“I’m not really sure we have really dreamed for a long time,” said Ortberg, an author and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California. “I think God is calling us to dream.”
On the second day of their Jan. 18-20 conference in Orlando, Fellowship leaders began to flesh out the details of their proposals for a new denomination, which they are calling the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (using the acronym ECO). The idea, Fellowship leaders said, is to create an ecosystem of creative ministry that’s scripturally based and mutually accountable.
How many congregations will leave the Presbyterian Church for the new denomination remains to be seen.
In a straw poll taken of those registered for the conference, nearly 60 percent of the 2,100 attending said they were coming mostly to discern what to do next, said John Crosby, pastor of Christ Presbyterian church in Edina, Minn., and one of the Fellowship’s leaders.
About 20 percent said they intend to leave the PC(USA) to join the Evangelical Covenant Order, Crosby said in an interview Jan. 19, and about 7 percent want some kind of union relationship with both the PC(USA) and the new denomination. About 15 percent want to join the Fellowship while remaining in the PC(USA), Crosby said.
Others may take time to decide what to do – with some predicting that the numbers in the new denomination may grow over time, particularly if the General Assembly of the PC(USA) makes a move at some point to allow its clergy to perform same-gender marriages.
Crosby described the Fellowship as a big umbrella, with many congregations and individuals staying in the PC(USA) but with a “sliver” outside in the Evangelical Covenant Order.
Crosby also stressed that in creating a new denomination, the idea is not “to get the pure folks away from the impure folks” or to act out of anger. “When organizations are started by angry people, they remain angry,” he said.
Jim Singleton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, said on Nov. 19 that the Fellowship will stay mostly in the PC(USA) and “ECO will step just barely outside of it” and “we hope the two will always be … very compatible and ever-related.”
At this Covenanting Conference, the new denomination has essentially already been created – though not through a vote of those attending. The Fellowship released revised polity and theology documents that are part of the new denomination’s constitution, and a vote by the Fellowship’s board of directors to approve those constitutional documents has essentially put the new denomination into place, said Paul Detterman, an administrative consultant for the Fellowship.
Ortberg preached during morning worship Jan. 18 – laying out a vision for the more nuts-and-bolts presentations to come.
Ortberg, who grew up a Baptist, said he imagined when he was young “that Presbyterians sat in the basement and smoked cigarettes and thought of ways to desecrate the gospel.” As his ministry evolved, however, and he came to pastor a Presbyterian church, Ortberg said he grew to appreciate much about Presbyterianism, including a commitment to social justice, egalitarian ministry and a thoughtful, informed faith.
Ortberg unscrolled a long list of Presbyterians he’s come to admire, both living and dead – pastors, writers, theologians, professors. “They love Jesus and they were Christ-centered and they loved the life of the mind and they read great books,” he said. They were globally-aware and they weren’t fundamentalists, he said, and “I loved that . . . What a precious legacy we have been given. When I discovered it, I felt I had come home.”
But now, he said, in part because the decline of mainline denominations and because of internal strife, that legacy is dying.
Ortberg said when he asked young Presbyterian pastors earlier this week how many considered bold, creative, innovative faith to be a hallmark of Presbyterian life these days, “no hands went up. That’s really serious and tragic business.”
So Ortberg spoke of his dream – of a movement of “spirit-led, God-centered churches” committed to justice, evangelism and spiritual formation; where people are willing to take risks in ministry; where the gifts of men and women are equally valued; where denominational meetings “never waste anybody’s time.”
In that kind of ecosystem, “our job is to put hell out of business, and that’s why Jesus went to the cross on a Friday,” he said. “I have zero desire to be part of a church that is OK with doing OK while hell is winning.”
Ortberg described the Fellowship and the new denomination as “a movement that is just waiting to happen.” And Crosby said he hopes that those considering becoming involved will lean forward “far enough that you are gulping. This is risky.”
Look at the lessons of the Bible, Ortberg said. “When in the Bible did God ever ask someone to take on an easy task?” he asked – certainly not Noah or Abraham.
“What gives us peace,” Ortberg said, “is God saying, `I will be with you.’ . . . There is uncertainty. There is risk. It has always been that way.”