What has Chicago to do with Dubuque?

by John Vest

Last year, as part of my work on the General Assembly’s Mid Councils Commission, a colleague and I paid a visit to an assembly of the Synod of Lincoln Trails. The gathering was in Philo, IL, a small farming community about 150 miles south of my home in Chicago.

Early that morning I stopped by my downtown office to collect some materials for the meeting. I serve a large, cathedral-like church that happens to sit on one of the busiest corners of the nation’s third largest city. The church where the synod gathered in Philo is a much smaller building in the midst of farms and fields.

This massive stone cathedral and this modest white church-house—and the communities in which they are located—could not be more different. Yet both congregations are part of a single church communion. In fact, the very work that brought me to both places that day was an exploration of our church’s deep connectionalism. Still, given the obvious differences in our ministry contexts, I couldn’t help wondering what it is that binds us together and how we might have meaningful conversations about our common call to ministry in the world.

I am an adult convert to Presbyterianism who wasn’t raised in this church. I mostly grew up in the South in Southern Baptist churches. I experienced quite a bit of culture shock when I transitioned from my conservative Baptist background in the South to more progressive Presbyterianism in a big Midwestern city. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand these cultural differences. And as I’ve traveled around the country for conferences and meetings, I’ve taken those opportunities to learn as much as I can about local expressions of Presbyterianism. There is indeed a great diversity within our national church.

Last week I had the opportunity to make a presentation at a regional NEXT gathering in Dubuque, IA. Once again, I found myself in a setting very different from my ministry context in Chicago. As I contemplated what I would talk about, I wondered to myself, “What has Chicago to do with Dubuque?”

I often wonder such things. When I speak with youth workers from various ministry contexts, for all of the similarities in our work, there are as many differences that result from the uniquenesses of our particular contexts. And much of the youth ministry literature and curricula out there doesn’t quite seem to fit the progressive mainline Protestantism and urban setting of my ministry.

What I am searching for is some common ground for the church—across all of our regional differences—to talk about how to move forward into the rapidly changing contexts for ministry in which we find ourselves. I am increasingly convinced that attention to the various post-Christendom realities we face might provide such a shared sense of what binds us together in mission and ministry in 21st century North America.

For centuries, Christian religion and culture dominated the Western world. This was especially true in American culture up through the middle of the 20th century. But this is no longer the case. Christianity in general—and, for Americans, Protestantism in particular—is no longer the definitive center and shaper of culture. “Christendom”—the triumphal reign of Christianity in Western culture—is over.

Every community in North America falls somewhere along what I am calling the post-Christendom continuum. In some places—like rural communities and communities in the American South (where I grew up)—Christianity is still part of the dominant culture. But in other places—like urban centers (where I have spent my entire adult life)—Christianity is no longer embedded in culture as it once was. What will ministry look like in these diverse contexts?

Last night I spent some quality pub time with old and new friends who were in town for the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion. From the experiences of those gathered around that table, we could connect the American South, rural Pennsylvania, Chicago, the Pacific Northwest, and the United Kingdom. It was clear that each of these contexts occupies a distinct place along the post-Christendom continuum. We talked about shared ministry challenges and contextualized our work accordingly.

In our increasingly pluralistic society, as the divides between urban centers and rural communities continue to widen, and as minority populations gradually overtake the majority, post-Christendom realities bind us together into a shared missional context that is regionally differentiated. Reflection on where our particular communities are located on the post-Christendom continuum will help us effectively contextualize our ministry while also framing our dialogues with colleagues and partners in very different contexts.

The challenge for us all is to rethink Christianity in these new post-Christendom contexts. As many theologians and missiologists have suggested, post-Christendom provides the church with exciting opportunities to reimagine itself, return to some of its more humble roots, and recast contemporary culture as a mission field ripe for harvest.

What do you think? Is post-Christendom a helpful way for us to think about our shared mission while also accounting for our real differences?

John VestJohn Vest is the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He blogs at http://johnvest.com and is working on a DMin at McCormick Theological Seminary. He dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of church and BBQ.

Reformation Redux- Anniversary and Action

by Nathan Proctor

Earlier this week, I shared some thoughts and questions about how and why we celebrate World Communion Sunday, and mentioned that how we observe and remember the Reformation is also worth exploring together.

