We’re Starting a New Presbyterian Church

See original posting.

There are times when some things in life just make sense. What might seem like a foolish and risky endeavor to one person might be a natural convergence of clarity and call to another. With that said, after nearly a year since I announced the end of my time at a church that I helped to plant over a decade ago, it’s with a deep sense of call that I am again entering the world of church planting.

But wait, there’s more.

For generations the idea of “church” has been bound by proximity, physical structures and time. Sure, many have been creative within these bounds, but most have nevertheless been limited by them. The past 10+ years has also seen the increased influence of social media on culture that has created profound opportunities for people to engage the breadth of the human experience and find genuine community. Many churches have found ways to integrate the use of social media into congregational life, but most are centered around the idea that the community begins at one central location and that particular experience is amplified by the use of social media. For a while now I have had an inkling that the “social media amplifies the local church” paradigm could be flipped upside-down resulting in a powerful way to be church. If this shift were to be taken seriously, some interesting questions are raised:

  • What if a church decided that the discipline of following Christ and building genuine Christian community could be lived out without everyone having to actually be in one place at one time?
  • What if a church unapologetically leveraged online tools to be a community no longer bound by architecture, time and physical proximity?
  • What if a church that met online believed that even a historic religious tradition like the Presbyterian Church (USA) can be expressed in new ways?
  • Essentially . . . can church be church when it is primarily lived and manifested online?

Well ask “What if?” no longer because the church that I am planting is going to be one that tries to answer these questions. Peering through the lens of social media, I am excited to push the bounds of traditional church formation, while maintaining all that is good about traditional church. To be clear, the online nature of this idea certainly creates great technological possibilities, but my intention is that we will build just a church like any church: one that worships, serves, studies and prays together . . . we will just happen to gather online. There will be no justifications seeking legitimacy, no quotes inferring that this is not a “real church” and no posture that we are competing for people, resources or notoriety . . . just a church.

As I dive into this, I have had some exploratory conversations with people who might be part of such a church, received some initial feedback from denominational folks and have prayed x 3 about it. but like any church plant, there is much to do in order get ready for any kind of official launch.  At this early stage it is tempting to come out launching a high-functioning and slick “product,” but we realize that if this is to truly be a church and not just a dispenser of religious services, the final mission, vision, form and function must be formed and owned by the community. At the same time, I know that some will need to know a little more before deciding whether or not to get involved. So to give a taste, here is a little bit of what I am thinking in terms of initial focus and tone . . .

  • Spiritual and Religious – This is not just about getting together and being Christians in isolation who randomly connect online, but about developing disciplines that help us to grow into who God intends.
  • Gracious and Progressive – While spirited theological and political disagreement will be welcomed, stridency and rigidity is not how we will approach difficult issues. We will be a church that will live under the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA): ones sexual orientation or gender are not barriers to leadership, reproductive options are important, capital punishment should be abolished, etc.
  • Reformed and Presbyterian – Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God is central to our ongoing search for God’s intentions for each of us. As we seek to know the will of God and mind of Christ, we do so honoring all voices, no matter how small.
  • Open and Sourced – While all people who are part of this community are ministers in their own right, we also know that some roles will require particular gifts and skills. The life of the community will move along with a collaborative spirit, but leadership will also be tasked with guiding and shaping the process in a way that moves forward. The circle will definitely widen, but the initial leadership team is currently made up of: Katie Mulligan, Teaching Elder, NJ; Stephen Salyards, Ruling Elder, CA; Mihee Kim-Kort, Teaching Elder, IN; Derrick Weston, Teaching Elder, OH; Jack Jenkins, Seminary Student, MA; Jennifer Owen Walsh, NC and myself, Teaching Elder in CA.
  • Inward and Outward . . . but mostly outward – This is not about building up a crazy number of followers, friends or likes. This is about creating community that finds healing, discipline and love SO that we get the heck out into the world and do some good. From our tent-making pastoral leadership to our programs to our finances the outward nature of this community will be self-evident.

