New Ideas #4: Envisioning A New Church

New Ideas #4: Envisioning A New Church

“Envisioning a New Church: The Potential Is Right in Front of Us”
by Paul Detterman, Executive Director of Presbyterian For Renewal

People who have been shaped by Scripture are steeped in the language of individual repentance, forgiveness, grace, and a new beginning. (2 Corinthians 5:17)  But when it comes to the nature of the institutions of our faith, the bureaucratic structure and the substance of the Church, as well as denominational expression of practical theology, it is a rare and important moment when we get the opportunity for a corporate do-over.  There is an emerging consensus among thoughtful people from various points across the spectrum of the PC(USA) that we are in just such a rare and important moment.

The “trial balloon” proposal for a new non-geographic (17th) synod, created by PFR and delivered to the 2010 General Assembly by Santa Barbara Presbytery, didn’t get out of committee—no real surprise there.  But that same Assembly did create the Middle Governing Bodies Administrative Commission, where Tod Bolsinger and his team are now doing an amazing amount of listening and creative thinking.  Beyond the mandate of any General Assembly, conversations like the NEXT Conference and the proposal that created the Fellowship PC(USA) are drawing attention from different groups of Presbyterians.  And, of course, overshadowing all these developments for many, is the current voting on Amendment 10-A and the New Form of Government, the outcome of each soon to be cause for rejoicing by some and a source of significant trauma for others.

Right now, many people are understandably concerned about practical issues: what will a different denominational structure look like?  How can we get from “here” to “there”?  How long will it take to write the new presbytery manuals if NFoG passes?  What will happen in many congregations if 10-A passes?  Can a pastor and his/her congregation in New Hampshire really be part of a presbytery in California just because they share similar theology?  These are important questions, but the deeper reality and the far greater potential in this rare and important time of PC(USA) re-thinking goes beyond any regional or national exoskeletons.  What could a refreshed, revitalized, reformed witness offer to a post-modern, post-Christian world?

We begin to reach that greater potential when churched people who self-identify as “liberal” and “conservative” realize we have missed the gospel mark.  Liberals have been co-opted by currents in an increasingly skeptical and pluralistic culture to become extra-biblically liberal.  Conservatives are equally guilty of capitulation to the protectionism and hyperbole of the political Right with equally extra-biblical results.  Meanwhile, the good news of Jesus Christ in its fullness, truth, and transforming grace—the very thing we have been commissioned by Christ to proclaim–is not fully evident among us.  So let’s seize the moment, catch our breath, and allow the Holy Spirit some space for inspiration.

What could the ministry, witness, and impact of a congregation be if Jesus’ followers were deeply rooted in the authority of Scripture and unequivocally committed to a life of prayer, worship, and service? What amazing joy and satisfaction could it be for deacons, elders, and ministers to exercise spiritual leadership in such congregations?

What could many congregations like this accomplish if they were affiliated with one another in groups of reasonable size, around commonly held convictions of faith and practice?  What joy could there be for elders and ministers to meet together as frequently as possible for worship, prayer, mutual encouragement, and accountability?

What could the benefits of such a Presbyterian “order” be—people who, to the very best of their ability, acknowledge and repent of what the Scripture calls sin, embrace and proclaim a gospel identity, and aggressively seek, identify, and nurture those whom God has gifted for biblical leadership in the generations following them?  That’s the heart of the proposed Fellowship PC(USA).  But let’s go further.

  • Could these congregations become places of extravagant welcome to all God’s children, regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, addiction, or handicapping condition?
  • Could they become places where the good news of acceptance is equally paired with the amazing news of transformation and healing—communities where our old selves are discarded and every part of us becomes new in Christ?
  • Could such congregations be places where children are safe from physical, mental, and emotional harm, and where they are actively nurtured in discipleship from the nursery on?
  • Could these be congregations where men and women are equally welcome in all levels of spiritual and structural leadership, where all people are called to service based on their spiritual giftedness and not on abstract quotas or entitlements?
  • Could these be congregations where God’s gift in creation is recognized and hallowed, where people who care deeply about stewardship of resources and the environment?
  • Could these also be congregations where people welcome and encourage artists and musicians, writers and dancers to join with God’s created world in ceaseless praise?
  • Could these be congregations where skeptics and seekers are actively welcomed, where Scripture is both transcultural and countercultural, and where people who have previously experienced abuse by the Church find new hope in a community of Jesus’ followers?
  • Finally, could these be congregations where people who meet for study and worship are intentionally equipped to live beyond their doors, showing sacrificial love for the poor, the oppressed, and the truly marginalized; courageously taking a stand for God’s justice and mercy in their homes and in their clubs and in their work places; proclaiming, by their very presence, the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ in a broken and hurting world?

