Worship: Style vs. Substance

by Jeff Krehbiel

Among my Presbyterian colleagues, several articles have been making the rounds this summer about millennials and the church. The most popular was by the evangelical writer Rachel Held Evans, published in the CNN Belief blog, “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church.”

Here’s the money quote:

“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance… You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”

David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church, posted an equally popular post on Patheos titled “Why traditional churches should stick with traditional worship.” He writes about skipping his usual mega-church one Sunday for a smaller, more traditional church closer to home, and being put off by their attempt at being “contemporary.” He concludes:

“When traditional churches try to be contemporary it usually comes across as forced, stilted or artificial. This dissonance jerks people back into the mundane world. Worshippers focus on the distraction instead of the Lord. So here’s my advice to every church: be who you are. Do what you do well – and do it over and over.”

What Evans and Murrow write, of course, is sound advice. All people, regardless of their age, value authenticity over pretense, substance over style. Here’s my worry:  What we are really thinking when we read these articles is “Whew! Thank God I don’t need to worry any long about making any changes in worship. Now we can go back to focusing on the things that really matter and leave worship alone.”

Change Without Conflict?

My colleague Molly Douthett, pastor of Furnace Mountain Presbyterian Church, posted this enigmatic little entry on Facebook the other day:

Two Myths:
We can grow without changing.
We can change without conflict.

That, it seems to me, gets to the heart of the matter. As conflict-averse people we want to reach new people without conflict, so we hope against hope that we can grow without having to change anything about how we do church.

Style and Substance

Our experience at Church of the Pilgrims over the past thirteen years, as our average age has gradually shifted from over 65 to less than 45, with Sunday worship peopled by a lot of twenty and thirty-somethings, is that style and substance are not so easily separated. Not only has the participation of young adults in worship been transforming for them, it has changed who we are as a community of faith.

One of the most helpful pieces of advice I received as a young pastor came from former moderator John Fife, long-time pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. At an urban ministry conference following his moderatorial year, he spoke about the lessons he learned in leading Southside into deeper engagement with its changing local community. He said that no matter what new demographic you are trying to reach (a different age, race, gender, ethnicity, whathaveyou), when people come to worship they want to see their own people in leadership and hear their own sound.

In subtle, and sometimes not so subtle ways (“You’re in my pew!”), we often communicate to newcomers that this is a place for us, but not a place for you. If the only ones required to change in bringing newcomers into the church are the newcomers themselves, we have a problem. Brian McClaren has often observed that there are scores of disaffected evangelicals who would easily find a theological home among Presbyterian and other mainline Christians congregations, but those congregations are often not experienced as hospitable places to those outside their fold. The message is often this: This is how we do things. If you are going to fit in here, it’s you who has to do the fitting.

Experiments in Wiki-Church

Howard Hanger, founder of the Jubilee! Community in Asheville persuaded me long ago that the big divide in worship is not between traditional and contemporary, but between passive and participatory. We learn in seminary that “liturgy” is the “work of the people,” but too often it is primarily the work of the pastor’s word processor. More recently, Landon Whittsit in his book Open Source Church, has suggested that in our Wikipedia culture, young adults increasingly expect to help create the experiences of which they are a part.

At Church of the Pilgrims, that begins in worship planning, where we invite a diverse group of worshipers to help us imagine worship together, including newcomers to our community who are not yet members. Then, in our planning, we make sure that worship provides meaningful opportunities to participate in ways that involve more than standing up to sing a hymn or sitting down to read a unison prayer printed in the bulletin.

Transformation and Our Comfort Zone

I love what Corey Widmer wrote in Presbyterian Outlook, that in his culturally diverse congregation in inner city Richmond, they have concluded that no one should be happy in worship more than 75% of the time, because if you are happy and comfortable with more than 75% of what is going on, it most likely means that your personal cultural preferences are being dominantly expressed. Too often, the only ones worshiping outside their comfort zone are those who are new.