Reformation Sunday

Each year on the last Sunday of October, we dust off the red paraments we haven’t seen since Pentecost, hire brass instruments, create a liturgy of historical creeds and confessions, and bust out some of the most beloved hymns of the Protestant church.  How great is that moment when with joined voices we get to joyfully sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God or I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art?  I love that these hymns are not only strong and beautiful melodies to sing but they have a tangible connection to our history.  Our services talk of Luther and Calvin and then in well-loved song we get to experience something these reformers shared with the church- we suddenly are connected with believers and congregations across time!

While I think our understanding of how to honor Reformation Sunday is a worthy effort at connecting our faith with the history of these important reformers, could we also stretch beyond the historical component, and allow ourselves new space to think and celebrate?

By always having this celebration on the last Sunday in October, tying it to Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses in 1517, we minimize the Reformation to simply a historical anniversary to observe.  Instead of marking a specific day, could we change it up and celebrate a church that is still reforming on a different Sunday of the year?  I think if we are freed from a specific date or historical occurrence, we can in turn be free to look at reforming as a broad and wonderful concept -an idea of change and growth that is bigger than ourselves and ultimately bigger than any one day or season.

Instead of a Sunday that traces the history of the Protestant church, what if we looked at a bigger picture of our world and witnessed how the church, through God’s grace, has been (and still is) a reforming agent? Maybe then we could focus on how our congregations have been praying and growing over generations when faced with hard questions about race relations, or gender equality, or poverty.  How interesting would it be if we celebrated Reformation on “International Day of Peace” in September or on “World AIDS Day” in December? What if we celebrated reformations multiple times a year? I think days like these suggestions would challenge us to think about how we care for the sick and the outcast, or work for ways of peace in the world. Yes, we would discover that the church has made missteps along the way, but I think the bigger picture is what we could learn from this honest history, and to dream how we might do things differently. How are we, as individuals, as a congregation, as a denomination called to reform our world?  A fresh date might allow us new insight in trying to answer this question.

There is also something that feels odd to me about celebrating only one side of the story without acknowledging that the actual Reformation event spurred one of the biggest schisms in church history.  I realize that it’s more vision than reality to imagine all of us living peacefully together in faith, and that the church has always had some sort of fracture as it reflects the fractured people that take part in it, but I long for ways of reforming that bring us closer together to be the church we think God is calling us to be.

Can we be intentional about training our celebration towards some of the more beautiful ways we have all reformed? I am struck by Martin Luther’s idea to translate the scriptures into the vernacular.  In the midst of a divisive era, it created new ways for people to unify together around the word of God.  Hearing God speak your language breaks down barriers and proclaims that language does not separate you from God or one another.  Imagine all the reforms the church has made since that time that continue to break down divisions – your country or political regime does not separate you from God, your gender or sexuality does not separate you from God.  Neither does family, diagnosis, disease, physical limitations…and on and on.  Reformation can be about widening the circle, opening gates and welcoming people, not just about breaking away and dogmatic disputes.

Reformation is clearly both an anniversary and an activity.  Can we see it as a celebration of something in history, and as a driving force in the future story of the church?  I dream that as we next encounter a Reformation Sunday we might be able to bring about more justice, more hope, more unity, and more beauty to our world.

{This post is the second of a two-part series; Part one discusses sharing communion from a universal perspective on  World Communion Sunday.}

Nathan 2Nathan Proctor serves as Associate Director of Music at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh NC, where he helps plan and then leads three worship services each Sunday at the organ, and conducts choirs of children, youth, and adults. He considers himself lucky: he grew up in Iowa but now lives in North Carolina, so he can handle everything from ten-foot snow drifts to cheese grits. He travels for mission work, for fun, and for coffee, and is guilty of ordering one too many churchy books online.


By Jessica Tate

We paused in a joint meeting of ruling elders and deacons to connect with active participants in the life of our church, to say thank you to them for their leadership and involvement. We made phone calls right in the middle of the meeting. The response was overwhelmingly positive, both from the leaders making the calls and the recipients of the calls. This was a simple and effective way to strengthen connections within the congregation and to practice gratitude.

World Communion

by Nathan Proctor

I think about worship a lot. Like, a lot. In my current church, I plan and lead music in an average of two hundred worship services a year. As I look back on the hours of planning and rehearsing to prepare for worship, every year I get caught off guard by October. The two church celebrations that frame the month, World Communion and Reformation, throw me into a mind-spin. Having just gone through the month, I cautiously look back and wonder about next year. I wonder if as a congregation we remembered and celebrated these occasions faithfully and lovingly. I wonder if we found the right balance between remembering our history and dreaming about the future.

