Why a “Fellowship” of Presbyterians?
A Response from within the PC(USA)
The Fellowship of Presbyterians was created in 2011 to help individuals and congregations who are committed to building flourishing congregations who make disciples of Jesus Christ. In early 2012, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians was formed. While some who have joined The Fellowship anticipate an eventual transition into ECO, the majority of Fellowship members are committed to ministry within the PC(USA) for the long haul. So why a “Fellowship” of Presbyterians within the PC(USA)? Here are some of the reasons.
We Are Presbyterian Christians
Presbyterians are, first and foremost, disciples of Jesus Christ. The term “presbyterian” merely distinguishes a part of the Body of Christ governed by elders (presbyters). Presbyterians and our elder-focused church structure have been particularly influential in the United States since before the founding of our nation. We have been leaders in government, commerce, science, and the arts; instrumental in founding hospitals, schools, and colleges; and champions of social justice built on biblical principles. Presbyterians have trained and sent missionaries to teach and model the Good News of Jesus Christ around the world. We are part of this amazing legacy.
We Are Part of the PC(USA)
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is one expression among many of this legacy. Assuming its present form through reunion in 1983, the PC(USA) was conceived in a theological tradition that begins and ends with Scripture, a confessional heritage that reflects 1,800 years of biblical interpretation, and a structure that, if rightly applied, is uniquely equipped for ministry in the 21st Century. However, the PC(USA) is also an institution governed by fallible human beings. People voting at any presbytery or General Assembly can make choices that would potentially move the institution away from our biblical and confessional heritage. When this happens, others in the PC(USA) must be intentional about reaffirming our biblical grounding, our confessional heritage, and our commitment to teaching and modeling the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The PC(USA) Is Currently Being Misdirected
Denominations, like congregations, are merely institutions. A “congregation” or a “denomination” on its own cannot make a decision, chart a course, or even be renewed: the people who comprise the congregation or denomination can. This is an important distinction that is often overlooked. As members of The Fellowship, we take personal responsibility for the reality that our congregations have been among those who have fallen short in their calling to make disciples of Jesus Christ. We ourselves are partly responsible for the current trajectory of the PC(USA) away from its theological, confessional, and missional heritage. “The Denomination” has not erred and strayed—we all, who together are the PC(USA), have.
The PC(USA) Is in Deepening Trouble
Our part of the Presbyterian family has been in steady decline for 45 years. Most PC(USA) congregations see far more funerals than baptisms, and baptisms of infants are less than half what they were when the PC(USA) was formed (1983)—reflecting a dramatic loss of young adults. Our “Wee Kirks” (less than 100 members) now account for over 51% of our denomination, and only 1,500 of those 5,439 small congregations have an installed pastor. Their future viability as congregations is in doubt. Even larger congregations that grew well for decades are now in a season of plateau or decline. While we did well in attracting the “Builder” generation (born prior to 1946), we have struggled to reach each succeeding generation.
The recent change in ordination standards and the impending change in the definition of marriage are flashpoints of controversy. However, these mask larger, more important, and more nuanced issues we face in the PC(USA); differing understanding of Scripture, authority, Christology (both the person and the work of Christ), the extent of salvation (universalism), and a broader set of moral issues. There is no longer a common understanding of our theological, confessional, or missional heritage, and the chronic infighting that results distracts us from our focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ. Acknowledging this reality is not enough. Immediate change is needed—and that change begins with each of us. That is why The Fellowship of Presbyterians (TFP) has been formed within the PC(USA).
What Is The Fellowship of Presbyterians?
The Fellowship of Presbyterians (TFP) is unique within the Protestant Church. It is a covenanted order of individuals and congregations who share one common goal: to build flourishing congregations who make disciples of Jesus Christ. This is not an organization with which you can be casually affiliated. The Fellowship is built around a strong theological center, a commitment that the Church exists first and foremost to proclaim Jesus Christ in words and actions beyond its walls, and a deep desire to share a life of discipline and prayer in covenant with other like-minded disciples within and beyond the PC(USA). Part of this unique way of life is the mentoring we can offer one another in the gospel, the establishment of new worshiping communities, and the priority we place on nurturing the next generations of church leaders—deacons, elders, and pastors.
Why Remain within the PC(USA)?
