The Fellowship Gathering: First Thoughts

“I remember when we shared a vision, you and I”

The Mountain Goats

I’ve just returned from The Fellowship of Presbyterians gathering in Minneapolis. The event was organized by a group of evangelical pastors within the PC (USA) who called like-minded pastors and elders to join with them in creating a New Reformed Body connected to the current denomination and yet separate from it. Though I’m not one of those like-minded pastors (as evidenced by this post), I attended on behalf of my presbytery to listen to The Fellowship’s proposals and to work with local colleagues around them.

Better bloggers than I have summarized the gathering’s accomplishments. Here’s a summary from a sympathetic participant and one from an unsympathetic not-participant. Rather than summarize, I need to process. Thank you.

[update: I contributed to a roundup of reactions over at Two Friars and A Fool that gets more into the mechanics of the event]

I’m troubled by a couple of things. This post will process one.

I’ve been underestimating the distinct theological, methodological, and sociological DNA of evangelicalism and its expression within mainline denominations like the PC (USA). Which surprises me, given my evangelical breeding. I was baptized in a charismatic church and went to college at an evangelical Presbyterian school. I fumbled a job interview at a progressive church with an uncritical recitation of the reasons why gays shouldn’t be ordained, and the first chance I had to vote on the issue, I stood for the status quo (the “fidelity and chastity” standards).

The Fellowship is an expression of the core convictions of American evangelicalism: that the church exists to seek and save lost sinners (read: everyone), that the Bible is the only admissible guide to faith and life, and that Christians stand in a position of loving opposition to the wider culture in which they’re situated. My time in Minneapolis illuminated how differently I relate to those convictions now than I did even five years ago. It’s not that I don’t believe them, it’s that words like “sin,” “save,” and “guide” (not to mention “sex“) have acquired meanings for me that they didn’t have before. The old meanings haven’t been replaced so much as nuanced, complemented, and, pray God, enriched.

I have to believe that God has been in this process, while I still acknowledge that I could be wrong.

This unsettling realization has sent me running to historians of the evangelical movement to help me better understand the ways in which The Fellowship movement is replaying an oppose-and-separate movie the church has seen before (I’m starting here and here). Every Christian denomination has evangelicals in it, even though the vast majority of evangelical Christians belong to church expressions that aren’t affiliated with anything like an organized denomination. For mainline protestants in the U.S., that has always been the case, and it has always been a source of tension, if not all-out conflict (see the First and Second Great Awakenings). Since coming into mainline protestantism in my early 20’s, I’ve understood myself to be an heir of the evangelicals in those conflicts.

I don’t anymore.

My gut reaction to the things happening in Minneapolis showed me that I’m now standing somewhere else. I’m not sure what to make of that.

15 thoughts on “The Fellowship Gathering: First Thoughts

  1. I’m someone standing there with you…and also unnerved a bit by my standing. I still consider myself an evangelical, but I am also quick to disassociate myself from all of the political/sociological baggage that comes with it. I think the essential sentence in your piece is “I have to believe that God has been in this process, while I still acknowledge that I could be wrong.” I think the current political climate finds such uncertainty unacceptable…maybe even detestable. We are tempted to stake broad, unreasonable, and sometimes illogical and unfaithful claims just for the sake of “believing in something.” I believe faith lies somewhere in “I could be wrong”–but stepping forward in humility and hope.

    I believe that my problem with “movements” within the church and national politics (including FOP) is rooted in a “we have figured/will figure this out without you” mindset that speaks, ultimately, to a lack of humility. It is not a fault exclusively reserved for “left” or “right”…it is the myth of the “like-minded” being better than the “priesthood of all believers.”

    Thanks for the piece…expressed a lot of what I feel. I’m still trying to figure it out. I know that frustrates some. It feels faithful to me…and I hope it is.

  2. Having read your post, Adam’s, James’, and Jan’s…I’m feeling at a loss for words. A part of me thinks that this feels like a potential divorce (ironic, with all the language of ordination standards, etc.), the NRB being a euphemistic way of saying, “we’re done with this denomination and starting a new one,” (which, again, ironic since James seems to be saying that the FOP are done with denominations). Another part of me thinks that maybe it really is for the best though so we can all just get on with our lives and ministries and stop trying to make people conform to one set of beliefs. Another part of me still hangs on by a thread (maybe too idealistically, i.e. naively) to the hope that communities can be diverse – I mean, extremely diverse – and still live and work for the kingdom together. Maybe I have to rethink what “together” means…

  3. One of the many frustrating pieces of all this for me is that the people leading the charge are pastors of churches who can afford to leave the denomination, but they are influencing a number of other much smaller congregations who need the resources the denomination has to offer in order to do and grow in their ministries more effectively.

    One of the main struggles for me, though, is the lack of humility that has been expressed on all sides of the issues that divide us, and that this seems to be mimicking the polarizations occurring in our local, state and national politics. It’s not about “right or wrong” any more, as Scott seems to point out above. It seems to be more about believing in something, anything, so long as their are others who believe the same thing.

