The Evangelical Presbyterian Church created a new medium to receive an increasing number of congregations wanting to leave the much larger Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The 75,000-member EPC created a structure called the New Wineskins Transitional Presbytery, which became effective on Saturday after the conclusion of EPC's General Assembly. Transitional membership allows churches the time and opportunity to fully access the mutual expectations before committing to full membership.
"We were overwhelmed with the gospel hospitality we felt in their midst. The encouragement and affirmation, the sense of kinship in Christ were all like cool winds on our souls," said a statement by Dean Weaver and Gerrit Dawson, co-moderators of the New Wineskins Association of Churches. "We are humbled that the EPC has opened its arms to the vision we share."
Members of the NWAC were invited to join EPC's 27th General Assembly last week where much of the talk was around accommodating the growing number of congregations seeking membership. The EPC had begun with 12 churches in 1981 after splitting with the PC(USA) over the denomination's increasingly liberal direction. It now has some 188 congregations and more are in the process of voting for realignment.
Weaver's congregation, Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh the largest in the Pittsburgh presbytery recently voted to seek dismissal from the PC(USA) and realign under the EPC in its now newly created non-geographic presbytery. A group of dissident Presbyterian churches in the NWAC had passed a proposal in February that offered congregations the option of either continuing to remain within the PC(USA) or to realign with the EPC.
"We know that many of the New Wineskins churches are called to remain in the PC(USA), living out this vision right where they are," stated Weaver and Dawson. "We also know that many of our churches are being called out, and we express our deepest gratitude for the open arms into which they will be received.
Churches began leaving the denomination when the General Assembly in 2001 did not affirm the singular saving lordship of Jesus Christ. A decision last year that allowed some leeway to churches for homosexual ordination also caused further controversy within the denomination and an exodus of congregations.
According to the Layman Online, the website of a conservative group of Presbyterians, nearly 1,000 commissioners to the 27th General Assembly of the EPC approved the creation of transitional presbyteries during the June 20-23 General Assembly at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo. A total of 18 people have been named to two administrative commissions that will oversee the process for churches and pastors seeking transitional membership in either established geographic Evangelical Presbyterian Church presbyteries or the New Wineskins Presbytery.
While the EPC is significantly smaller than the 2.3 million-member PCUSA, the conservative denomination has stressed its focus on mission more than size.
"The EPC believes that there is a fresh move of God across the U.S. and the world calling individuals, churches, associations and denominations to new and greater collective obedience to the Great Commission," according to the EPC General Assembly.