If the Fellowship Community (TFC)—the result of a 2014 merger of the former Fellowship of Presbyterians and Presbyterians for Renewal—has committed itself to “intentionally building a culture that is community first and ministry next,” then its first National Gathering, held here Aug. 18-20, was the quintessential incarnation of one of this movement’s key goals.
“Our goal is that you’ll return to your community filled with passion, energy and joy for the opportunity to embody Christ,” wrote the Rev. Paul Detterman, TFC’s national director in his welcome to the gathering.
And the gathering’s 500 plus attendees affirmed that this first national event of the combined organization accomplished all that and more.
Not only was the principle of “community first” embodied by the conference goers over the three days of the gathering, but it was also articulated by such participants as the Rev. Bob Davis, pastor of Chula Vista (Calif.) Presbyterian Church, who called the idea of connecting people together beyond the local congregation “life-giving.”
TFC’s vision statement, which outlines a new way for evangelical pastors, leaders and congregations to remain in the PC(USA) reads, in part, “The Fellowship is not a club or an agency—it is not designed to rescue institutions or advocate ideologies. The goal of the Fellowship is to create and sustain a movement within the Church that will replicate itself in a thousand different locations and give contemporary disciples the community we so desperately need.”
Which naturally leads to the practice—or “ministry next”—piece.
This key aspect of TFC’s mission and vision was integral to the gathering’s content and programmatic structure—featuring worship, Bible study, keynote presentations, conversations, exhibits and more—and was perhaps most notably evidenced in the 30 missional focus groups led by mission practitioners and “followers of Jesus, who are passionately committed to God's mission in the world.”
The Rev. Lisa Johnson, associate director of the Elder Leadership Institute (ELI)—a church leadership training program of the Fellowship Community—emphasized the “ministry next” element in the Aug. 18 missional focus group she co-led with the Rev. Sara Singleton, ELI’s director, when she said that her workshop’s objective was to present information that would be easy to take home and put into practice.
“If you discern that ELI could meet a need in your church,” said Johnson, “we want to come alongside you and help to implement the transformational change you are looking for.”
In other missional focus groups, leaders of congregations from eight very different ministry settings across the PC(USA)—including the Rev. Nick Warnes, organizing pastor of Northland Village Church in Los Angeles—presented their stories of radical missional transformation. And on Aug. 19, the Rev. Rob Weingartner, director of the Outreach Foundation—a partnership-driven ministry that seeks to builds the capacity of Presbyterians and global partners to share and show the love of Jesus—added a global dimension to the gathering by leading a missional focus group entitled, “Changing Mission—Transforming Congregations.”
In his well-attended presentation, Weingartner began by helping participants to understand the critical difference between a “mission-focused” and a “missional” church, explaining the difference between the concepts of “attractional” and “incarnational.”
“The operating assumption of the attractional church is that to introduce people to Jesus, you must first bring them to church,” Weingartner said, “while the operating assumption of the incarnational church is that to be faithful in mission you have to get the church into the world.”
Weingartner emphasized the importance of both word and deed, showing and sharing, in witnessing to the good news.
Quoting theologian Richard Stearns, author of The Hole in Our Gospel, Weingartner said,
“When we committed ourselves to following Christ, we also committed to living our lives in such a way that a watching world would catch a glimpse of God’s character—His love, justice and mercy—through our words, actions, and behavior,” to which he added, “The way we serve others must reflect the love we proclaim; our service must not go unexplained.”
Lifting up the current generation of young people who are being raised outside of any religious community, Weingartner quoted missional expert, Alan Roxburgh, who said “the basic stance of denominations and congregations must be transformed to that of missionaries in their own culture…it calls for a radically new kind of church.”
“The Presbyterian Church is not competing with the Baptists or the Methodists but with soccer practice and the coffee shop,” said Weingartner. “Those are the choices that people are making.”
Weingartner characterized Christians in the West as “living on a mission field.”
“We imagined mission was from the West to the rest,” he said. “Now we know mission is from everywhere to everyone.”
In moving church members into more faithful expressions of mission, Weingartner stressed the importance of developing long-term relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, rather than “a one-way flow of resources from us to them, but sharing gifts as members of the global body of Christ.”
“We are part of the movement to turn the Presbyterian Church upside down,” Weingartner said. “Mission begins with our transformation and involves our continuing conversion. When Jesus says ‘follow me,’ he means ‘keep following me.’ It’s an ongoing journey.”
In the same way, the decision for pastors, leaders, and congregations to remain in the PC(USA) can also be characterized as an ongoing journey.
In another Aug. 19 focus group, the Rev. Barry Ensign-George, associate for theology in the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s office of Theology and Worship, addressed the question, “What Does It Mean to Be a Denomination?”
“When we talk about denominations and churches, we use words that contribute to the tendency to be hurtful to one another,” said Ensign-George. “The problem arises when we can’t name what it is that we are, when we can’t talk about what it means to be a denomination.”
Ensign-George said his objective was to help participants articulate “who it is that we are, so that we can communicate better.”
“If we can be clear about what we mean, we can create a conversation with greater clarity,” he said.
After presenting a thorough history and understanding of denominationalism—beginning with the thesis that “there is more than one faithful way to live the Christian faith”—Ensign-George welcomed questions and comments.
“I was ready to say, ‘Forget Louisville, forget the PC(USA), and then I was convicted,” said the Rev. Wendy Boden, pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Glen Ellyn, Ill. “I get very discouraged. I often feel misrepresented by my denomination. Barry’s talk made me feel convicted. I feel renewed commitment to the PC(USA).”
“Ironically,” she added in a brief Aug. 20 interview, “this morning I was called by my presbytery [Chicago] to ask me to be on a committee for gracious dismissal.”