What if we began to conceive of worship as a place where transformation takes place, not just for newcomers but for everyone? What if personal and corporate transformation were at the heart of congregational life? When everyone finds themselves in that liminal space, we all enter worship on the same vulnerable footing. A few months ago, MaryAnn McKibben Dana shared this wonderful little diagram on her blog:

 where the magic

Worship that is EPIC

There is no cookie-cutter approach to creating transforming worship. However, we have found this simple rubric from Leonard Sweet to be helpful in our worship planning. He suggests that worship for postmodern people should be EPIC: Experiential, Participatory, Image-Driven, and Connectional. So when we plan worship we talk about what we want the overall experience to be like, and how we can shape worship in a way that engages all of the senses (and not just worship from the neck up). We look for ways that worshipers can participate in meaningful ways. (For rich examples of participatory worship, Theresa Cho, co-pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian in San Francisco, is the master of interactive prayer stations.) Then we ask ourselves if there is a central image that can help ground the service and provide a focal point. Finally, we focus on what is happening in the service that will help worshipers connect with those who are around them.

This isn’t about traditional vs. contemporary, it’s about creating ancient-future patterns that engage in richer ways. (What exactly is contemporary, anyway? Is a new hymn contemporary? Or a praise chorus written in the ‘90’s? Where exactly does a Taizé chant fit in that traditional-contemporary schema? ) So, for example, at Church of the Pilgrims we often begin worship with short songs from Iona, not because they are new, but because singing a cappella in harmony creates community in powerful ways. I would also note that the sacraments, rightly celebrated, are an EPIC experience—there is bread and wine, plate and pitcher; there is taking, breaking, pouring, tasting; and most importantly, there is sharing. It’s all there.

For a recent example at creating worship that is transforming and EPIC, see this.

Jeff1_8x10Jeff Krehbiel is pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC, where he has served since 2000. He is a member of the NEXT Church advisory board, and a coach in NEXT’s Paracletos project. 

Clarifying Mutual Expectations–A Workshop

expectations-1By Bob Harris

I think it’s very important to regularly develop mutual expectations for a pastor’s top priorities. To do that you need to try to figure out what congregational members expect, but most importantly, clarify what board members expect of you and each other. How varied are the expectations? And how realistic? Are there common wishes, hopes, and needs?

Many pastors get into difficulty because they don’t take time to have a good conversation with leaders about mutual expectations and top priorities. Pastors blissfully follow their particular interests, ignoring what key leaders think is really important. If you don’t take time to clarify expectations, then you are bound to disappoint a number of key members. They will then lose trust in their pastor. Conversely, when the board and pastor are clear on priorities and communicate the priorities to the congregation and the pastor spends time and energy in accordance with these priorities, then trust will build. You will be seen as a leader who both has strong character and is competent.

So, how do you clarify expectations? Here is an approach to clarifying priorities I have used for clients and for myself. It is best done in a half-day retreat or meeting involving both board members and other key leaders. You might invite a coach or consultant or judicatory staff member to lead the retreat. (this is adapted from my nearly completed book aimed at pastors new to a parish so it is written directly to pastors)

1. Open with prayer and a trust building exercise. (15 minutes)

2. Ask participants to individually list what they expect you to do and to note roughly how many hours/week they expect you to spend on that task. You might give them your job description or what was developed in the pastor search process or a denominational list of pastoral responsibilities. (5 minutes)

3. Quickly compile the results and estimate the total number of hours per week their expectations would require you to work. When I’ve done this, the total hours often top 100! (5 minutes)

4. Discuss what you see in their list, and then invite them to describe what they see. Note similarities and variations in their expectations. (10 minutes)

5. List 10 to 15 responsibilities, each on a separate sheet of 11″x17″ paper, and tape these on a wall. I suggest that you prepare around 8 to 12 sheets in advance identifying typical expectations (for example, sermon and worship preparation, leadership, teaching an adult Bible class, evangelism). Also add expectations that were on the congregational profile that was prepared for the pastor search process and any you heard several identify as you interviewed leaders using the Eleven Curious Questions. Invite the leaders to add other expectations to the sheets on the wall. Post them too. Invite participants to reflect on the array of expectations before them. Invite questions for clarification about the meaning of specific expectations. I encourage you to limit the sheets on the wall to no more than 15. Be sure to summarize and combine expectations that are similar. It’s better to post one sheet saying “sermon and worship preparation” than two sheets with “sermon preparation” on one and “worship planning and preparation” on the other.(20 minutes)

6. Instruct the participants to each indicate what they think the top six priorities should be for you in your first year by writing their name on six of these sheets. I suggest that you tell them that after they make their selections, they may take a ten-minute break.

