I’m just returning from the national gathering of The Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), a new Reformed denomination. ECO has been in formal existence for a year, has taken in 28 churches, is in the process of receiving another 48 churches, and has over 75 more churches in conversation with them. The Synod met over three days in Orlando, Florida. There were around 1,200 people in attendance.
There seemed to be three key themes of the conference: leadership, church planting, and mission. There is a palpable energy to the group. They are entrepreneurs looking to promote the gospel and replicate their ministries, particularly in a culture where the number of people who call Jesus “Lord” is declining. They wanted to talk about Syria and human trafficking. They wanted to talk about collegial ministries with a flexible infrastructure that allows the local church to powerfully impact its community. Notably absent was discussion of human sexuality, which doesn’t seem to be a defining issue for ECO.
Though ECO has had a number of conferences and formal presbytery meetings, this was the test drive for their performance as a national body. The infrastructure had all been put into place some time ago: a core statement of theology, a polity, a medical plan, a retirement plan, a governing board, moderators, stated clerks, PJCs, committees to oversee ministers, committees to oversee ordination, and the like. But this was the test to see if it would function as a working assembly. Among other things, the Synod gathered to affirm an ordination process and its Ordination Manual and to make plans for church planting. It discussed minor revisions to its polity. The Presbytery of the West interviewed and passed its first candidate for ordination. It was a careful blend of church administration and ministry training. ECO successfully executed its business as a national body.
Two things were, I think, notable. First, it wasn’t primarily a business meeting. The meetings at which business was conducted had the feel of necessity punctuated with moments of enthusiasm. But the conference itself hosted a powerful and dynamic worship team alongside notable speakers like Jim Mellado of the Willow Creek Association, Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission, and Leighton and Kevin Ford. There was more celebration than deliberation. There were several dozen breakout seminars to equip and train leaders in a number of areas, including strategic planning and change management, issues concerning missions outside the US, discussions of Reformed confessions, effective use of technology, Korean church ministries, and more. Secondly, there wasn’t a spirit of debate in the room. I asked someone on staff with the PCUSA how this compared to General Assembly. He said, “There’s no politicking.”
Earlier in the week, the day before I left for the conference, I listened to a retired PCUSA seminary professor compare the leaders of ECO to racists and sexists, saying something to the effect that Jesus was bleeding because people were leaving the denomination. What I saw at the Synod gathering was Jesus in action. This is a movement that is going to lead lost people to Jesus, plant churches, and bring justice to a lost world. In a word, I think I just went to my first mission conference. And if Jesus was doing anything, he was dancing.