As the church changes and we witness to the church that is becoming, the big question that weighs on my mind is this: Will we reach a time when we can no longer answer why we do this? Will we discover a time when we need to outgrow these occasions? As compared to celebrations and feast days where the church year marks the life of Jesus Christ, how can these ecclesiastical occasions, to honor the church itself, grow and change with us as a reforming church?

World Communion

I grew up Lutheran, so it wasn’t until my first Presbyterian church job that I experienced a tried and true World Communion Sunday in October. I quickly learned that this day was a special part of the Presbyterian heritage. At its very core, celebrating communion with the entire world is a beautiful and holy thing to do. However, over the years I have seen lots of “interesting” ideas: wearing traditional costumes, speaking in different languages, sharing global music, and even using “global” bread during communion. I worry that these ideas can cheapen our grand vision for the day, and we end up at some sort of costume party eating pita bread together. While I am grateful for people who share ideas and for the hours it takes to bring them to fruition, I also wonder how we can expand our visions and search for ways to celebrate that have less to do with our own perceptions of the world and more about what God’s view of the world might be.

First, I think God calls us to see the concept of world as “welcome,” not geography. Our current technology allows us to connect with people living afar so quickly and effortlessly compared to the first time we celebrated it in 1936, so the notion of World Communion takes on (or should take on) a different meaning. Instead of exotic geography, perhaps we should focus on radical invitations to the table. Maybe the church that we are slowly becoming is one that thinks less about how our own church specifically does communion and instead looks outward to how everyone could feel welcome to share in the feast. Do we dare to suggest a new idea in that the world celebrates communion with us EVERY single time we partake in the sacred meal? What if the real gift of World Communion and its history and tradition is that it brought about an openness — a step outside of ourselves — within our practice of communion?

Second, I think God hopes we are open to new ideas every time we gather to worship. World Communion has given us permission to experiment, to be playful, to try on something that might not feel like our own tradition for one Sunday out of the year. Why not allow that to happen other Sundays (if not every week)? Local tradition is important because it gives us continuity, history, a sense of belonging, but let’s build and honor local tradition out of “music,” not subsets of “our music” and “global music.” Let’s allow all language, fabric, movement, color, faces, tastes and smells from God’s creation to inform and inspire our weekly worship, not just those that have always been in our church closet.

Costume parties are fun because you can try out a different character while knowing you will change back to the old you in the morning. Shouldn’t we expect more from World Communion? Shouldn’t encountering the world transform us? Shouldn’t seeing the face of God in different forms and hearing the stories in different tongues alter our relationship to our brothers and sisters? Maybe the measure of success for World Communion Sunday is when we no longer need one token day of remembering, and instead invite the whole world to supper each time we gather together.

{This post is part one of a two-part series; come back later this week to continue exploring how we worship — on Reformation Sunday.}

Nathan 2Nathan Proctor serves as Associate Director of Music and White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh NC, where he helps plan and lead three worship services each Sunday at the organ, and directs choirs of children, youth, and adults. He considers himself lucky: he grew up in Iowa but now lives in North Carolina, so he can handle everything from ten-foot snow drifts to cheese grits. He travels for mission work, for fun, and for coffee, and is guilty of ordering one too many churchy books online.

An Unusual Encounter

The following fictive scenario is indebted to Tony Woodlief’s piece, “Election,” found in Image (Summer 2012, 74). It is also the result of the special kind of sleep deprivation that other first time parents know so well.

by Andrew Taylor-Troutman

Last Friday afternoon, I was experimenting with Pandora stations under the pretext of working on my sermon. Suddenly, a church bell rang three times, which was very odd because the church I serve does not have a belfry. Then I heard a shuffling of footsteps down the hall, coming closer and closer.

A man strode purposely into my office. I noticed his funny looking black shoes, which had buckles across the top and looked positively ancient. He wore a three-quarter length cape around his skinny frame and had a long, long beard like ZZ Top. On top of his head perched a strange, three-cornered hat. I looked into his eyes, which smoldered with intelligence, and realized that he, too, was sizing up me.

“Yes sir, um, may I help you?” I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew this man from somewhere. Perhaps a presbytery meeting? Was he a guest lecturer at the seminary?