7. In the total group, review the voting and identify the top four to six priorities, and have a conversation about why these are most important. If the congregation did a mission/vision study during its search process or has done one recently, reflect on how study findings correlate with the priorities the board just identified. Discuss what these top priorities likely mean you will and won’t do in the next year (recognizing that surprises always happen). Invite conversation about how board members will respond when members complain about something they think you should be doing.

For example, Mr. Jones may have expected you to visit his home-bound wife monthly, but the board and you agree that quarterly visits are sufficient, since other members are visiting her. Instead of visiting home-bound persons so frequently, you and the board have agreed that, in an effort to welcome newcomers, you will visit every newcomer to worship. Or perhaps you and the board determine that you should spend eight hours a week with musicians and a contemporary worship planning team to begin a new service or strengthen an existing one. Most important, you and board members agree that if members complain that you haven’t met their expectations and in fact you have been meeting these mutually agreed expectations, the board supports your focus and use of time. (30 minutes)

8. Discuss how your focusing on these priorities directly affects how you will work with leaders and various committees. For example, previous pastors may have been expected to attend every committee meeting. These priorities might mean that you won’t normally attend the property committee meeting but that the chair of the committee will talk with you about plans and any issues they are dealing with. Perhaps you and they will explore having an all committee evening at which you will attend portions of the meetings as necessary. If there has been staff dissension and the board wants you to spend significant time strengthening staff relationships, then you might not have time to teach an adult class, and so the education committee will have to arrange for someone else to teach that class. Take time to be clear about what you expect of each other. (20 minutes)

9. Clarify how achieving these top priorities will be measured. For example, if you are fairly new to the congregation, board members and you might agree that the most important thing is for you to talk with most of the church members as soon as possible. Together you might set a goal that by the end of your first year, you will have had conversations with 75 percent of the active members. (20 minutes)

10. Request that the board pass a motion naming these priorities and that the appropriate lay leaders communicate these priorities to the congregation through varied media (e.g., newsletter, email, oral announcement). Also request that the Personnel Committee adapt its appraisal instrument to reflect these priorities. If you take time to develop mutual expectations with the board and communicate these priorities clearly, then members know what to expect, thus building trust as you meet the expectations.

Robert A. (Bob) Harris is a semi-retired pastor now serving as a leadership coach and consultant. Over his career he was called pastor in five congregations; he also served four churches as Interim Pastor. A Professional Certified Coach member of the International Coach Federation, he is especially interested in helping pastors who are new to their church get off to a good start. An outcome of that passion is a book due to be published by Alban Institute: Entering Wonderland: Tips and Tools for Pastors New to a Congregation. This article is adapted from his current draft.

Creation Mosaics: Genesis 1, Created by the Congregation

By Teri Peterson

“The first day of the new lectionary, on kick-off Sunday, we’re supposed to read the creation story. All seven days.” Cue internal pastoral eye-rolling. Haven’t I preached all the available sermons on the seven days of creation? With a word…separates…makes order…science and religion… Enter Holy Spirit. “What if, instead of the same creation sermon we’ve all heard, we create something together? Like, if we enacted the creation by making a creation?” And so the idea was born: to create, as a congregation, a visual representation of the seven days of creation, and to display that artwork in our worship space for the whole program year. It took a bit of convincing to remind the worship committee that it didn’t have to be permanent or perfect artwork—what mattered was that we made it together and that it conveyed an ongoing message of God’s creative work in community.

