the kind of change that tall steeple churches effect is fleeting or that it only exists on the surface of things?

    I’m sincerely interested.

    Thanks for joining in the conversation.

  4. Thanks for responding. I am not sure “history” matters anymore, if we are really talking about a new paradigm. My sense is that tall steeples have the most invested in the status quo. Yes, this kind of change will be superficial. Real change is going to come from the bottom up. At best they might loosen things up to give themselves more elbow room; but the more important effect will be the smaller things that are set free to grow because of it.

    (If you’re interested I comment on the deathly ill letter in my blog at

  5. I am curious to find out what blog system you’re utilizing? I’m experiencing some minor security problems with my latest blog and I’d like to find something more secure. Do you have any solutions?

  6. jesus took the body of god to the cross and died becouse they could not kill the gods own tanabacal the man christ jusus while the godhead remained in it . the father and the son share the same body . the same as we as sons of god do in our own little trickle down order .essentialy its the same god in jesus our lord and god in the bride a many memberd body .

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