. . . and this is where we do it all through the lens of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Again I know that there are many of questions that we need to address before a full launch – “What about X?” and “How will we do X?” – but I also know that only way this new church will be able to respond well is to keep widening the circle of involvement. With this in mind our first step is to gauge the interest of folks and begin to gather people for some conversations and planning. Some of you are ready to dive right in, others will want nothing to do with this craziness and still others of you will need to lurk around the edges until the time is right. However you might see yourself connected to this church that has yet to be named, as we begin to build up a spiritual community, develop organizational strategies and start being church together, you are invited to JOIN OUR FACEBOOK PAGE and FILL OUT THIS SURVEY.

There is definitely more to come and I look forward to walking this journey with some of you. Please pass this along to any folks who you think might also be interested.


My Thoughts on The Fellowship and The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians

[Photo from Fellowship Facebook Photos]

UPDATE – At the bottom on this post, you’ll see that I have been adding links to other post on the ECO.

In the scheme of the world’s problems, the goings on of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – no matter how much we would like it not to be true – create few ripples in the cultural seas and religious landscape of the United States or the world.  This is not to say that we aren’t doing good work in some places, that communities have stopped being faithful or that we should no longer  bother trying, only that the energy that we put towards our own internal struggles must be kept in perspective.  No doubt, these are important times in our life as a denomination, but if we get too fixated on our own navels, we will further slide into the abyss of irrelevance with little hope for a healthy future.

So on that cheery note, let me muse a bit on the recent developments concerning The Fellowship of Presbyterians and the newly announced Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).

As some have noted, I have been hesitant to comment on The Fellowship or other organized movements of change within our denomination. I did offer some ideas about the future in The Big Sort of the Presbyterian Church and I Want My Presbyterian Church Back, so other than these posts, I have tried to stay out of the fray. But after seeing some of the conversations during and after the recent Florida gathering where the The ECO was launched, I have decided to break my blogging hiatus and jump into the conversation.

I know this is going to sound a little silly coming from a former General Assembly Moderator, but I see myself as an outsider to much of what is currently taking place in the denomination. After serving as moderator, other than attending General Assembly Mission Council meetings and Peacemaking Program Gatherings, I have had very little in-depth interaction with the movers and shakers of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I am not looking to be more involved, but I simply have not been part of any discussions concerning The Fellowship, NEXT Church or any other denominationally affiliated organizations. I have spoken at a few Presbytery gatherings, but since I am no longer serving a congregation and find myself speaking with more and more non-Presbyterian groups, the dog that I have in this hunt is blissfully picking daisies at the back of the pack. Again, please do not hear that I yearn to be more engaged in these recent developments, only that the realities of my current perspective are a little different that some might think.

I share all of this in the hopes that my thoughts and questions will be received as coming from the perspective of someone who was NOT at the Florida gathering, one who is not interested in a long, drawn-out adversarial denominational future and one who hopes that all who are genuinely seeking to follow God’s call on his or her life – even if it is out of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – will be given the freedom and encouragement to do so.

Like most folks in the church, most of my information about all of this comes from reporting and reflections by The Presbyterian News Service, The Presbyterian Layman, The Presbyterian Outlook and the  #fellowshippres twitter trend. I suspect that this is a little more than the average Presbyterian will explore, so it with this base knowledge, that I offer some thoughts.

My affirmations . . . since the beginning of The Fellowship I have affirmed the questions that they have raised about the future of denominations in general and the Presbyterian Church (USA) specifically. Aside from the obvious disagreement about the ordination of called LGBTQ folks, the questions raised about structure, vision, relationally, etc. are not much different from the ones that I have posed myself from time to time. In fact, aside from a few words and phrases, at face value I can totally buy into both the Fellowship Covenant that folks are being asked to sign as well as the nine values of the ECO as presented by John Crosby and reported by Presbyterian News Service.

  • Jesus-shaped Identity – “the key is making disciples rather than orthodox believers.”
  • Biblical Integrity – “A faith that is not just taught but shapes the life of your community.”
  • Thoughtful Theology – “not papers for intellectuals but rearing followers who are able to reflect and apply their faith to their lives.”
  • Accountable Community – “caring environments that allows integral faith to emerge.”
  • Egalitarian  Ministry – women and minorities in leadership.
  • Missional Centrality – “the whole of the gospel to the whole of the world; what would you lose if your church went away?”
  • Center-focused Spirituality – “calling people to the core of Christianity, not fixating on the boundaries ― we are NOT truth cops.”
  • Leadership Velocity – “growing and developing leaders who are culture-changing, risk-taking innovators.”
  • Kingdom Vitality – “congregational life is not about size, but trajectory.”