DSC_0391 copyBuilding on a project I had previously been a part of, we decided to create a mosaic mural. Our sanctuary’s balcony has 9 spots that were perfect for mosaic panels.

One person measured each space (because of course they aren’t uniform, nor are they perfectly square). We asked a couple of people to help draw. We bought foam core and cut/taped it to the right size for each space (they’re all 23” tall, and range from 40-7/8” to 42.75” long), and handed the panels out to artists. Each artist was assigned a day and asked to read the relevant verses and pray about the best way to visually represent that creation in a relatively simple design. The artists drew in pencil, then labeled each section with a color, so that ultimately it was like a “mosaic by number.”

A trip to the craft store for 12×12 scrapbook paper in every color we needed (mostly patterns and varieties of the same shade, so the final product would look textured without any actual three dimensional work on our part), a couple of hours at the paper cutter turning 150 sheets of paper into thousands of 1-inch squares, and we were ready to go. Each panel went onto a table laid across the pews, surrounded by labeled bowls of paper squares. Then the hardest work began: two of us spent hours filling in what I call “the fussy parts”—any segment of the design that couldn’t be easily done with 1” squares. We cut pointy pieces, wavy pieces, round pieces, and glued them into the design so that each panel had a start. This ultimately meant doing all of panel 1, because the design I had drawn was beautiful but entirely impractical. However, that did give a wonderful visual example for what we hoped they would all look like in the end.

DSC_0389 copySunday morning, ten minutes before worship, we sprayed each panel with a heavy dose of spray adhesive, which turned them into huge sticky notes by the middle of worship. During the children’s time, we talked about how the very first thing we learn about God is that God is creator, and the end of the story says that human beings are created in the image of God—so to say “I’m not creative” is to say “I’m not made in the image of God!” Since we know that every person is made in God’s image, that must mean that everyone has a bit of the creative spirit in them, and today we are letting that spirit flow. I gave the instructions to the kids: where it says yellow, stick on yellow squares. Where it says dark, stick on dark squares. etc.

They continued to work while the scripture was read, and then it was the time when normally I would preach for 12 minutes. Instead, I invited everyone in the sanctuary to join together as the body of Christ, also created in the image of a Creator God, in making a message together. I explained that when the panels were finished, they would make a mural we could see every week, reminding us to take God’s creative work with us into the world (they are at the back of the sanctuary). I talked about the importance of opening our minds, hearts, and bodies to encountering God in new ways, and that creating together was one important way we could become aware of the Holy Spirit in our midst. And then we made mosaics together for about 15 minutes.

At the end of 15 minutes, I mentioned a couple of interesting things about the interplay of the text and the experience—that the Hebrew words “tohu-va-bohu” implied an uncontrollable chaos, not unlike 75 people milling around a sanctuary, but that out of that chaos came something that God called good over and over and over. I mentioned that the poetry of the creation story repeats “and God said…and it was so” and that this is something we can remember whenever we look at these mosaics: that with a word, God created, and that we enacted that word and created something too.

After worship, I stayed for a couple of hours and mod-podged all the panels. On Monday afternoon, I sprayed them with a sealant. On Tuesday afternoon I flipped them over and super-glued some ribbons on the back of each panel, and laid all 12 volumes of the New Interpreter’s Bible on them to ensure they were as flat as possible. On Thursday afternoon I installed them, tying them to the grate in the balcony railing. And on Sunday morning, one week after they were created, the whole congregation was admiring and remembering and pledging to let the spirit of creativity flourish in our space and in our lives. The behind-the-scenes work was much more time consuming than I originally anticipated, but the experience of creating an ongoing message together is one I wouldn’t trade for all those hours spent cutting and gluing. The Spirit was speaking not only to the church, but through the church. Out of chaos, it was good. The seven panels:

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3188_ppTeri Peterson is a Presbyterian pastor in the suburbs of Chicago. She holds a degree in clarinet performance from DePaul University and an MDiv from Columbia Theological Seminary. She enjoys exploring new cities, being a bit of a music snob, writing, and coming up with creative ideas for worship. Teri co-authored Who’s Got Time: Spirituality for a Busy Generation (Chalice 2013), co-founded and contributes to Liturgy Link, as well as her own blog, CleverTitleHere, and is a contributing author to the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014 and 2015. Teri is a great lover of farmer’s markets, reading, Doctor Who, snuggling with kitties, and any TV show made by Joss Whedon.