    I did not grow up in an evangelically conservative church. In fact, I grew up in a church that was on the other side of things and have moved closer to the center (I like to say, “balanced”), where I believe most people are. It seems to me that most people are somewhere in the center, the grand center, not because they are wishy-washy, but because they believe there is a balance that is attainable in our positions (a balance of humility and confidence in our positions and beliefs–I believe I’m close to a truth here, but I also recognize that I could be missing it…or something like that).

    Rocky, I’m glad you and others were there just to listen and pay attention. The vitriol that has been coming out in some of the conservative circles saddens me and scares me. I wish it could be different. But, as you say, this seems to be a movie that keeps getting replayed throughout history. Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Eric. One of the things that those small churches will need to assess has to do with their actual presbytery relationship. A template of church/presbytery relationships was widely used at the Fellowship event that laid out a scale of “friendly” to “hostile.” This is reductionistic in a way that’s not helpful. In addition, it fails to account for the actual tasks of governance, nurture, and mission enabling that churches and ministers in presbyteries actually are doing. I think some of these churches, should they affiliate with this New Reformed Body and break ties with the PC (USA) will soon realize all of the things their “unfriendly” presbyteries were doing on their behalf.

  4. I appreciate the “moderate” tone expressed here. To me, this is how the church should live.

    I’m tired (perhaps a reflection of reading different reactions to #mn2011 all morning), but that’s all I have to say. 🙂

  5. Thank you for your open and honest and real post.

    I attended the meetings in Minneapolis because I have grown too weary of listening to PCUSA pastors say that when Jesus told his disciples that He was the only way, what He meant was at that time, and for them only. I have grown tired of PCUSA pastors giving sermons on the loaves and fishes and insisting that the “miracle” was that the boy was willing to share his, so many others took out bread and fish they had hidden, and shared too. I am tired of listening to PCUSA pastors preach that the Bible should only be taken as a historical document, and that how we want to view Jesus today is all that is important. I am tired of attending presbytery meetings and listening to time and money spent to condemn Catapiller because Israel uses some of their equipment. I am tired of listening to paid presbytery officials demanding that I protest against NAFTA in South America.

    If you are in a church and a presbytery where God and Jesus are not conveniently what we want them to be, and they are focuses on growing disciples and spreading the good news, then I think you are right: The FoP probably doesn’t have much to offer you.

    I believe that there is one God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Not Creator, Redeemer, and Supporter….those are their roles, not their titles.) That God sent His Son Jesus to die for our sins, and only by believing that and accepting his grace are we able to reunite with God. That we are called to share this wonderful news with others. That we are called to give both bread and the bread of life to others. If you interpret the Bible as saying that homosexuality is OK, I am fine with that. Let’s have a theological discussion. But don’t tell me the Bible doesn’t matter. Don’t tell me that there are multiple ways to salvation. Don’t tell me that we need to spend our time fighting for our political causes in the name of the church. And please, don’t call me homophobic, backwards, myth-believing, etc. because I seek to follow the Lord in my life.

    And please, please, please: Don’t tell me that there is only one sin today and that is “intolerance”.

    I want to be in a presbyterian church that worships the same God and Jesus that I do. PCUSA used to be that church. I wasn’t the one who changed.

    1. John, that’s a heavy-hitter list of grievances. I get it. I’ve only been in the PC (USA) for about 12 years, and so I’m not as tired as many people are with some of the things you list. Duration isn’t the issue though, is it? You’re tired of some of the most extreme applications of the historical critical method and of the most assertive applications of the church’s commitment to social justice. I get that. But I made my peace awhile ago with the fact that, as a mainline protestant denomination, the PC (USA) was full of people for whom those applications are central to how they have experienced Jesus. And, though they differed from mine, though I actually object to assertions like the one you recite about the loaves and the fishes (even though I’ve never heard a pastor say the Bible is “only” a historical document or that it “doesn’t matter”) there might be some truth to be discovered by walking alongside them in the work of ministry.

      Take the Caterpillar example: it turns out one of my best friends and mentors is deeply involved in that conversation. It’s not one that I had any interest in. Yet because I trust my friend and have seen him pursue ministry with faithfulness and ardor, I listened to him explain the way he sees it. In the end, if you’re a national church body with an investment portfolio and one of the companies in that portfolio is outfitting an Israeli military operation to destroy peoples’ homes, you probably need to spend some time talking about it (in the end, the “condemnation” was of the company’s profit-making in this operation, a fact that many in our church found to be a scandalous compromise of gospel principles).

      Surely you’re right that the church changed. I don’t think that’s an entirely bad thing. That so many evangelicals do is an indicator of the wide gulf separating our convictions. That gulf doesn’t outrage me.

      Thanks for being in conversation. Peace to you.

      1. Thank you for the conversation. The biggest issue you didn’t address: Do you believe Jesus is the only path to salvation? If so, do you want to belong with a denomination that ordains people who don’t?

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