ECO, started in January 2012 as a conservative denomination that broke off from the Presbyterian Church (USA), added 35 churches in its first year of existence, and more than doubled that number last year. Forty of those congregations that joined ECO did so in the last four months of 2013, allowing the denomination to surpass 100 congregations in the process.
First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma, Wash., was the first congregation to join ECO in May 2012. The acceptance of Bethel Presbyterian Church from Columbus, Ohio, in December 2013 gave the denomination its 100th congregation.
As of Feb. 5, ECO had grown to 109 congregations and 181 pastors in 22 states.
Dr. Dana Allin, ECO’s synod executive, noted that the average membership of churches joining the denomination is 375, leading to nearly 40,000 total members in ECO right now.
The greatest concentration of ECO churches is west of the Mississippi River, primarily in California (15), Washington (10) and Colorado (7), Alaska and Texas (6 each). East of the Mississippi, the states with the most ECO churches are Pennsylvania (16) and Florida (11).
“We’ve seen quite an increase in applications from California, Texas, Washington and the southeast area of the United States,” Allin said, adding that another 120-150 churches are in the process of joining ECO. “There are a lot of churches that plan to join when and if they can. They’re just waiting for congregational votes or dismissal by a presbytery.”
Even more churches are in a period of discernment to determine if they need to stay in the PCUSA or leave, and there also is the decision of which denomination to join if they choose to sever ties with the PCUSA.
PCUSA remains largest Presbyterian denomination
While ECO has seen positive growth in its membership (churches and individuals), the PCUSA still is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States.
According to information from the PCUSA, there were 1,849,496 members at the end of 2012 in 10,262 congregations. That’s a loss of 102,791 members and 204 congregations from the 2011 data. Membership totals for 2013 will be released later this spring.
The denomination’s membership has seen a steady decline over the last decade. In 2002, the PCUSA reported 2,451,969 members, so the current membership reflects a net loss of 602,473 members, or about 24.6 percent, over the last 10 years. There were 11,097 congregations in 2002, 835 more than in 2012.
Allin gave several reasons for the influx of churches for ECO, which also has brought about the creation of nine presbyteries, an increase from two when the denomination formed two years ago.
“The mandate from the General Assembly to have gracious dismissal policies in place has been taken very seriously by presbyteries,” he said. “They have started working with churches that have realized they just don’t belong in the PCUSA anymore.”
Along with that is a theological diversity that has manifest itself within the PCUSA.
“A lot of us are realizing that even evangelicals need to do things differently,” Allin said. “More creativity and flexibility is needed, and there is a desire to return to that connectional nature of what it means to do Presbyterianism – how best to implement ministry and recapture what it means to be Presbyterian.”
Formation of a denomination
Information from the ECO web site shows that the new denomination developed from the formation of The Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) in 2011. More than 2,000 people gathered at the initial Fellowship meeting in Minneapolis, Minn., in August of that year. Five months later at a similar gathering of approximately 2,220 in Orlando, Fla., pastors and congregations feeling called to leave the PCUSA established ECO, providing a new denominational home for those holding true to the conservative Reformed faith.
The ECO name speaks to its core commitments:
Covenant: To connect leaders in accountable relationships and encourage collaboration.
Order: To commit to a shared way of life as we unite around a shared theological core.
Evangelical: To advance the gospel of Jesus Christ and plant new missional communities.
Presbyterian: To stand within our Reformed heritage and celebrate the life of the mind.
The mission is one that holds true to the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20 to build flourishing churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ.
With the goal to “baptize more than they bury” by 2018, ECO churches place priority on lifting up the centrality of the Gospel; growing with an emerging generation of leaders; prioritizing a wave of church innovation; and creating an atmosphere of relational accountability.
A draw for congregations
Allin indicated that the missional entrepreneurial spirit, flexibility in operation and a desire to be the church God has called them to be have been reasons cited by congregations for their decisions to make ECO their new denominational affiliation.
“They feel this is the denomination that they can best fulfill the mission God has given them,” Allin said.
But is ECO merely a haven of rest for congregations disturbed by the more liberal direction the PCUSA has taken through the years? Is it a sanctuary from what conservatives churches are trying to leave behind?
“Sometimes we see congregations that simply want to leave the PCUSA,” Allin said. “But so many others want to embrace the philosophy of ECO, something they are hungry to be a part of. We see that there is dissatisfaction with being in the PCUSA, and this is an opportunity to change gears, not to get away from something but to move toward something they are excited about. We help them make those steps toward a new reality.”
Looking to the future
While pleased with the rapid growth of ECO, Allin is looking forward to continued additions of congregations and opportunities not only to add those from other denominations but also to plant new churches.
“As exciting as it is to see that we have more than a hundred churches, I’ll be way more excited when we plant 100 new churches and reach out to people,” Allin said. “We’re thankful to have over a hundred congregations; it gives us more people to reach out to others and share information about our denomination, but more importantly to share Jesus Christ. We have people who are clamoring for opportunities to be involved in church planting.”
Allin anticipates continued growth for the denomination on the horizon, especially with so many churches already engaged in the process of discernment and/or dismissal and others enquiring daily about acceptance by ECO.
“We see opportunities to develop new partnerships and continued growth for ECO,” he said. “If we can continue planting churches and see people come to Christ, we’ll be on the trajectory we want to be on for the future.”