From Cultural Competency to Cultural Humility

God colors smallBy Rev. Natasha Iwalani Hicks

I was in a meeting a few months back and a gentleman approached me asking me about pastoring a church in White Center, a diverse urban community in Seattle.  As our conversation proceeded he interjected and asked me why I do not preach in Spanish, and before allowing me to answer, he continued to give his rationale behind why I should be preaching in Spanish if I really cared about this particular community.

I rebutted with a similar question, asking if this gentleman speaks Spanish in order to better engage with the community that he is seemingly so passionate about.  His response was that he does not, but he is not Hispanic.

So, let me begin with the fact that I am actually not Latina/Hispanic either, despite my brownish skin tone, long brown hair and brown eyes.  I am Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Irish, German, Dutch Welch, I grew up on a Native American Reservation, and I speak English and some Romanian (as I was a missionary in Romania for a period of time).

In the past I used to get fired up about the assumptions that people make about me and my cultural/ethnic background, especially because it often came with a lack of expectation based on my appearance and my quiet presence.  However, as I have grown to be more and more comfortable in my own skin and to truly value my experiences as a multi-cultural person, I have increasingly learned to lean in and to engage in conversation instead of allowing anger or disappointment to lead my response.  I will admit though, that I still do experience those knee-jerk responses of anger and disappointment at times, especially when I see assumptions being placed upon others.

Let’s be honest, the PC(USA) has a long way to go in regards to authentic cultural engagement.  I heard much about cultural competency in seminary and I saw the attempt to paint a visually diverse picture of our seminaries, but the reality is when I attempted to question why there was such a lack of globally diverse voices included in the curriculum, I was told to go and take a class at the African American Seminary if I wanted that perspective.  Seriously, that was an actual response from a professor!  Don’t get me wrong, I do not share that to simply come down on the professor or our seminaries, but I use it to highlight the reality that we as a church have a long ways to go if this is still a reality in our seminaries, where leaders for the church are being formed.

Western culture values intellect.  We see a problem and we want to fix it.  We like process (decently and in order!).  We create resources and programs to overlay upon our increasingly diverse communities and wonder why they are not always well received or why they do not actually work.  Action, albeit at times well intentioned, takes precedence over the “inefficient,” time-consuming, practice of enlarging the circle to hear a wider array of voices and experiences.

Competency is easier than humility, because it implies that we can attain it and be done with it.  I have a Hawaiian friend, so I “get” Pacific Islander culture – check.  I’ve been on a mission trip to Mexico, so I understand Latino/HIspanic culture – check.  We’ve got a black person on staff, so we are diverse – check.  I BBQ with my white neighbor, so I “get” white folk – check.  Obviously, I am being somewhat facetious, but I honestly don’t think I am too far off.

Before I go on, I want to be clear that I do not think this is just an issue of “White Folk.”  I see this happen in the reverse all the time, where racial-ethnic folks disregard white folks, because they presume “they don’t get it” or they somehow come to believe that white folks do not have anything to contribute to the conversation around culture.  Reverse judgment, reverse prejudice, reverse exclusion gets us nowhere.  I understand the issue of white privilege and am not seeking to undermine or dodge the legitimate issue of power, but I believe the greater issue is a matter of humility, of the heart.

Each of us has a story.  I think we would all agree with this.  BUT, are we willing to truly enter into relationship with the firm belief that each person has something to contribute to “my” life and “my” story.  Period.  It doesn’t matter if they are poor or rich, Japanese or Lebanese, from the country or from the city.  Am I, are you, willing to enter each encounter with a posture of humility, desiring to learn, believing that the very heartbeat of God already exists within each person?

God came in flesh in Jesus Christ to share life with us.  To share life with us.  He was born within a particular culture, in a particular place, but he consistently pushed the boundary and invited those who followed him to do the same in order that life and culture could be shared and exchanged.

