OURAY – Gordon MacPhail is feeling breathless. Not because he’s newly wed, fresh out of school and starting a brand new job in a brand new town.
It’s the altitude. “At sea level I can run seven miles, and here, I die,” explained the new pastor of the Ouray Christian Fellowship (formerly the First Presbyterian Church of Ouray) in a phone interview shortly after arriving in Ouray.
A month later, in late August, MacPhail is getting used to the thin air, but his new congregation is still trying to catch its collective breath.
After getting by with lay pastors and interim pastors for almost three years, they’ve now got a brainy, passionate young preacher in the pulpit. And whether it’s at a tearful mid-week witnessing session or a Sunday morning sermon, there’s a new buzz in the air at this old church – one of the most venerable in Ouray.
“Our congregation is twice the size it was just a month ago,” observed church member Bud Zanett at a recent Sunday service.
It may come as a surprise that the elders at the Ouray Christian Fellowship selected a 25-year-old rookie preacher to lead their flock.
“We had 70 candidates we considered,” said Ken Garard, who headed up the search committee. Yes, MacPhail “is young but he definitely was the kind of person we were looking for, character-wise and theologically.”
In evaluating the candidates, Garard explained, the search committee had a long list of criteria that included knowledge of the scripture, leadership ability, interpersonal skills and the ability to motivate people.
MacPhail passed muster on all counts.
“He rose to the top overall,” Garard said. “He has a lot of passion and a lot of energy, and I think he’ll grow in this community and in our church as well. We’re really thrilled and looking forward to a long-term relationship with him.”
MacPhail comes to his new job with his bride, 23-year-old Mary Elisabeth, at his side. The two met at the Christian family Camp-of-the-Woods in Speculator, N.Y., maintained a long-distance romance during MacPhail’s last two years of seminary and were wed on June 16, 2012, shortly after MacPhail graduated from divinity school and Mary Elisabeth completed a degree in music education from Houghton College in upstate New York. Her instrument is the viola. She has also just taken a new job, as the middle school and high school band and chorus teacher at Ouray School.
“She feels joined with me in this ministry and I know she is committed to working with me,” MacPhail said.
MacPhail was raised in Connecticut in a family that knew its scriptures well. His father worked for IBM and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. “They were very gentle people, and raised me in an atmosphere of communication, safety and sharing,” he said. “We were unconventional; we didn’t connect to the culture in a lot of ways. We didn’t watch TV or movies or eat out.”
Instead, the family traveled, exposing young Gordon and his siblings to different languages and cultures around the world.
His mother in particular was drawn to Charismatic Christianity and its penchant for prophecy, miracle healing and speaking in tongues.
“When I was young I wanted to see her perspective legitimated,” MacPhail said. “I had a lot of experiences witnessing others walk in profound experiences of the spirit. For a while I thought and believed that I spoke in tongues and that spirit worked in profound ways like that.”
Now he’s not so sure. “It’s not that I question if those things are real, but at least for me, it was not legitimate. What I was experiencing was an ecstatic emotional experience. Not spirit.”
MacPhail empathizes with Christians who feel that they are missing out on something if they can’t reach that kind of ecstatic state.
“A lot of people have said that if you don’t have an ecstatic experience your relationship with God isn’t meaningful,” he said. “But I don’t see anywhere in Scripture where it says that experiencing those dynamic forces of the spirit is a prerequisite to being saved.”
While MacPhail grew up in a strongly religious family, he had no plans to become a pastor when he entered Grove City College in Pennsylvania in pursuit of a history degree. “I thought I’d join the CIA or become a history professor,” he said.
But about halfway through obtaining his bachelor’s degree, he “felt the call” and started taking more ancient languages – namely, Hebrew and Greek.
“I worked hard at Koine Greek,” he said. “It’s sort of an ancient street slang Greek – a corrupt form of the language that was used in between classical or Attic Greek and present-day Modern Greek.”
Koine is the language in which most early Christian theological manuscripts were written. It was important to MacPhail to be able to read those texts in their original form in order to determine for himself the most reliable translations.
“I wanted to know why different translators used different words that result in completely different interpretations of biblical passages,” he explained, pointing as an example to a passage in the Old Testament Book of Jonah, in which the translation of an uninflected particle makes the difference between whether Jonah doubts or is certain that God will save him.
“It’s ambiguous and you have to work hard to determine what is the most reliable translation,” said MacPhail.
MacPhail continued his studies at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School north of Chicago, the flagship school of the Evangelical Free Church of America.
“Its founders wanted it to be the Harvard of conservative Christianity,” he explained. “There are a lot of prominent teachers there.”
MacPhail studied with many of them, including professor of New Testament D.A. Carson and biblical translator Grant Osborn.
“And anyone who has studied Old Testament would know Barry Beitzel,” MacPhail added. “He’s a professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, whose areas of expertise include the history of mapmaking, geography and archaeology. His publications include The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands.”
After seminary, MacPhail had expected to enter into the Anglican denomination, but circumstances intervened to lead him to the Rocky Mountain District of the Evangelical Free Church of America instead.
At about the same time, the congregation at the First Presbyterian Church of Ouray was coming out of a period of division and upheaval, having recently withdrawn from the Presbyterian Church (USA) over philosophical differences with the national organization over the issue of gay ordination among other things. Many longtime members of the congregation had left in protest. Those who remained opted to join the EFCA and consequently reorganized as the Ouray Christian Fellowship.
MacPhail acknowledges his newly adopted congregation has gone through a rough spell.
“It’s a time of transition and renewal,” he said. “There has been some tension within this church and the community.”
MacPhail will be looking for ways to resolve that tension and heal the rift in the community. “I don’t want to be cut off from it,” he said. “I don’t think my preaching and charisma or my ‘gift’ will do anything. God is at work and if he wants to grow the congregation he will.”
One gets the feeling that MacPhail is up for the job.
“I want to help people,” he said. “It sounds so generic, but I want to serve. I have a deep desire to serve people. It’s a rare individual who is not hurting for something, who is not deeply damaged, broken in some way. Everyone has a need for love, friendship, healing. I want to be part of the restoration.”