We are committed to ministry within the PC(USA) because God calls us here. When asked why he would associate with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus answered, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick… I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12, Luke 5:31) In interpersonal relationships, in declining neighborhoods, and in misdirected denominations, human instinct is to walk away—to not become involved. We who are part of TFP believe the gospel compels us to move toward the difficulty, not away. In the past 40 years, the PCA, the EPC, and ECO have followed Christ to faithful mission and witness beyond the PC(USA). We affirm that call. We are commissioned by the same Lord to remain within the PC(USA)—not as those who agree with the current trajectory of our denomination, but as missionaries called to teach and model the Good News of Jesus Christ within a structure that is in deepening trouble.
God’s call to remain in the PC(USA) can take many forms. For some, it involves their history, place, or position within the denomination. Others feel missionary zeal for reaching the people they know best with the gospel during a season of theological confusion, cultural captivity, and gospel amnesia. For still others, The Fellowship provides a covenanted community in which they can discern their future direction and affiliation. No matter why people remain in the PC(USA) or wherever else they eventually sense God calling them, there is one inevitable reality—deep change.
How We Relate to Others
The challenges we now face as evangelicals within the PC(USA) may be unique in our experience, but few, if any, are unique to us alone. A crucial role of The Fellowship of Presbyterians is to redefine relationships at several levels. First, the covenanted order of The Fellowship forms closer relationships and more significant accountability among its members, recapturing the essence of what presbyteries were originally meant to be. At another level, The Fellowship can nurture meaningful connections across denominational partitions, working without the obstruction of competing theological claims to participate in God’s mission. In this world, ECO is our closest neighbor—sharing a common understanding of theological essentials. Others in the Reformed and Presbyterian family, the broader evangelical community, and the global Church are also our mentors and colleagues—exploring new approaches to 21st century ministry, finding new ways of identifying and nurturing the gifts of young leaders, and helping congregations turn their focus from stewardship of what is to a renewed vision for what God is calling us to be. Finally The Fellowship has a crucial role within the PC(USA)—offering an orthodox and evangelical witness in the midst of a rapidly changing denomination.
Deep Change Is Inevitable
You cannot be part of The Fellowship and expect to continue with life and ministry as usual. Many Teaching Elders currently attempt to teach how to be faithful to the Truth without doing the required work of laying foundations of the Truth in the hearts and minds of their congregations. Many Ruling Elders are currently better equipped to be managers of congregational life than to teach the Faith. Although these realities are manifest somewhat differently among those who identify themselves as “progressive” or “evangelical,” neglect of the substance of the Faith is widespread. As a result, everything else suffers—the strength of disciples, the health of congregations, the effectiveness of presbyteries, the faithfulness of decisions.
The way things used to be is the way things got to be the way things are. The Fellowship is built around reclaiming our theological and confessional heritage, and rediscovering God’s call to mission. We have one purpose—to build flourishing congregations who make disciples of Jesus Christ. For most of us, being part of TFP will require deep change—rethinking our personal commitment to spiritual practices, reorienting our ministry focus, and reorganizing our priorities. This will not be easy, nor will it happen quickly, but disciplined attention to God’s Word offers gifts the Church cannot receive by any other means.
Theology, Mission, and a Covenanted Order
If we desire to be an effective witness to the gospel we must know the gospel. We must not only live a life like that of the apostles, we must teach what the apostles taught. As missionaries within the PC(USA), we who are part of The Fellowship are also committed to sustained conversations whenever and wherever possible—clarifying the Reformed theological lens through which we read Scripture, listening with thankful hearts to the voice of the Church around the world and through the ages, and applying the wisdom we gain.
We cannot do this alone. This is why we require all who join The Fellowship to actively participate in theological friendships—Mission Affinity Groups for congregations and Covenant Partnerships for pastors. In these groups we will study and learn together, providing mutual encouragement and accountability for the health of mission and ministry throughout TFP while also sustaining and advancing the theological, confessional, and missional work of the Church.
Building flourishing congregations who make disciples of Jesus Christ.
- Jesus-shaped Identity We believe Jesus Christ must be at the center of our lives and making disciples of Jesus at the core of our ministry.
- Biblical Integrity We believe the Bible is the unique and authoritative Word of God, which teaches all that is necessary for faith and life. The prominence of God’s Word over our lives shapes our priorities, and the unrivaled authority of the Bible directs our actions to be in concert with Christ’s very best for our lives.