Jesus proclaimed that his followers would be known by their love.  He doesn’t lead with a clenched fist, but rather an open hand outstretched toward us.  He doesn’t lead with a heart of judgment, but rather a life of overflowing grace.  He doesn’t lead from an exclusive circle, but rather a table of invitation and belonging.

We get the ideal.  We understand the value of this intellectually, but where do we land practically?  How do our actions unveil the motivations of our hearts?  What do our day-to-day lives look like?  Who do we spend time with? Do we lead with assumptions, or curiosity to truly know another person and to value them?  Do we value them enough to embrace mutuality, sharing our lives with them, as they share theirs with us?  Do we speak for or about others, or do we ask questions and listen, giving them the opportunity to speak from their own lives and their own experiences?  Will we allow ourselves to be changed, our lives to be interrupted, and to risk our vision of the Kingdom of God being shattered wide open as we encounter the cultures and experiences of others?

As a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural person, I am often told by others what I am before a question is even asked.  I am tired of the assumptions.  I am tired of hearing that I am somehow not White enough, or Pacific-Islander enough or Asian enough, or that I don’t belong because I am not from a particular place, or my faith journey does not fit a specific mold.  I am, in fact, enough. I am held in God’s grace and I have experienced the power of God’s redemption in my life and know that I am beloved.  You are enough.  And we become enough-er when we choose to live life together, to grow with and from one another.  When we choose to learn the stories of one another.  When we choose to love for the sake of love, because we were first loved by the very God of life.  When we choose to be attentive to the ways the Holy Spirit is at work and to celebrate this with others instead of tearing down or dissecting the story of another because it doesn’t fit our cultural understanding.

We are called to bring out the “God-flavors and the God-colors” of this world (Matthew 5 MSG).  To bring out makes clear that the beautiful array of flavors and colors already exist.  How do we then encourage and draw out, to inspire and lift up?  It begins with a posture of humility, with a heart that desires to grow and be broken open by the joy and the pain of being in genuine relationship.  We have to move beyond intellect, to having things simply well articulated in writing, to lives lived. Cultural humility is about curiosity and wonder and it will always, always enlarge our hearts.  Perhaps this is what it means that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, [a new culture]: everything old has passed away; see everything, [yes, everything!] has become new.” The God-flavors and the God-colors of this world should delight our souls as we come to experience Christ anew through the lives, the experiences, and the cultures of another.  Everything is becoming new!  Amen.

Tasha Hicks is the pastor of the Mount View Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington and a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team.

Paracletos Reading List

Brownson, James V. et al: Storm Front: The Good News of God. Eerdmans 2003

Butler Bass, Diana: Christianity After Religion. Harper One 2012

Hudson, Jill M.: When Better Isn’t Enough: Evaluation Tools for the 21st Century Church. Alban 2004

Kitchens, Jim: The Postmodern Parish: New Ministry for a New Era. Alban 2003

Mancini, Will: Church Unique: How Missional Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture, and Create Movement. Jossey-Bass 2008

Merritt, Carol Howard: Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation. Alban 2010

Rendle, Gil: The Multigenerational Congregation: Meeting the Leadership Challenge. Alban 2002

Whitsett, Landon: Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All. Alban 2011

Introducing Paracletos!

A NEXT Church Revitalization CohortParacletos Logo

NEXT Church is excited to announce Paracletos, a pilot program on church revitalization! In the next twelve months, we will explore what’s next for two particular congregations—one on the east coast and one on the west coast. We hope you’ll follow along through monthly updates and periodic conversations. Want to get started already? Check out the reading list that grounds us as we begin.

The Adaptive Challenge of Our Time

Our current era is one in which mainline religious communities are declining in membership numbers and budget dollars. Those who tell pollsters they do not affiliate with any religion are on the rise. Institutions are suspect. The internet has drastically changed the way we communicate and learn. Geopolitically the world is simultaneously smaller – as we learn news from around the globe instantly and are intimately tied together through trade – and faces the challenges of growing population, global warming and regional conflicts.