We know our answer can be yes—so the only real question is, are we willing to do whatever it takes to become such a Church in this rare and opportune time?

We need to reconnect with Jesus in ways that are truly and radically progressive—in our care for people, in our commitment to ministries of justice and compassion, and in the embrace of our welcome—so much so that we alarm many die-hard social conservatives.  And at the very same time, we need to reconnect with Jesus in ways that are truly and radically orthodox—in preaching and living the fullness of God’s Word, in proclaiming the truth of Scripture, and in holding one another accountable to a redeemed and transforming way of life—so much so that we alarm many committed social liberals.

I want to be part of a Church like this more than I want anything else in this life, and I believe the proposals now coming together in the project called Fellowship PC(USA) have tremendous potential for helping Presbyterians accomplish all this and more in this rare and important time.

God has given many of us the opportunity, the desire, and the capacity to re-think church, to shed the excess baggage of a by-gone era, and to live into His amazing future.  In faithfulness and in joy, we must seize this moment to repent of what we have become, seek forgiveness from God and from one another, proclaim the freedom of grace in Jesus Christ, and follow the Holy Spirit into a new beginning.


11 Responses

  1. Viola Larson says:

    Forgive me I like a lot of what you are saying-worshiping and being together as you put it is good, but in one sense it sounds like you are cheering the progressive victory of these days on.
    What I mean is that under your list of lets go further you say this-“Could these congregations become places of extravagant welcome to all God’s children, regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, addiction, or handicapping condition?” which is fine but then you add this to that, “Could these be congregations where men and women are equally welcome in all levels of spiritual and structural leadership, where all people are called to service based on their spiritual giftedness and not on abstract quotas or entitlements?” I know you are not for the passage of 10-A- but could you be a little clearer on this, you are after all not saying anything different than those pushing 10-A.
    The rest of your statement is worthy of us all taking it very seriously.

  2. Now you’re talkin! This is a fine basis for a new form of Christianity. What I see here excites me, what don’t see concerns me. Its like a suits case bought at an auction sale. You can’t know its full value till you take it home and unpack it. I think the phrase “truly and radically orthodox” needs to be unpacked. Is it the “generous orthodoxy” taught by Brian McLaren? While some in the Missional Church movement offers a needed clarity for evangelicals, we have recently witnessed, with Rob Bell, how this unbridled passion for improved forms of Christianity can run into unwanted pastures. (Even if now Mr. Bell has run equally fast out of that field inquiry.)

  3. I will add an unqualified affirmation. The picture you paint is what I am looking for – I hope that we will be able to see beyond our current structures to more imaginative ways of working together and striving for the sort of church life you describe. I think that there are possibilities for presbyteries that are non-geographic in a more basic way, not simply the affiliation of a church to a non-proximate geographic presbytery, but churches clustering together from various places around shared ministry focus, mission passions, and theological emphases. And I hope these clusters form, in their totality, a truly diverse expression of the body of Christ.

    There are some who do not see a way forward if 10-A passes – it seems like you do. I do as well, as do others I talk to. It is time to define the project we are about – if someone cannot see staying in the PC(USA) after July, then graciously move on. There are good reasons for doing so, I have friends and colleagues who have come to that decision and I don’t resent it in the least. But, for those who want to work on building this thing you are describing, then let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work with all our brothers and sisters who share that conviction. I think it will require radical restructuring, and I think this is only possible if we team up with our colleagues from the NEXT conference who, believe it or not, also share a vision for a vital church.

  4. Matt Johnson says:

    Thanks for this, Paul. This is the first thing from the Fellowship that I’ve found total resonance with. Your bullet points cast a vision of a 21st century church that creatively proclaims the apostolic faith of scripture. In the background of your post, I hear that much of achieving that kind of a church has to do with getting over ourselves and the groups that we (on the left & right) have clung to for security and protection. If I’m hearing that correctly, then I wonder if a non-geographic presbytery is necessary for many congregations? There may be some who are simply too isolated because they are not in/near a large urban area. But for many I see the kind of collaborative ministry partnerships possible through a multi-church parish relationship where churches of like-mind/mission join together in a covenanted relationship to walk closely with each other and discern together how God is leading. If we can get over our past prejudices and battle lines, I think there is much fertile ground for congregations to find with one another–perhaps in surprising ways.