“Are you the minister of the Word at this church?” He spoke with a French accent, very unusual for the mountains of southwestern Virginia.

“Yes, I am Rev. Taylor-Troutman. Please call me Andrew.”

“My name is Jean Calvin. You can call me John.”

“Oh my God!” Calvin narrowed his eyes at me. “I mean, oh my goodness!”

“Perhaps you heard of me, no? I am a lawyer by training, and a theologian by practice. I’ve written many books. Have you heard of the most important one?”

“Of course I have heard of you!” I exclaimed, a little too eagerly. Quickly I swiveled around in my desk chair to the bookshelf behind me and, after a brief and frantic search, pulled down my two volumes of Institutes of the Christian Religion. When I placed the heavy books on my desk, a dust cloud powdered up from the covers, clearly visible through the sunlight streaming through my window. I smiled sheepishly. Calvin grimly tightened his lips.

“I am here because it has come to my attention that many unlettered men in your society do not notice how great a difference and unlikeness there is between ecclesiastical and civil power.”

I blinked at him uncomprehendingly. Calvin sighed.

“I believe your Thomas Jefferson spoke of the separation of church and state . . .”

“Ah yes, I’m with you now! It’s true; we just had a national election in which this issue was very important.” I nodded in what I hoped was a sagacious fashion and waved my hand to clear the dust from the air.

“Let us begin here,” Calvin clasped his hands behind his back and began rocking slightly back and forth, “Undoubtedly evinced from many clear proofs of scripture, the church does not have the right of the sword.”


“I speak of the power to punish or compel, the authority to force, imprisonment, and the other punishments which the magistrate commonly inflicts.”

“Oh sure,” I added, “That power of the sword.” I think Calvin may have rolled his eyes.

“So then, the church does not assume what is proper to the magistrate. But shall the church stop there?”

I hoped that was a rhetorical question and remained silent. Calvin resumed his rocking back and forth.

“Suppose a man is drunk. In a well-ordered city, imprisonment will be the penalty. So will the laws, the magistrate, and outward justice be satisfied. Yet he may happen to show no sign of repentance, but, rather, murmur or grumble . . .”

“Complaining of a hangover,” I quipped. Calvin’s glare told me not to do that again.

“So the minister of the Word, in turn, ought to help the magistrate in order that not so many may sin. Their functions ought to be so joined that each serves to help, not hinder, the other. They must have a mutual obligation to bond for the glory of God.”

“Well, I think you have a good idea there, but as we say around here, ‘The devil is in the details.’”

“I do not see the profit of your expression,” he intoned, “Details, as with all of creation, are manifestly part of God’s sovereignty.”

“Ah, well, you see, some of our magistrates, called politicians, want to use their, um, power of the sword to bend the will of people towards the views of their church.”

“This cannot be. As Ambrose wrote, ‘A good emperor is within the church, not over the church.’”

“Does this Ambrose have a blog? I’m kidding, only joking with you . . .”

“The state of affairs in your country is no laughing matter! It behooves us to identify the abuse of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, in order that we may know what is to be abrogated and what of antiquity is to be restored.”

“Okay, okay; go on.”

“First, this is the aim of ecclesiastical jurisdiction: that offenses be resisted, and any scandal that has arisen be wiped out. In its use two things ought to be taken into account: that this spiritual power be completely separated from the right of the sword; secondly, that is be administered not by the decision of one man but by a lawful assembly. Both of these were observed when the church was purer, as in 1 Corinthians 5:4–5.”

“But John, other people would say that the church should direct the affairs of the state, and that it is the duty of ministers to point this out. Last Sunday, some preachers were telling their congregation to ‘Vote the Bible!’”

“I do not blame the individual faults of men, but the common crime of the whole order of priests, the veritable plague, since it is thought to be mutilated unless it be decked out with opulence and proud titles.”

“Whoa, say that again, in English, please.”

Calvin gazed at me in silent confusion, or judgment, or both. “I was speaking in English.”

“I mean, can you make yourself clearer?”

“Humility, Andrew, pure and simple. If we seek the authority of Christ in this matter, there is no doubt that he wished to bar the ministers of his Word from civil rule and earthly authority when he said, ‘The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them . . . but you do not do so,’ for the church does not have the power to coerce, and ought not to seek it.”

I tried in vain to think of something to say.

“Let the ministers of the Word in your country know my position on this issue.”