All of our churches face what leadership gurus call adaptive challenges. That is, problems that cannot be solved by our current know-how or standard operating procedures. These are challenges that require experiments, discoveries, and adjustments across the community to help us change attitudes, values and behaviors.

Paracletos seeks to provide the space and resources to two congregations to engage the adaptive challenge of being the faithful church of Jesus Christ in the twenty-first century with hopes that these learnings can be more broadly instructive across the church.

Community of Practice

Paracletos promotes a particular philosophy toward the support of and/or re-formation of vibrant congregations. In a time when there are no clear answers or solutions to the problems churches face, we believe our call is to pay attention to the Spirit of God already at work among us. Thus, we seek to create what Gil Rendle calls a “community of practice,” wherein we bring to consciousness the wisdom/learning we do have and share it with one another.

Many leaders across the PC(USA) recognize that their congregations need to change and adapt to the current cultural and community landscapes, however most have not figured out what changes need to occur or how to implement them. Instead, leaders are expending more and more energy doing the same things bigger, better, or flashier. Indeed, the wisdom from family systems theory seems fitting: when a system doesn’t know what to do, it does what it knows.

The other way of coping with significant change is to look for the “silver bullet” that can re-invent and save the church. We do not believe such silver bullets exist. In this era of change, there are no one-size-fits-all answers to our questions, nor are there canned programs that will usher in the kingdom of heaven in twelve easy steps.

This cohort group seeks to engage both of these stalemate scenarios by bringing two congregations into relationship with one another as well as with coaches and conversation-partners across the country for the purposes of learning, support, and accountability to the difficult work of adaptive change.

The gospel of John names the Holy Spirit the parakletos  — the one who comes alongside.  The word parakletos painted a unique word picture for sailors of the ancient world, one that would not have been lost on the fisherman in Jesus entourage. When a ship became stalled another ship would be dispatched to come alongside the first one and accompany the vessel to safe harbor. The second ship was called a parakletos.

Our NEXT coaches are coming alongside these particular congregations. We plan, over this year, to catch the wind of the Spirit.

What’s Involved

Because this is a pilot project, we will learn, adjust and course-correct as we go. That said, the initial expectations are these:

  • A year-long coaching relationship with the pastor and leaders in the congregation toward the recovery of missional purpose.
  • Additional conversation partners who will enhance particular aspects of the ministry challenges faced by each congregation. For example, if building cost is a particular issue, we will engage pastors and leaders from churches who have dealt with this in effective and creative ways to share their learning.
  • Sharing the Learning
    • Monthly blog posts that share an insight, a process, or a particularly helpful resource.
    • The two congregations and NEXT Church will have regular dialogue to share what is being learned in each context, provide support to one another and accountability to the process.

Click here to read about the two congregations and coaches involved in this project.

Want more information? Check with NEXT Church Director, Jessica Tate nextchurch2013@gmail.com.

NEXT needs your support!

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

We continue to be excited and challenged by the movement that has become NEXT Church. Regional conversations are organized and happening across the country. The NEXT national gathering for March 2014 promises to be thought-provoking and imaginative. Leaders all over the PC(USA) are finding new energy for collaboration and partnership in ministry.  The website is regularly updated with great resources and interesting ideas.

We (the leadership of NEXT) continue to be surprised by the way God’s Spirit is moving all of us into God’s future.  But in order for this movement to continue, we need your financial support.  NEXT has a lean structure that exists merely to keep us moving forward and to prevent us from stalling out.  But even a lean structure needs support.  Our funding comes entirely from congregational grants and individual gifts. Therefore, we need for you or for your church to make a pledge to the work of NEXT. The amount of the gift is not nearly as important as your signal of commitment to what the Spirit is doing in the church today through NEXT.

