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.