Fellowship of Presbyterians Summer Gathering - Day One Thoughts

The Summer Gathering of the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians officially began in Atlanta this evening at Peachtree Presbyterian Church.

First, I have to say that Peachtree is probably the biggest Presbyterian church I have ever seen in my life.  The main campus takes up almost a full city block, with a gymnasium, family life center, offices, main sanctuary and a chapel that dwarfs my own church.  The main campus is connected by a tunnel that goes underneath the street to a second campus with a parking garage and a huge worship center and full service cafe.  There are an unbelievable number of  community activities, missions, ministries and events happening through this massive, vibrant church

It's also one of the many congregations  leaving the Presbyterian Church USA, a number that is growing rapidly by the moment.

I met a pastor tonight who told me that his large church is shrinking rapidly, and that they are experiencing a budget shortfall this year that is already at $100,000 and growing.  He told me that he is having conversation after conversation people who feel they cannot become members of his church because it is affiliated with a denomination like the PCUSA.  He looked tired and uncertain about the future.

I also had some energetic conversations with pastors and elders who are determined to faithfully remain within the PCUSA and are committed to the kinds of mission, ministry and focus that will bring life to their churches.

Over the next few days there will be two gatherings for Under 45 pastors to network and gain some wisdom from  older, wiser pastors from some of the largest churches in both the PCUSA and the ECO.  I am looking forward to attending both of those, and to the possibility of building new friendships and connections with some like-minded pastors.

Tonight the theme for the breakout sessions was more global in nature, and was sponsored by Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship and the Outreach Foundation, two evangelical mission organizations with historic ties to the PCUSA.  These two mission organizations have as their foundational ethos the notion that not only are we called to do missions in the world, but also to evangelize in the name of Jesus.  They also do missions in countries that are the most hostile (officially) to Christianity.

Dan McNerney and John Azumah spoke at the breakout session that I attended.  Dan is part of the Outreach Foundation, and Dr. Azumah is a professor at Trinity Seminary in Deerfield---or at least he was the last time I checked.  Azumah is a former Muslim from Ghana, who became a Christian when he moved to the US to go to college years ago.  He wrote a book that I found to be very helpful in understanding Islam, and the mindset of Muslims toward Christians.

McNerney spoke eloquently and passionately about the intentional way his church in Winnetka, IL has been engaging an imam and a group of Muslims from a local mosque in their area.  They have been on a two year journey together, finding common ground and sharing their stories.  He also mentioned that as a result, some of the Muslims in the group have begun to quietly soften to the message of the Gospel.

In fact, he indicated that around the world something is happening in Islam that defies reason.  There are millions of Muslims who are coming to know Jesus through the efforts of underground missionaries, Arab Christians from Egypt and other countries.  Muslims are dreaming of Jesus, secretly finding and reading the Bible, and coming to know Christ.  He said that more Muslims have come to know Jesus in the past 40 years than in the entire 1400 years before that.  Most of this has to do with our "shrinking" world, but he also believes that God is doing something amazing in Muslim culture.

Azumah spoke to the need for evangelical Christians to begin engaging their Muslim neighbors in journeys like the one that McNerney is taking with his church.  He said that most of the Muslims that he knows and speaks with complain to him about the fact that the only Christians that will dialogue with them are "liberal" Christians who "don't take their Scriptures seriously."  Muslims, he asserted, want to meet Christians who "take their faith seriously."  They tell him that they want to meet with evangelical Christians who are more orthodox, but that the evangelicals don't want to meet with them.

I tweeted his quote about liberals not taking their faith seriously, and already got some pushback from a progressive colleague.

I believe it there's some truth in that, though it stings if you self-identify as a "progressive" or "liberal" Christian.  Generally speaking, liberals are more ready to water down their faith, lose Jesus, get rid of religious icons, etc. when they engage with Muslims for fear of offending them.  Evangelical Christians, who have much more in common with moderate Muslims in terms of their dedication to the study of Scripture, adherence to their faith, etc., often avoid interacting with Muslims because they refuse to do such things.

According to Azumah, Muslims sort of respect that, and wish they could talk to those Christians more.

I was convicted by all of this, and plan on cobbling together the books and information that I have on Islam and doing some study when I return.  There is a mosque not far from my house, and I also happen to have the card of an imam from my community.  Maybe it's time to put my money where my mouth is, and actually do something.

I am starting to think that this might actually be the overarching theme of this conference, which is based on the purpose statement of The Fellowship: "Building flourishing chuches that make disciples of Jesus Christ."
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