  5. Whit says:

    Good job! I want to quibble on one point. I don’t know of anyone of any political/theological orientation who does not take God’s creation seriously. The disagreements are over the science, and over a balance between caring for the environment and caring for human beings – exactly where do you draw the line.

    The environmental movement is full of folks who are scientifically ignorant, for example not realizing that skepticism, not consensus, is how science is done – else we would all still think the Sun goes around the Earth. And the loudest voices in this movement are, in many cases, people of the Left who have been supporting the same slow-growth, redistributionist policies even before there was a supposed ecological reason for doing so.

    So for my money, I would have preferred language which echoes Gen. 1:26-30, i.e. Man, alone of Creation, created in the image of God, given dominion over creation, told to go forth and multiply and cover the Earth, and deputized by God to name every creature made by God (2:19). This is the image of a farmer or gardener, rather than a forest ranger. Both care for Creation, but for the former the object is to create the best home for Mankind. For the latter, Man is more of an interloper.

  6. Matt Johnson says:

    Sadly, the church is rife with theologies that don’t take creation seriously. Pre-millennial dispensationalism, though certainly not common amongst pastors, has thoroughly soaked the American imagination. This view often pits saving souls versus caring for a world that’s going to burn anyway, in a fairly firm split. More could be said, but there’s certainly a lot of theology out there that doesn’t take the created order’s goodness very seriously.

  7. momochi says:

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  8. Sam Suk Yang says:


  9. John Gilman says:

    The language of this letter is long on unsupported statements and hopeful questions. It is somewhat less long on specifics. A recent campaign slogan, “Hope and Change,” comes to mind.

    It has been my experience from 25 years in industry that such language is a huge warning. It is used by those who reason from emotion. Such folk are either manipulating others, or operate on emotion and are easily misled. Their efforts always seem to end badly.

    Possibly, Fellowship operates in a different arena, and my experiences do not apply. However, my internal alarms are lit up across the board. Crisp specificity would be a helpful change. Exactly what structure does the Fellowship propose? How and why is this structure superior to a transfer to EPC?

  10. Jay says:

    Could we, could we, could we– while the answer is yes we could remain in the PCUSA as part of a synod of like minded evangelical congregations, the question to me is– Why should we??? I recently read a comment by Warren Wieresbe that stated, “God give us many privileges, but He never gives us the privilege to sin”. What has occurred with the passage of 10A, really amounts to extending privilege of church leadership to those who not only sin, but openly embrace sin. Could it be that God now has been ask to extend the privilegge of sinning to our denomination?

    Over several decades much energy and time has been devoted to the issue of whether fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness is really what God intended. That time could certainly been more productively used to spread His Word and to reach out to others in His name.

    As the issue gained momentum I believe the evangelicals within the PCUSA continually sought ways to “just get along” with various segments of our denomination as they pushed to change the Word, and this often was done for the sake of “unity”. Did I miss something, or did Christ encourage us to sacrifice principle for the sake of unity? Yes, he reached out to sinners and sought to have them leave their sinful ways. But,! COR 5:11 also states ” But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” And Corinthians also tells us that “Bad company ruins good morals” (1COR 15:33).

    I find it difficult to understand how any group of Presbyterians could seek ways to remain attached in fellowship with those who believe that 10A represents a sound interpretation of the Word of God on the subject of morality. Certainly the current culture embraces the philosophy that “if it feels good, do it”. And, many public schools now have in their curricilums, courses putting a positive spin on immoral sexuality (GLBT). Is it not time for those in the PCUSA who believe God got it right the first time when addressing the issues of morality and immorality? The wordes are quite clear — ” But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” I believe the Fellowship PCUSA might use their time more productively seeking ways to leave the PCUSA and seek a new denomination of like minded congregations, (or if need be, establish such a presbyterian denomination).

  11. Wes Reutter says:

    Trying to create a new church synod within PCUSA or an affiliation of churches within PCUSA that is still officially part of PCUSA is akin to providing a new source of drinking water that still draws from a polluted well (assuming that you are opposed to amendment 10A and/or the changes that are coming with nFOG).

    If the commentaries regarding the changes in nFOG are correct regarding the authority of Presbyteries to remove pastors without the approval of session, it is not a great leap of vision to picture a future where leaders who oppose the changes of nFOG but remain in PCUSA could be removed from their pulpits by their presbytery that embraces nFOG. This scenario seems to be radical. Would someone address how to keep this from happening?

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