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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

What a Fellowship!
September 1, 2011

An old gospel song goes, “What a fellowship! What a joy divine! – leaning on the everlasting arms.” The music at last week’s gathering of the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) in Minneapolis was decidedly more contemporary, but the sentiments of the song still fit that gathering well. It was a time for discerning what holds us in common (fellowship), there was much “joy divine” in worship, and one core theme was “leaning upon” Christ as the center of our life together.

But it wasn’t all just fellowship and joy divine – it also raised difficult questions. The strained ligaments of our fellowship in the PCUSA seemed at times ready to rupture. There were some 2,000 people present (representing 852 congregations), and sometimes it felt like there were 2,001 different assessments of what we need to do in order to strengthen our fellowship better to fulfill Christ’s mission in the world. Still, beneath all the options being bandied about lay a common conviction that the PCUSA as we know it is not providing clear enough compass and sufficient resources necessary to navigate some of the rough seas in which the church finds itself.

FOP leaders are seeking alternatives beyond simply maintaining a dying Presbyterian status quo (as they see it) or being cut off from the PCUSA. They want to continue some level of relationship with the PCUSA while establishing a new, more life-giving network for people and congregations that are likeminded in their understanding of what the Bible teaches about ministry, morality, and mission. They are proposing a range of levels of participation in FOP, from those whose primary alignment will remain with the PCUSA and its presbyteries, to those who seek to be free from PCUSA oversight but wish to maintain an affiliate relationship with the PCUSA. FOP leaders have already begun the process of incorporating a “new Reformed body” distinct from the PCUSA, and have called a “constitutional convention” to launch this new body at a meeting in January 2012. More information about the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the proceedings of its Minneapolis gathering are available online at www.fellowship-pres.org.

My response to the event was mixed. I applaud focusing on Christ as our unifying center – a focus we blur to our peril. I applaud the stress on mission rather than machinery – we all too easily get so caught up with our ecclesiastical apparatus that we forget it’s all but a means to the greater end that the world may know God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. I resonate deeply with FOP’s desire that we thrive as the Body of Christ, that we engage missions of mercy and evangelism with greater zeal, and that we nurture deeper discipleship to Jesus. Finally, I am eager to explore with FOP new ways of conducting our life together – especially as a presbytery – that promote deeper authenticity, integrity, and missional effectiveness.

Still, I have some concerns about FOP. First, any movement that could lead treasured partners in ministry away from our fellowship portends great loss to us. We especially need folk with us who see most clearly our needs for reform. Second, the enormous expense of efforts and resources in convening their gatherings is but a fraction of what it will cost to put together and run a whole new ecclesiastical system. What if the energy and resources being channeled into FOP were invested instead in seeking to extend further our Gospel witness through means and institutions already available? Third, one of FOP’s oft-repeated core values is like-mindedness, while Paul’s ecclesiology is predicated on the notion that we need to be connected to members different from us if the Body of Christ is to be whole and effective in its mission. We do need to strengthen our core commitments; we do need to hold fast to the Head – here FOP is right on the money. But I worry when we develop mechanisms that could make it easier for some members of Christ’s body to say to others, in effect, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:21) Finally, I believe that what we need most in a time of spiraling decline of many churches across the theological spectrum is more than a new way of being organized; we need a new heart. And only God can give that. O that the Spirit would kindle in us a new flame of love for our Lord, for one another, and for his mission “to seek out and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) – Jesus, help us!

For love’s sake,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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