- Thoughtful Theology We believe in theological education, constant learning, and the life of the mind, and celebrate this as one of the treasures of our Reformed heritage.
- Accountable Community We believe guidance is a corporate spiritual experience. We want to connect leaders to one another in healthy relationships of accountability, synergy, and care.
- Egalitarian Ministry We believe in unleashing the ministry gifts of women, men, and every ethnic group.
- Missional Centrality We believe in living out the whole of the Great Commission – including evangelism, spiritual formation, compassion, and redemptive justice – in our communities and around the world.
- Center-focused Spirituality We believe in calling people to the core of what it means to be followers of Jesus – what “mere Christianity” is and does – and not fixate on the boundaries.
- Leadership Velocity We believe identifying and developing gospel-centered leaders is critical for the church, and a great leadership culture is risk-taking, innovative, and organic.
- Kingdom Vitality We believe congregations should vigorously reproduce new missional communities to expand the Kingdom of God.
- The Theology Project affirms our confessional standards, clarifies the elements of our theological and confessional heritage that are essential to the faith, and outlines possibilities for ongoing theological conversations. Those who join The Fellowship affirm the Essential Tenets contained within the Theology Project.
- The Fellowship Covenant identifies the great promises of God contained in Scripture, and offers an aspirational approach to ongoing growth in a life of faithful obedience. Those who join The Fellowship sign the Covenant, either as individuals or as a session on behalf of their congregation. Signing the Covenant does not imply that you or your congregation are already living in full accord with the commitments outlined, but that all who sign desire to grow in our relationship to God and to one another in these areas.
- Narrative on the Health of Mission and Ministry establishes the expectations for each Session’s participation in a Mission Affinity Group. All congregations who join The Fellowship will be asked these questions.
- “Baptize More than We Bury by 2018” is a goal TFP congregations are committing to. It expresses our desire to reach people not yet baptized, and recapture times in Presbyterian history when we baptized twice as many adults as infants! As we make this commitment, we pray that God’s Holy Spirit will carry us to a new way of being the people of God—deeply invested in seeing lives transformed. The Fellowship will focus on intentional discipleship of adults, nurturing families to be the primary teachers of the faith, and equipping disciples of all ages to proclaim their faith in actions, attitudes, and relationships as well as words. This will require rethinking outreach, evangelism, and catechesis and, for many, the refocusing of congregational priorities in these important areas.
- Establishing New Worshiping Communities is a central element to participation in The Fellowship. TFP members are being challenged to launch 250 of the 1001 new worshiping communities in support of the PC(USA)’s initiative.
- Elder Leadership Institute (ELI) develops and supports spiritual leadership through the training of Ruling and Teaching Elders.
- RightNow Resources offer hundreds of videos and teaching tools, soon to include those created by The Fellowship, for people who want to trade in their pursuit of the American Dream for ministry to a world that desperately needs Jesus Christ.
- Regional “Wee Kirk” Conferences resource and connect leaders of smaller membership congregations in nine regions across the United States.
- National and Regional Gatherings offer preaching, teaching, worship, fellowship, inspiration, and networking with like-minded disciples of Jesus Christ.
- Monthly E-News provides updates, ideas, resources, and areas of focus for individuals and congregations.
As members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we who are part of The Fellowship of Presbyterians submit to the Constitution of the PC(USA) including the Book of Order and Book of Confessions, insofar as submission does not undermine or compromise our principal loyalty to Jesus Christ and to God’s Will for humanity as it is revealed in Scripture.
We fully understand and accept there will be times when remaining faithful to our theological and confessional heritage, and to the voice of the Church around the world, will cause us to stand in direct opposition to current policies of the PC(USA). As a covenanted order, we will stand together, and will attempt at all times to speak God’s Truth as we know it with humility and grace.
We also recognize and affirm the creation of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians as a sister denomination within the Reformed Tradition and the Church of Jesus Christ, and we stand in full communion and cooperative ministry with our brothers and sisters in ECO. While individuals and congregations who are part of TFP may at some point investigate membership in ECO, the purpose of The Fellowship is not to serve as an ECO waiting room. Our purpose is to build flourishing congregations within the PC(USA).