Last year I was present at the birth of a new and dynamic presbyterian movement–ECO: a Covenant Order of Presbyterians. This new reformed body has come into being out of the rich soil of the evangelical stream of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which is affiliated with the Fellowship of Presbyterians. I’ve already written at some length about these two important developments in twenty-first century Presbyterianism, you can find more posts on my blog.
I’m impressed with both the Fellowship and ECO (hereafter FOP/ECO). By way of full disclosure, I attend a church that’s affiliated with the Fellowship and am, myself, in the process of affiliating as an individual teaching elder.
As we–that is the FOP/ECO–move further into our shared journey and beyond our focus on the internal politics of the Presbyterian Church (USA), it will be important to state clearly the purpose and direction of the movement. This has already been compellingly done on a number of occasions, perhaps most stirringly by none other than John Ortberg. Read about it and see the video here.
This vision needs to be clearly and repeatedly communicated or else much of the momentum we have seen to this date may dissipate and the organization may end up simply being a more orthodox version of the PC(USA), something no one wishes to see.
Church planting is critical to the success of the Fellowship/ECO enterprise.
Of course, as a movement committed to “building flourishing churches that make disciples of Christ” (an awesome vision, by the way), we cannot be exclusively about creating new missional communities. The value of starting new communities of mission does need to be right out at the front of our vision, the leading edge.
There are five reasons (at least) why I think that church planting is critical to the mission and vision of the Fellowship/ECO and that failing to place this as a central priority will be detrimental to our shared dream.
- New church plants attract committed missional Christians among existing church members. In any congregation there are entrepreneurs, committed missional Christians who like starting ministries and initiatives. Many (though not all) of these folk would be thrilled to step into the new adventure of starting a new congregation and would thrive on the sense of ownership of a vision that is yet far from reality. Missional Christians need to be released into mission rather than plugged into programs–a new community can be a great opportunity to mobilize Christians and change their lives.
- New church plants model missional theology and practice for sending churches. There ought to be more than one type of church in a given community. It’s not realistic to think that every church needs to have a 4,000 members nor is it appropriate to envision struggling 50-member churches as the norm either. Large churches can become resource or sending churches for new communities that may be affiliated with them (i.e., under the authority of their session and sharing administrative resources). These resource church can use the significant resources they have to help new, creative churches engage elements of the community who would likely never darken the door of a big downtown first church. And in so doing, they can participate in and see modeled for them a vision for a fresh way of being church. Members needn’t leave or change totally, but realize the great opportunities that exist through partnering with satellite congregations or communities.
- New church plants need not be totally independent congregations. There’s no reason why a new community need to be differentiated from the session of its sending church. This way Fellowship churches would be able to significantly increase their “reach” without thinking of this exclusively in terms of size on a sunday morning.
- New church plants are more able to connect with younger adults who may be suspicious or even dis-empowered in large churches. Most evangelical churches in the PCUSA are significantly populated by baby boomers. It’s just a demographic reality. Most of the session, the nominating committee, and the staff will likely be boomers. A small, small percentage of the session will be made up of Gen Xers or younger. Honestly, younger people notice this and they’re smart enough to know that not only is there an age difference, there’s a significant perspective difference as well. Among the graduate students I work with, there’s a significant desire for missional community (community that does ministry rather than simply paying others to do ministry). There’s a desire for ancient forms of Christianity. Younger Christians are often put off or at least suspicious of the marketing done by larger churches. They know how to subconsciously deconstruct reality and will push back at commodifications of religion, especially if they’re aimed at another group. They want liturgical and sacramental worship. This connects with the desire to transcend the moment and also the desire to experience a physical or embodied faith. Sitting in a movie theatre chair for an hour as a passive participant in a religious show is not all that appealing, especially when these folks can and will compare the experience to other cultural landmark experiences (i.e., concerts, etc).
- New church plants can be strategically small if sent by a mother church. It’s not bad or wrong to be a small church unless you’re small because of a lack of vision and the absence of desire (among members) to become a missional or witnessing community. Smaller communities allow for a broader sense of intimacy between those who are part of it, but economically they’re difficult sustain in terms of pastoral leadership or program. Pairing or sending a strategically small community out of a larger church can allow that community to be economically feasible and do ministry in a way that’s cost-effective and yet not always on the brink of extinction.
The Fellowship of Presbyterians and ECO have a really significant window of opportunity. In this window, we can commit to and move toward creating missional communities that may not look like the churches planted in the 50s and 60s. And we can do so in a way that encourages, invigorates, and mobilizes members of our existing congregations to come alongside the new efforts and help launch them to the glory of God! What an exciting time.