Guest commentary by Joseph D. Small
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was once blessed and/or cursed by an abundance of special interest organizations arrayed on one side or the other of the sexuality issues fault line. Although most of the organizations had interests that went beyond LGBTQ issues, it was sexuality concerns that energized constituents and determined strategy and action. The church’s irreversible decisions on ordination and marriage have changed all of that.
The recent split that resulted in many conservative-evangelical congregations leaving for the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) has reduced evangelicals in the PC(USA) to minority status for the foreseeable future. Conversely, the split has resulted in a PC(USA) that is now moderately progressive at every level.
The two special organizations that remain nationally prominent are The Fellowship Community and NEXT Church, both of which held national gatherings in February. It has become apparent that neither is simply the successor to previous organizations. The decades-long battle over sexuality is (almost) over, and so both the Fellowship Community and NEXT Church are structured around more basic issues of the church’s faith and life. Although it should be obvious, it is not clear to some Presbyterians that the Fellowship Community represents evangelicals who are committed to remaining in the PC(USA). Some remain out of theological conviction, others for more practical reasons, but the Fellowship Community is dedicated to life within the larger Presbyterian denomination.
Divisive times and unified discipleship
The Fellowship Community’s National Gathering convened in Atlanta, February 20-22. The theme of the gathering was “Discipleship in a Divided Time.” Notably, “divided” had nothing to do with ecclesial division in the PC(USA). Rather, the theme focused on the political, ideological, racial and socioeconomic fault lines that characterize national life, and that too often shape religious life in America. The matter before the Fellowship Community was how congregational and personal discipleship can be faithfully shaped amid a culture characterized by polarizing forces.
The gathering, generously hosted by Peachtree Presbyterian Church, followed the typical format of worship, plenary speakers, workshops, group connections and exhibits. One notable addition was a trip for all participants to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. Two hours spent with exhibits, audio and video presentations, and quiet contemplation was a moving experience. I spent some solitary time in the sanctuary of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church listening to recordings of two regular Sunday sermons preached there by King. This provided an added dimension to my appreciation of who he was, and how his deep faith led him into a struggle for racial justice in America. All participants spoke with one another about the personal and group importance of time at the Center.
Three plenary speakers provided complementary perspectives on ecclesial discipleship. Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, led with a significant exploration of the nature of discipleship, and the demands of fidelity in a divided and divisive time in the life of America and America’s churches. Labberton, former pastor of Berkeley Presbyterian Church, has published a number of books, including “The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice.” God’s “dangerous call to justice” was evident in both his address and a later sermon.
Harvey Drake, former pastor of Emerald City Bible Fellowship and founder-president of Urban Impact, a community-based organization that focuses on the needs of families in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, also delivered a plenary address and preached. Like Labberton’s address and sermon, it was difficult to tell the difference between lecture and preaching. Drake spoke with deep conviction about reaching across the racial and economic divides that cut deeply into American society and into America’s churches.
The most surprising plenary speaker was Chad Pecknold, a Catholic theologian who teaches in the School of Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Equally surprising was the theme of his address: “Citizenship from Above: The View from Augustine’s ‘City of God.’ ” I think it is safe to say that most of the participants were not well acquainted with “City of God,” but Pecknold punctuated deep dives into Augustine with summaries that brought people up to the surface before he plunged in again. His conclusion – that the divide we face is not simply about particular issues, but concerns the deep distinction between “the City of God and the city of man” – was a challenging theological word to the gathering.
Pecknold’s address, together with those of Labberton and Drake, reflected the Fellowship Community’s explicit commitment to serious, sustained theological work. In addition to the national gathering, an annual theology conference, study materials on congregational and denominational koinonia, and a video series on the Great Ends of the Church are instances of this commitment. The Fellowship Community does not promote theological work as an abstract, academic exercise, but as an essential element in faithful pastoral and congregational discipleship.
Worship was contemporary/traditional (is that a category?). Contemporary praise choruses and up-tempo arrangements of familiar hymns were paired with Scripture and prayer free from the forced gimmicks that often characterize national Presbyterian meetings. In addition to Labberton and Drake, sermons were also preached by Mark Hong, executive/stated clerk of the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, and Hope Lee, lead pastor of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church and The Well in Bradenton, Florida. Throughout, preaching dealt theologically and ethically with the theme of discipleship in a time of social and religious division.
Workshops covered an assortment of topics, ranging from the global church to Flannery O’Connor, levering the cultural moment to the power of prayer, and across social, generational and size issues in and among the churches. Group connections were offered for under-40, women and small group leaders, as well as for persons seeking and offering congregational staff positions, adding to times of informal conversation that are an important part of all church gatherings.
Life in the minority
Four church splits in 75 years have left PC(USA) conservatives and evangelicals in the in the minority. There are many ways to respond to minority status, none of them easy. The Fellowship Community has responded by putting aside anger, marginalizing grievances and abandoning church politics. In marked contrast to the days of the Presbyterian Coalition, there were no denunciations of denominational infidelity, no censure of Louisville staff, no strategizing about issues coming before the General Assembly. Instead, the mood was upbeat and energetic. (The only critiques I heard were informal conversations about life in hostile presbyteries.) Rather than rue ecclesial and social divides, participants seemed ready to focus on the gospel call to faithful pastoral and congregational discipleship.
The signs of minority status were apparent, however. Reflecting PC(USA) reality, attendance was about one-third that of the NEXT Church gathering. There was a noticeable absence of national and presbytery staff, and a negligible presence of PC(USA) agencies and institutions in the exhibit area. Gathering programs were run-off on copy machines, and even that required the kindness of others. But while there may have been some sadness at denominational neglect, there was no observable bitterness. Instead, there was gladness for the opportunity to be together and support one another.
The Fellowship Community is managed by a volunteer board without staff (a part-time conference coordinator was employed, making this year’s gathering a smooth operation). There are no plans for building a national structure or organizing regional groups. Personal and congregational “membership” has been abandoned in favor of traditional fundraising. Instead of constructing a managerial apparatus, the Fellowship Community is relying on the national gathering, annual theology and pastors’ conferences, and a more robust web presence to bring evangelicals together.
It has been noted that “Fellowship Community” is the most redundant name of any church organization. Both “fellowship” and “community” are acceptable English translations of the rich Greek word koinonia (better translated as “communion”). “Fellowship” has become a relatively weak word, connoting occasional, casual gatherings without necessarily deep commitments (such as coffee hours in Fellowship Halls). On the other hand, “community” indicates intentional, mutual, committed relationships that endure. While the Fellowship Community is a fellowship, it remains to be seen whether it will become a community. Communities do not require organizational structure, but they do require durable relationships and shared commitments. The Fellowship Community’s emphasis on congregations and their pastors is appropriate; the community gathered around Word and Sacrament is the basic form of church. But it is not a sufficient form of church, for congregations must reach beyond themselves in common ministry to one another and common engagement in mission to a divided world. It will be important to watch for signs of genuine community in the Fellowship, as well as in NEXT Church, and to expect signs of fellowship, and hope for signs of communion, between the Fellowship and NEXT Church.
Joseph Small served as director of the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship from 1989-2011. In retirement he serves (very) part-time as church relations consultant to the Presbyterian Foundation. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.