With that, John Calvin spun around, cape snapping in the air, shoes emitting an audible clap, clap as he made his way down the hall and out of the church.


Author’s note: All quotes from Calvin are taken directly from Institutes . . . except, of course, when they are not.

Leadership at the Speed of Change and the Call to Improvise

Brief Reflections on an Awesome Western and Central New York Next Regional Conference

by John Wilkinson

The second annual Western and Central New York Next Regional Conference was held Monday, November 5 at Third Church in Rochester NY. A special word of thanks to the Third Church volunteers and staff, and particularly Becky D’Angelo-Veitch, for their hospitality. Nearly 100 were in attendance, and we shared a rich and full day of networking, visioning and connecting.

speedSix presbyteries were represented, primarily from Western New York, Cayuga-Syracuse, Geneva and Genesee Valley. Ministers, elders, educators, musicians and members were all present – many ages and church sizes as well.

Worship grounded us in God’s vision in Romans 12 and reminded us, though prayer and music, that God has a future in store for us.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana provided a terrifically creative and supportive keynote presentation, “Leadership at the Speed of Change.” There were many, many takeaways from her presentation, particularly around the notion of the art and practice of improvisation. Her thesis statement both challenged and comforted us: “The church will continue to flourish to the extent that it can learn to improvise in a constantly changing culture.” Using a nifty Prezi presentation, MaryAnn drew on the notion of improvisation outlined in part by Patricia Ryan Madsen’s book Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. Both the concepts of Madsen’s book and MaryAnn’s appropriation of them will bear much fruit as the Next Church conversations continue to unfold.

National Next director Jessica Tate was present and shared the overall vision and directions of Next Church – it was a great opportunity to connect the national conversation with the particular and contextual needs of our region.

Workshops covered a broad base of ideas and needs — some hands on, some more conceptual. We discussed community organizing, mission, our connectional church (as the Synod of the Northeast and various New York presbyteries evolve), and various forms of practices of ministry.

Open source/open space time in the afternoon allowed for lively, group-generated discussion. Topics included worship, improvisation, Board of Pensions changes, local mission, Next Church, and new faith communities.

Participants reflected later on the gathering:

“…the conversations in NEXT are another manifestation of the way we’re learning to live out the Great Commission anew; they have synergy with other more structured processes for thinking about evangelism and growth (e.g., New Beginnings, etc.) that many of us are involved with, but allow us to think about them with fresh eyes.  NEXT brings in the innovative voices of folks in the field, especially those of younger adults, in a way that our polity isn’t designed to do.”

“…NETX is building a network if not a community where Presbyterians can go to imagine, enhance, expand ministry. The old places to do this are either gone or largely ineffective or too narrowly restricted…”

Presbyterians in Western and Central New York look forward to building on our connections in the region, exploring the particular needs of our local contexts. At the same time, we look forward to connecting with the national Next conversation for resources. Throughout it all, the vision of improvisation seems compelling and timely.

John WilkinsonJohn Wilkinson is the Pastor of Third Presbyterian Church of Rochester. John has been active in the PC(USA) in many ways: a member of the PUP Taskforce, on the Executive Committee of the Covenant Network, and on the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. John believes that the church is the best place for people to gather to ask the deepest, most profound questions of faith and life. He is committed to urban ministry, the great hymns of the church and Presbyterian theology, as well as baseball, Bruce Springsteen and late night TV!

Seasick Church

by Mary Harris Todd

Lately the story of the storm at sea in Acts 27 has been much on my mind.

Storm at Sea Flickr-6676320505Paul and his shipmates were caught in a violent storm that just went on and on and on, tossing the ship up and down. The text says that they didn’t eat for fourteen days. My hunch is that everybody had to stick close to the rail. Even pastor Paul was dreadfully seasick. Perhaps that’s why he couldn’t resist reminding the crew that they should have listened when he told them much earlier that they needed to do something different. Moreover, the passengers and crew were disoriented. Verse 20 reads, “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.”

Our congregation is traveling through a stormy time of grief and loss and uncertainty and fear, plus we are downright bewildered about how to reach people beyond our current boundaries and incorporate them into the life of the family of faith. We are experiencing up-and-down worship attendance, and a few Sundays have been painfully low. On one of those Sundays one of our ruling elders reports feeling literally nauseated.

