We are living in the “age of the unthinkable,” declared Australian keynote speaker Alan Hirsch to 1,200 American Presbyterians who also bear the label ECO or FOP and/or formerly PFR.
The tri-initial labels reflect the newest phase of life for many evangelicals in the Presbyterian family. ECO, short for the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, is the newest cluster of congregations (148 at most recent count) to separate from the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to form a new denomination. FOP, the Fellowship of Presbyterians, was launched simultaneously with ECO but aims to be a support and accountability system for evangelicals remaining in the PC(USA). And PFR, Presbyterians for Renewal, the mother ship of evangelicals for the past three decades, recently voted itself out of existence to merge into the FOP.
Separately and successively, each of the two new organizations took major steps to define its identity and mission at a Dallas conference center for three days this past mid-August.
The ECO member pastors, elders and observers gathered first for three hours to hold their second synod meeting (the denomination’s top governing body) to gain inspiration from John Ortberg, to hear reports from executive director Dana Allen and several other key leaders, and to pass a few legislative actions — no major controversies in the self-described “single-minded” body.
All of the those identifying with ECO, FOP and formerly PFR remained for an additional 48 hours to sing praises to God, to hear challenging addresses and to consider lots of ideas on how to do church in a different way. That is, to do church in the age of the unthinkable.
Hirsch delivered a major share of plenary speaking, claiming that this is “a critical, tricky time” in world history. “You can’t simply take ideas formulated at another time in history and apply them now with the expectation [that the result] will be the same as before.”
The founding director of Forge Mission Training Network citedexample after example of things turning out in ways unimagined: when the failing economy of “little Greece” brought down the whole European Union with it; when the Arab spring turned into “a disaster zone;” when the legislators of the world’s leading democracy could not find a way to formulate a budget.
But, speaking directly to his audience he exhorted: “The opportunity you have now is to start again. That’s a rare opportunity. But you need to start well.”
The challenge that weighs down American evangelicalism resembles that of the Laodicean church in the book of Revelation. “They lived in a land of plenty. They had no need of anything.”
Instead he exhorted the participants in the newborn organizations to recalibrate their perception of the faith by beholding Jesus — not just the crucified, resurrected Savior, but also the teacher, the role model, the picture of God. Or, borrowing words from John Wesley, “‘Jesus is the classroom, the curriculum and the teacher.’”
“If you get Jesus wrong, you produce a toxic religion.”
In the introductory synod meeting address by Ortberg, whose massive Menlo Park congregation transferred from PC(USA) to ECO earlier this year, the popular author and Bible teacher dismantled some of the high expectations of his colleagues. “Joining a new denomination does not make an old church a new church.” He expressed his yearning: “I hope and pray that God is not starting a new denomination but a new movement.”
At the same time, he echoed emphatically a regular refrain of his fellow founders of ECO by stating that he has no interest in hearing criticisms of the PC(USA). Rather, “I love the Presbyterian world,” he assured, and in that light he urged them all to “celebrate the legacy” that has shaped them.
Looking forward he urged the teaching elders and ruling elders simply to love the church — to bring their “A-game” every day to serve it. “It’s worth it. You’re not crazy. So dream really big. Aim really high. Risk really great. Pray really humbly. Die to self fully.”
Dana Allin, the synod executive, addressed the commissioners, reflecting on the denomination’s rapid growth. The first synod meeting brought together representatives from 30 churches in two synods. Now, he reported, they have nearly 150 churches, nine presbyteries and about 60,000 covenant partners (i.e., members). Now, at two-and-a-half years of age, “we’re potty trained,” he bragged with a wink.
He outlined a set of shifts that the synod executive council has identified as priorities looking ahead.
- From “clergy-centered” to “an unleashed laity”
- From “safety and preservation” to “risk-taking and expansion”
- From “homogeneous leadership prepared for Christendom” to “preparing all of God’s people for a post-Christian culture”
- From “purely attactional ministry” to “missional and attractional”
- From “an addition/subtraction mentality” to “a multiplication mindset.”
The one major item of business before the ECO synod was the approval of an invitation from the Christian Reformed Church in North America to “enter into ecclesiastical fellowship,” thereby becoming full ecumenical partners, the first bilateral partnership for ECO (it already is a member of the multi-denomination World Communion of Reformed Churches).
Other business included the clearer formulation of the work of ECO’s “theology project” and the election of members to committees of the denomination.
Celebrations continued in the afternoon plenary when Jim Singleton, founding president of the FOP announced that the first two ministerial ordinations in ECO were both women. He expressed mixed feelings about churches having transferred from the PC(USA), some gracious; some difficult. “We need to be sensitive to the various kinds of moods in the house.”
Singleton especially celebrated the new energy for the Fellowship. He stated repeatedly as did Paul Detterman (the former executive director of Presbyterian for Renewal recently named director of community for FOP), that the Fellowship is “not an exit ramp,” “not a waiting station to transfer” but a place to be, a community within and fully involved in the PC(USA).
Echoing Ortberg, Singleton underlined, “Changing uniforms — changing denominations — is not going to make you different. Being different is about growing into the congregation, about being not conformed to the world by transformed as Romans 12 tells us.”
PC(USA) leaders, including those not affiliating with FOP, also gave leadership to the conference. Vera White, of the Office of Evangelism and Church Growth, led a workshop on 1001 New Worshipping Communities. Charles Wiley, from the Office of Theology and Worship, led a workshop titled, “Grace and gratitude as Presbyterian identity and source of mission.” And Linda Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, led a gathering that consecrated and commended the passing of the mantle from PFR to FOP.
In that context she acknowledged the pain that many evangelicals have felt over actions taken by recent General Assemblies. She said bluntly, “The national staff doesn’t get to vote at the assemblies. We simply seek to serve the church, the whole church.”
She did highlight that a major new study provided for the FOP and ECO was published by the denomination — and given to all in attendance for free.
Interspersed between plenary lectures and worship services a host of seminars was presented. Some were particularly theological in nature, such as:
- Rediscovering our heavenly Father
- The big picture: An overview of God’s plan of redemption in the Old Testament
Others were missional in emphasis, such as:
- Sticky faith: Youth ministry
- Missionary in your home town
- Mobilizing a church to do justice, globally and locally
Others were about church development, such as:
- Going deeper with mission affinity groups
- ECO retirement plan: Getting your congregation set up
All in all, the 2014 National Gathering of the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians sustained an upbeat spirit, an outward vision for mission and an earnest effort to remain in close fellowship with colleagues and other friends in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Attendees departed with a prod to live inseparably, while being somewhat divided organizationally, in the age of the unthinkable.