One by one, as nearly 500 people entered the courtyard of First Presbyterian Church, San Diego, to register for the first National Gathering of the Fellowship Community (TFC), their delight was palpable.
“I’m excited about the fact that we’re about to gather to worship, fellowship and support one another,” said the Rev. Bill Teng, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Arcadia, Fla., and a member of TFC’s presiding board. “We have no particular agenda. Fellowship Community is a covenanted community. More than belonging, we make a commitment to help one another, to support and pray for one another.”
The Fellowship Community—the result of a 2014 merger of the former Fellowship of Presbyterians and Presbyterians for Renewal—is “a network of churches and leaders called together to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ by growing in Christ’s likeness, living by God’s word, and joining in God’s mission in the world.”
The participants’ obvious joy at coming—and at being—together anticipated what the Rev. Mark Brewer, president of TFC’s presiding board, would later say as he addressed the gathering at its opening worship.
“This conference is all about…relationships, the best way to come alive and be able to live for Christ more fully,” Brewer said. “We are pumped up about these next few days. We want you to help us to weave together a new way in the PC(USA).”
Because building community around God’s Word is inherent in the mission of TFC, Brewer joked that the organization wins the award for the most redundant name.
Yet community, redundant or not—coupled with the leadership of nearly 60 missional practitioners, preachers, teachers, mission co-workers, church planters, musicians and others—was precisely the draw for many of those gathered here.
And, for the Rev. Bob Davis, pastor of Chula Vista (Calif.) Presbyterian Church, some ten miles from San Diego—who chose to attend the gathering for his study leave—community also meant “the chance to see a lot of friends.”
“I’ve known John Thompson and Marianne Meye Thompson [professors at Fuller Theological Seminary] for years, and I come out to hear them whenever I get a chance,” Davis said. “My investment here is in the fellowship and the education. I think the idea of connecting people together beyond the local congregation is life-giving. We’re not finding life in the institution. This is a vehicle by which communities are building themselves organically. It’s related to the PC(USA), but it’s almost its own thing.”
Among the vows published on TFC’s website—not binding on all of its members—is one that reads, “Because ‘We promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church’ we are committed to faithful living and witness, not fighting denominational battles or leaving, but affirming our constitutional right to not participate in actions or ceremonies that violate our understanding of Scripture and the Confessions.”
Or, in the words of the Rev. Jim Singleton—a member of TFC’s presiding board, who addressed the gathering via Skype—the organization seeks to discern “what it means to live together within this denomination as this group of Christians.”
The Rev. Jerry Andrews, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, San Diego, in bringing greetings to the gathering lifted up the host congregation’s own testimony by way of example.
“Our session had some tough decisions to make,” Andrews said. “Recognizing the need for a covenant relationship beyond our own congregation, we chose to lead, not leave. In connecting to and supporting leaders in missional endeavors locally, nationally, and globally, we have profound gratitude for being joined to Jesus Christ and continuing trust in the Spirit to give us wisdom, courage and grace. God help us.”
Denominational leaders, including PC(USA) Moderator Heath Rada, who brought greetings, and the Rev. Barry Ensign-George, associate for Theology for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, were invited to the gathering to lead missional focus groups and conversations.
“Like NEXTChurch and other groups, the Fellowship Community is gathered around shared convictions about how faithfully to follow Christ’s calling through and in the PC(USA),” said Ensign-George,. “The gathering offers opportunities to refresh faith, find inspiration, learn new ways, and build relationships for the journey.”
Throughout its first day, the gathering focused on the joy and the challenge found in the many opportunities to join in God’s mission and to embody Christ, from the sermon preached by the Rev. Toby Gillespie-Mobley to the “big ideas” presented by the Rev. Tod Bolsinger, the Rev. Mike Breen, and the Rev. Thomas Daniel, to the greetings brought by the Rev. Paul Detterman, TFC’s national director in Louisville, Kentucky.
“We’ve had such joy in putting this together,” Detterman said. “Our prayer is that God will take you out of the place you have been and that God will take you to a place of joy and show you what He is doing from the mountaintop perspective.”