Yet there are also hopeful signs to give thanks for. God is bringing us into contact with new people, including a flock of children and their families. It was a joy to spend Tuesday afternoons this summer with some of them in a VBS-like experience in one of the children’s homes.  On a recent Sunday evening we had a service of evening prayer focused on anointing and laying on of hands for healing, and communion.  So many people came that we had to move from a smaller room to the church fellowship hall.

Wow! Talk about going up and down with the waves!

After Paul got the urge to say, “I told you so” out of his system, he went on to tell his shipmates, “Keep up your courage! There will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. The ship is going to be wrecked, but we are all going to be safe.” Then later, when some of the sailors were tempted to abandon the ship and sail away in a lifeboat, Paul called out, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” The soldiers on board then cut away the lifeboat and set it adrift. Everybody ended up staying on board.

Then, just before daybreak on the day of the shipwreck, Paul urged everybody to take food. He took bread, gave thanks, broke it, ate, and gave it to others. Holy communion!

Hours later, the ship ran aground and began to break up. Everyone headed for shore. Some swam, while others floated on pieces of the ship. In the end, all reached shore safely. Not one person was lost.

There’s a word from the Lord here for the storm-tossed, seasick church. While the institutional vessel may be wrecked and broken, God is going to get us safely to the shore. And while we mourn the loss of the vessel as we knew it, the Church of Jesus Christ lives. Even now, God is inspiring designs for new vessels, and building is underway. Not one to waste anything, God may well be reclaiming strong, seasoned lumber from the wreckage and repurposing it. In fact, I’m sure of it.

Take heart, seasick church! Over the sound of the storm, above the waves of queasiness and waves of exhilaration, a voice calls, “Take. Eat. This is my body, broken for you.”

Mary Harris ToddMary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

Beyond Better Preaching: Stewardship through a Community Organizing Lens

by Andrew Foster-Connors

It was high up in the glass-encased office of the CEO of one of Baltimore’s large corporate players that my mind started drifting to stewardship.  It was an odd time to be thinking about stewardship.  The Baptist bishop, the Catholic priest, the city school teacher, the organizer and I were in this office to find out whether this CEO was willing to exercise leadership among his peers to support a campaign to rebuild Baltimore’s City School facilities.  This would be the true test of whether his words about young people were just words, or the stuff of true commitment.

from the BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) website

from the BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) website

We laid out the vision – political leaders, corporate leaders, religious leaders standing alongside teachers and young people calling on the MD General Assembly to change existing revenues to make it possible to leverage $500 million dollars this year toward the $2 billion need.  This, we said, was our “kairos moment.”  The CEO stopped to write this down – “How do you spell that word?” he wanted to know.  He asked a few questions then we moved to commitment – Would he stand with us in calling on the corporate community?  Yes, he would.  Would he call on other corporate leaders to use their leadership to support the legislation?  Yes, he would.  “This is what’s best for our kids,” he said.  And it was true.

But I was thinking about stewardship.  Like a lot of pastors, I never really received any training in stewardship other than the theology behind it, roughly summarized as this: because God has redeemed us in Jesus Christ, we respond out of gratitude.  Stewardship naturally grew out of this theological training.  When stewardship season rolled around, I preached some stewardship sermons, and people would, presumably, give out of their gratitude.  The first several years, the budget went up by a few percentage points.  Not bad, but not inspiring either.  So I did what any theologically trained pastor would do – I improved my message.  I labored over the sermons, and preached some really good.  I waited expectantly, but the budget numbers didn’t look all that different from the previous year.

Desperate, I turned to our lead organizer, Rob English, for help.  He diagnosed my problem immediately.  “You know what your problem is,” Rob said to me not waiting for me to give him permission to speak, “you preach these sermons and get these people all worked up, but you haven’t given them anywhere to go.  You want them to give money for the ministry?  Then you have to ask them for it out of the relationships that you have.”  “But I shouldn’t have to,” I protested.  “I mean, according to Presbyterian polity, it’s not really my job.”  He shook his head in disappointment.  I was a difficult case.  “I know what you’re going to say,” I said, “I’m living in the world as it should be instead of the world as is.”  His face brightened.  Maybe I was going to get this.

The next campaign, I met with about 20 families and asked them directly for a specific amount connected to a specific need.  Surprisingly, not only did 99% of the people with whom I met seem to enjoy talking with me about the church and all the exciting plans for the future, I learned things I had never learned about them before; stories about important people in their lives who had instilled a value of generosity, or why the church was so important to them.  In my first campaign, despite my ineptitude, I helped raise six figures for a capital-style campaign in our then 250 member church.

