By Paul Detterman, Administrative Consultant for the Fellowship of Presbyterians
Earlier this year, when a meeting of evangelicals was announced for the end of August, no one imagined it would become one of the defining events of 2011 for so many PC(USA) ministers and congregations. The initial planners thought there might be a few hundred people interested in new ways of “being church,” recognizing that, while our denomination may be deathly ill, individuals and congregations can find ways to relate to each other differently and share the Good News more effectively. The seven pastors who originally imagined this meeting were not angry or threatened. But they were also not going to continue to invest time, energy, and resources in “doing church” the same way with consistently diminishing results.
As the spring progressed, however, and it became clear that ordination standards and a significant portion of the Book of Order would be changed, the August Gathering became the go-to place for many more people with a wide range of different needs and concerns. As the number of registrations grew, so did people’s expectations. Now with well over 1,900 people attending, the “gathering” appears to have morphed into a “happening.”
While the structure and logistics of the Gathering have had to be redesigned several times, and our denominational context continues to change, the core values of the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the inspiration for the Minneapolis event remain the same. We who have signed on as supporters of the Fellowship movement, now approaching 1,300 people, believe God is moving clearly, amazingly, and decisively, around and through us. We believe this with such joy and passion that we are willing to do the hard work of retooling our minds and hearts, and our systems and structures, as the Holy Spirit defines and inspires a new understanding of “church” and a new experience of life together in Jesus Christ.
We plan to celebrate these convictions at the Gathering, moving carefully and wisely into this new pattern of life, understanding and addressing the fear, anger, pain, and loss many will be bringing to Minneapolis, but also realizing that perpetuating fear, anger, and pain, individually or corporately, is as unbiblical as ignoring unrepentant sin. Although we are clear in our commitment to biblical orthodoxy, we do not intend to define ourselves by what we are against — that is the old pattern of life we’ve learned and lived all-too well in the recent past. We intend to explore what God is inviting us to become as a people united in our commitment to a gospel that shapes our culture, proclaiming the Savior who is redeeming God’s world.
People from 49 states and three countries beyond the borders of the USA will be at the Gathering, including more than 70 middle governing body leaders and denominational officials. The 830+ congregations sending representatives have many different needs. Some are looking for a “safe” place in the wake of changed ordination standards. Others are looking for innovation and opportunities for missional engagement. Some are committed to continuing long-term relationships with the PC(USA) while others will be seeking assistance toward an expedient departure. People who are coming to Minneapolis looking for an ecclesiastical “silver bullet,” an instant solution that calms the waters of their ministry will be disappointed. We will not be unveiling a completed plan or product to fix our current reality. What we will be presenting for consideration are the first clear steps on a trajectory that can lead us into a very different and more faithful future.
In designing the Gathering, we acknowledge that different contexts in which people are called to minister create different needs. Because of this, we will be focusing on four different “tiers” of options.
• Tier 1: Some who are coming to Minneapolis do not want or need to change any part of their structural reality. They are either in a healthy and nurturing presbytery or they are called to ministry where they are despite a less than healthy presbytery environment. We honor and affirm this, and will be offering ideas and options for nurturing Christ-honoring ministry in place.
• Tier 2: Some who are coming are part of a presbytery where innovation, entrepreneurial vision, and creative leadership are enabling substantive change within the current presbytery structure. A few of these models will be explained and explored.
• Tier 3: For those who need more distance and differentiation from their current presbytery or the PC(USA), new possibilities for “affiliate” congregations will be introduced. We will provide information on how this new type of relationship could work and language for possible overtures to the 2012 General Assembly.
• Tier 4: There is increasing interest in the creation of a “new Reformed body,” distinct from the PC(USA) and distinctly different from any other existing “denomination” in its structure and focus. The idea is to recapture our core identity, believing that Reformed theology has much to say to our contemporary culture, and that Calvin’s original vision for the nature and role of presbyteries offers a better way of relating to one another than most of us are experiencing now. In forming this new Reformed “body,” there is also the opportunity to move with imagination and energy into the reality of a post-denominational world.
While helping congregations move their affiliation to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church is not the focus of this Gathering, we recognize and affirm that some congregations may see this as their most faithful option. Because of this, we will include an opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of this choice.
Break-out sessions will offer more in-depth exploration of these topics as well as discussion on the creation of a Presbyterian “order,” connection with the global Church, leadership in times of radical change, and the purpose and role of theological “essentials.”
The Gathering will not be a gripe session nor will it be a pep rally. We won’t be lobbying one agenda or voting anything up or down — yet. We will be presenting a carefully-designed range of options, all covered by a large “umbrella” of shared commitment to Jesus Christ, to God’s mission in the world, and to each other. Discernment and intelligent, Christ-honoring discussion will be the heart and soul of our time together.
We will all have the joy of worshiping together in the Doubletree’s Grand Ballroom. However, because of our size and the importance we are placing on hearing and honoring as many different voices and thoughts as possible, much of our time will be spent in adjoining satellite rooms with full audio and video connection, in table groups of 10, each with an identified discussion leader. As options and ideas are presented to the Gathering as a whole, time will be given for sharing questions, comments, and “aha” moments. Representative questions from the table groups will be answered at several Q&A sessions punctuating both days. The Gathering will end with a celebration of our hope in Jesus Christ, a vision for the future, and tangible next steps that can be taken back to sessions and presbyteries.
If you are registered for the Gathering, we’re looking forward to welcoming you to the Twin Cities. If you cannot be in Minneapolis, you can join a growing prayer initiative for these two days and for the movement we hope to see God ignite. Information and a prayer guide will be published on the Fellowship website. Presentations from Minneapolis will also be available online following the Gathering.
What happens after Minneapolis? Both the Fellowship and the new Reformed body will continue to take shape in the weeks and months following the Gathering. Our next national event is planned for January 2012, and regional conversations are being designed throughout the last four months of 2011. More information on all of these will be available soon.
More than anything, we are praying that whatever comes from our time in Minneapolis will bring glory to God and honor the Savior in whose name we serve.
SOLI DEO GLORIA