Now I still have at least 10 reasons to stay in the PC(USA) so, at this point, I do not plan on hitching my wagon to another group be it an association, denomination or order. That said, I truly appreciate the questions being asked by those driving The Fellowship movement, their commitment to take some concrete actions and, from what I have experienced, who are responding to a genuine yearning to follow God’s calling on their lives.

My questions . . . I do not have any need to see a group fail or go through some painful gauntlet in order to follow where God may be leading. That said, I do have some questions,  that if addressed, would help me better understand what the ECO is thinking. I suspect this would also be helpful for those who are exploring a connection with the new reformed body as well as those who are simply interested in knowing some of what lies behind the initial offering. There are many questions rolling around my head, but I’ll just offer three:

  • What will prevent ECO from becoming just another Presbyterian denomination burdened by structure and organization? The answer to this is probably coming later as structures are fleshed out, but what will prevent this body from becoming just another denomination mired in structure, organization and legalism?
  • Where does relationality end and regulation begin when it comes to polity and standards? This is the rubber/road question for me. There seems to be a good deal of rhetoric around not being “truth cops” and a yearning to move from being regulatory to being relational. I applaud this, but as many of us have been talking about this shift in other parts of the church, from across the theological spectrum, the question always arises, “But what if someone decides to do [insert something the other does not want to happen]?”  For instance, if a congregation finds itself in alignment with much of what is being preached in this new body AND it believes that the ordination of LGBTQ folks is what they are called to do, is there room for them? I suspect the answer is no, but some clarity about the bounds of affiliation would be helpful
  • Why the use of the word “minority” to describe what I assume are people of color in the US and Globally? For some this is a term that has very much gone out of usage as the reality of who are “minorities” in the US and globally has changed. On one hand, this can be an acknowledgement of the racially homogenous nature of the Presbyterian family or it could a lack of awareness of current sociological realities . . . or it might also be something entirely different.

My hopes . . .

  • As churches decide to move away from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and towards a new denominational reality, my hope is that all involved will be gracious during conversation around pension, property and other logistics. For those leaving, I hope you will acknowledge that your community’s relationship goes beyond your current manifestation and that relationship needs to be honored in some way. And for those staying, may we allow our brothers and sisters in Christ to follow God’s calling into whatever new life they feel called to be part of and rejoice in the hope they see.
  • As we interact with one another, it’s my hope that we will move away from a punitive and adversarial relationship and move towards one built on the belief that we are each faithfully discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that we lose passion or perseverance, but the in the fight to be “right” or even in response to others unhealthiness, we must not lower our view of the other to enemy, villain or manifestation of evil.
  • As we each move through the next few years, I hope that we not lose sight of the realities of our church life in the world, namely, that if we direct too much of our energy toward internal strife, organizational rebuilding and self-preservation, we will all lose our ability to impact and influence in the world and each person who is part of it.

I think that is it for now. Not sure if I will comment much more, but feel free to comment and interact with one another. Also, be sure to connect with The Fellowship of Presbyterians online: website, twitter and facebook and yep . . . the ECO is already on Wikipedia..

In addition to the normal Presbyterian news outlets, if you want to read a little more, here are a few more articles and posts that I found as I wandered the web a bit.

More posts on The Fellowship and the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians

And lastly to poke a little fun . . . While I get the meaning of the individual words: Evangelical, Covenant, Order and Presbyterians, when run together, as well as the acronyms that have been used, have yielded some creativity. Not sure this can changed at this point, so my best advice would be to find ways to laugh a little at yourself. Without naming names, I have seen people use the “E-COPS,” “Evangelical COPS” and “The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, the latest church plant at Hogwarts.” Oh . . . and if you have not yet seen the, Stuff Presbyterian Seminarians Say video that Jack Jenkins just did, it will surely give you a chuckle.