But here in the office of the CEO, I realized where I had failed in that initial campaign.  Rather than cultivating leaders to share the burden of the work, I had taken a lot of it on myself.  Not only had I generated a lot of work for myself, I had deprived others the opportunity of developing relationships, and deepening their own leadership.  My instincts had been partially right– my job wasn’t to raise money for the church.  My job was to help raise leaders for the church.  Just as we were calling on this CEO to call on his friends to commit to God’s work of nurturing the children of Baltimore, I needed to be developing leaders in my congregation to call on their friends to commit to God’s work in and through the church.

The next year, I identified people in the congregation who knew something about inspiring generosity in others – the development director for a local school, the grassroots campaign masterminds who unseated one of Baltimore’s machine politicians through their face to face work, a membership director for a local club, a jovial philanthropist, and one of my skeptics who, nonetheless is listened to by many when she speaks.  I met with each of them individually and asked them to serve, teaching us all in the process about how to connect the joy that people feel in our mission with their generosity to the church.

It took me 6 years of broad-based organizing experience before I came to see that organizing is not about politics – it’s about relationships that can be organized to build all sorts of amazing, grace-filled agendas for God’s work in the world.  Raising $500 million dollars for justice in the schools isn’t all that different than raising a money for a church’s mission.  Call it a kairos moment.

Andrew Foster ConnorsAndrew Foster Connors is senior pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD where he also serves as clergy co-chair of BUILD, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the oldest and largest community organizing network in country.

Back to What’s Next …

by Mary Harris Todd

As we discern what’s next for the church, let’s take time to visit our ancestors in faith who struggled to discern what God had in mind for them next.  Let’s revisit our mothers and fathers in scripture, and let’s also take another look at church history and our congregations’ histories.  Here is a story from Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church, the small congregation in which I grew up.

Morton PresbyterianWhen the church was founded in 1876, the Kirk’s building was literally perched on a cliff in Spotsylvania County, Virginia—hence the name. By the dawn of the twentieth century, however, the congregation had migrated away from the community in the neighborhood of the building. It would still be years before cars made rural travel easier. And since people still depended on horses and buggies and their own feet to get to church, the people of the Kirk had a problem.

What did they do? The congregation decided to move the building closer to where the people actually lived. In 1911 new land was given, and they went to work. They dismantled the church building piece by piece, loaded it onto horse-drawn wagons, moved it to its present location and reassembled it. With the exception of some bricks and a few boards, every piece survived intact. The congregation more than survived. Today the church is still called Kirk O’Cliff even though the cliff is ten miles away and covered by the waters of Lake Anna. As I think about the passion, the commitment, and the sheer sweat that dismantling, moving, and rebuilding required, I marvel.

When it comes to what’s next for the church in the twenty-first century, I wonder what God is planning to “dismantle,” “move,” and “assemble” in a new way now. People who need the embrace of Jesus have in many ways moved out of range of the church, so we are now called to move. Knowing where and when and how is going to require prayerful passion, prayerful commitment and prayerful sweat.

If you’re looking for more stories from our great cloud of witnesses who discerned what was next in their day, I recommend Diana Butler Bass’s book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story.

There you can visit with some well-known folk like Augustine, Luther and Calvin.  But more importantly, you can also visit with a host of lesser-known witnesses, many of whose names are unknown, who simply did the best they could to follow Jesus, loving God and neighbor in their place and time.  For example, you can begin to get to know the Beguines and Beghards of the late 1100s, Spirit-led women and men who formed semi-monastic communities whose purpose was to care for the poor and people with infirmities.

Let’s dig into the church’s stories and mine them for more examples of people exercising imagination and courage to move in faith towards what was next.  We are here now because a great cloud of witnesses along the way asked, “Gracious God, what’s next?”  Thanks be to God for them, and for the opportunity that is now ours.  New stories of faith are developing every day.  Let the wagons roll!

Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

The Spirit Comes to Washington… A Reflection on the DC/Richmond Regional Gathering

by Stephen Smith-Cobbs

We began out on the side porches of The Church of the Pilgrims with coffee, bagels, and a gentle but persistent breeze that was a portent of things to come in more ways than one. While we all were more than aware of the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Sandy and her high winds and heavy rains, I am not sure we were as aware of the coming of the Spirit. But the NEXT church leadership conference, “Dynamic Church in a Time of Change,” was one occasion when the Spirit came.

