A multitude of volunteers in neon yellow T-shirts stood in the unusually hot and humid weather to welcome and direct guests at The Fellowship Community’s second national gathering, “A Waiting World — A Willing Church?” held August 18-20 in San Diego. In 2014, Presbyterians for Renewal and the Fellowship of Presbyterians merged to form the Fellowship Community, which defines itself as “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.”
Hosted by First Presbyterian Church of San Diego, nearly 500 attended three packed days that included worship, TED-talk type presentations, Bible study and networking. Praise music wafted from the open windows of the 100-plus-year-old sanctuary often over the course of the gathering. Attendees also got a taste of the historic church’s jazz vespers and the Casavant organ. The windows and doors of the church were wide open and, symbolic of the theme, the sounds of buses and ambulances punctuated the events taking place inside.
The call to go out into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ was woven throughout the preaching and teaching. There was a sense that now is a particularly ripe time for evangelism, a hunger and a need for the Good News. As she preached from Romans 12 in opening worship, Toby Gillespie-Mobley, pastor of Glenville New Life Community Church in Cleveland, urged listeners to be joyful, keep on praying, serving and sowing seeds. Marianne Meye Thompson, the professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, taught two of four plenary Bible studies. Dale Bruner, retired religion professor from Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, taught the other two. Thompson talked about the abundant life Jesus came to give, reminding hearers that “Jesus is not a stingy giver.” There is, therefore, no need for Jesus’ followers to hold back; neither should disciples be concerned with the response to their witness, she said. “The church does what it does without regard to the response of that work,” she reminded the large crowd.
Nonetheless, organizers recognized that the work of witnessing to Jesus Christ requires new methods in this post-Christian era. Eight speakers presented “One Big Idea” each, exploring what shape this witness might take. Tod Bolsinger, vice president for vocation and formation at Fuller Seminary, used systems theory to exhort congregations to embrace a “spirit of adventure.” Thomas Daniel, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, challenged churches to dig wells, not build fences, noting that labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” are no longer useful, if they ever have been.
Afternoons offered the opportunity to “Go Deeper” with one of the morning’s speakers while missional focus groups gathered simultaneously. Conference goers were encouraged to eat with others in similar contexts and network to build community and support. Times were set aside for small church pastors, first call pastors, women in ministry and others to meet. The importance of relationships and mutual building up during this changing time was emphasized and the conference was structured to facilitate such practices.
There was a recognition that the recent vote within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to allow pastors to officiate same-sex weddings, along with the Supreme Court’s ruling making same-sex marriage the law of the land had left some of those in attendance feeling marginalized. However, this was in no way a frequent refrain. Rather, there was a sense of opportunity and the content of the three days appeared to be intentionally shaped to help equip participants with tools to go out into the world to do vibrant and life-giving ministry.
Both the national and the international Presbyterian Church were represented at the Fellowship Community gathering. Moderator Heath Rada brought greetings; Vera White, coordinator for the denomination’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative, lead a lunch conversation; and Tom Taylor, president and CEO of the Presbyterian Foundation, thanked churches of the Fellowship Community for their generosity that supported the work of the Wycliffe Bible translators. Boutros Zaour, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Damascus, Syria, preached during a conference worship service — despite having just received news that a mortar shell had hit his church in Syria. He told the congregation that his elders insisted he stay in San Diego to share their plight with their brothers and sisters in the United States.
All in attendance were encouraged to make use of resources created by The Fellowship Community, including an upcoming curriculum on The Great Ends of the Church. They were also reminded of the importance of becoming a member of the Fellowship Community, both as an individual and as a congregation.
The Fellowship Community will hold its national gathering in Pittsburg next year.