With song and a choral reading of the Pentecost story from Acts, pastors Jeff Krehbiel and Ashley Goff of the Pilgrims church welcomed the participants and shared the story of the worship life of their congregation. Just as the story of Pentecost came to us from all directions in the choral reading, the worship life of Pilgrims seeks to involve worshippers in multiple ways. Worship at Pilgrims strives to be EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-driven, and connectional). The Pilgrims congregation believes that God is calling them to be a community of transformation that engages newcomers, especially young adults, in the practices of Christian community. At this NEXT church event, the whole day was itself a reflection of this kind of worship experience … as the Spirit came.

Jud Hendrix, Coordinator of the Ecclesia Project, a ministry of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, used images and poetry as he shared reflections on leadership. As we did throughout the day, participants broke into triads for sharing impressions and thoughts about what was presented. Judd used several poems that became the basis for examples of and lessons in leadership. He spoke of prototyping, which he defined as a short-term experiment for the purpose of learning – as opposed to the way some use the term “prototype” to speak of a kind of model for solving a problem. Jud closed the morning with the “Broken Toaster” game, in which we might take apart a toaster, and then, instead of trying to put it back together exactly as it was, we instead ask what the Spirit wants to do with all the component parts. What can the Spirit do or create with these parts? And the Spirit came …

During lunch we used an “Open Space” approach to breaking into small groups. Individuals who wished to lead a discussion were invited to share the topic they wished to discuss (like “Biblical Story Telling,” “How to Make Friends in Church” and “Creating Relationships and Community in Worship”). These leaders stationed themselves at various tables in the fellowship hall and participants brought their lunch to a tables according to their interest. Of course, some only wanted to share fellowship and conversation over lunch and several did just that.

We returned from lunch to hear Jud share the remarkable story of the Ecclesia Project and how God used some unlikely folks to help begin new communities of faith in Mid-Kentucky Presbytery. One important leadership distinction Jud mentioned was how, rather than funding one large project with one large set of funds, the Ecclesia Project used one large set of funds to make multiple small grants for wildly different initiatives, trusting the same Spirit of Christ that spoke in many different languages at Pentecost to work in many different ways in their presbytery. And the Spirit came …

The final theme for the day was mission. Andrew Foster-Connors and Jessica Tate shared their experiences of how community organizing had made a difference in the ministries of their congregations, as well as their own personal ministries. The very definition of the word “mission” was transformed for them through broad-based organizing in their congregations. Where mission had previously been defined as “helping the less fortunate,” mission now meant “sending.”

In their experience, broad-based organizing provided a framework for living into God’s mission as it shifted the church from a maintenance culture to a relational culture. They spoke of the changes organizing had brought as their churches shifted from groups to actions, to having a higher accountability to outcomes and results, and from doing one thing from eight different directions instead of doing eight different things superficially. They closed with a challenging question: What would need to happen in your church to begin to shift you from a culture of maintenance to a relational culture of action? I’m guessing one thing for sure would need to happen: the Spirit would need to come…

We concluded the day gathering around the table. Literally. Everyone got up and out of the pews and gathered (as Jeff Krehbiel put it, “by gather we mean crowd”) all around the Lord’s Table in the center of the sanctuary. There several elders from Pilgrims church, along with their pastors, led us in the communion liturgy of word and song and then shared the elements among us all. After sharing the communion, we all gathered in a large circle and held hands as we sang the John Bell hymn:

“Take, O take me as I am;
Summon out what I can be;
Set your strength upon my heart and live through me.”

Speaking for myself, it was a great and grand day to share with disciples of Jesus. I left refreshed, renewed, and fed – both body and soul. I left hopeful for the NEXT church. For, indeed, the Spirit had come. And I am confident that the Spirit, just as Jesus promised, will come again.

smith cobbsStephen Smith-Cobbs is one of the pastors of Trinity Presbyterian in Herndon, VA. He is a native Texan and graduate of Austin College in Sherman, Texas and Princeton Theological Seminary. Before coming to Trinity in 1997, he pastored two congregations in Texas. His current ministry passions include “what unites us as followers of Jesus Christ and what it means for us to be the church in the 21st century.”