Grace and Thanks,


Shannon Kershner, Co-Chair of the NEXT Strategy Team


“At White Memorial we support NEXT Church because we are interested in the continuing conversation about the future of the church. We support NEXT because we are interested in compelling ideas, ministries that are successful, and the good news of new life within the Presbyterian Church. NEXT is an opportunity to be honest about the challenges which the future will bring and an opportunity to be in conversation and prayer with friends on the journey. NEXT is exciting and invigorating. We support it because the mission of the church is not someone else’s responsibility. It is ours. It is every disciple’s. Gathered together our collective voices are heard and the future looks more like an opportunity, an opportunity to share in Christ’s good news of gospel reconciliation and service.” 

— Christopher Edmonston, Pastor, White Memorial Presbyterian Church, Raleigh, NC

We Don’t Have All the Answers

By Dwight Christenbury

storyWhat do you say we engage in a little church sign theology? Here are some notable examples I’ve spotted recently in my corner of western North Carolina; as always, sin and salvation are popular topics:

  • “Try Jesus. If you don’t like him, the devil will gladly take you back.”
  • “A praying man does not sin; a sinning man does not pray.”
  • “Eternity is a long time to think about what you should have done.”
  • “Christians have a lifetime guarantee.”
  • “Get right or get left.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seems to have less interest than some denominations in signs that allow us to post messages and slogans, a fact for which we can be grateful. But if we were to decide to embrace church sign theology, here’s a slogan that I believe we should all rally around: “We don’t have all the answers.”

Now, I recognize that we live in a world—and in a religious context—that craves certainty. And in such a world, you may find it less than inspiring to hear your preacher stand up in the pulpit and proclaim, “Well, folks, I don’t exactly know what I’m talking about.”

But think about it:

Is life neatly predictable? Is the world full of peace, love, and understanding? Does tragedy never strike? Does disappointment never rear its head? Is your Christian walk a wide, straight, brightly lit highway of daily inspiration and an ever-growing sense of closeness with your Lord and Savior?


Does the easy answer solve all of your problems? The world’s problems?

Then why do we Christians so often resort to church sign theology? “Get right or get left.” Really? That’s all there is to it? Hogwash.

And we know it’s hogwash.

But we’re not quite sure it’s okay to say that it’s hogwash. We’re not quite confident that it’s okay to admit that we don’t have all the answers.

Well, I’d like to suggest that it’s absolutely okay to admit this. (One of the refreshing things that I’ve discovered about NEXT Church is that it doesn’t claim to have all the answers either.)

But more than just quietly admitting that we don’t have all the answers, I’d like to suggest that we ought to embrace that truth as a great gift—that in fact we ought to be shouting from our rooftops to all the world that we don’t have all the answers. I’d like to suggest that we should be button-holing our friends and neighbors and people on the street who’ve been burned one too many times by simplistic faith and an offer of easy solutions and saying to them, Look: life is messy—we know that. We’ll promise you no easy solutions—but we’ll be with you, because we know what life is like, and we trust that God is with you, too.

Because we may not have all the answers, but along the way we’ve discovered some of them. We’ve learned that God is with us regardless of what we’re up against; we’ve learned humility and grace and hospitality; and we’ve learned that, when it comes to God, love is the basic reality: the motivation and the framework in which God operates.

Right. (Right?)

And yet we have to admit that we have a hard time trusting God’s loving vision for the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We watch the red numbers in our budgets grow larger. We watch the numbers of people in the pews grow smaller. We watch our columbaria grow faster than our youth groups.

Well, since when did God call anybody to sit and watch?

Maybe God is calling us Presbyterians to tell our story.

It’s a compelling story, because it’s a story told by imperfect people who don’t always remember the words and who sometimes get it wrong but who have nonetheless come to trust that God’s love is the guiding principle in their lives.

It’s a multifaceted story, a story told by people who don’t always agree on the details, a story with so many different versions that it would never fit on a church sign—but that’s okay: just come on in and hear us tell it because, well, there’s plenty of room in the pews.

It’s a heartfelt story, a story told by broken people who are nevertheless full of gratitude for the blessings of grace in their lives, blessings that might not turn negative budget numbers positive but that sure lead them to give sacrificially in other ways.

And it’s a humble, welcoming story, a story told by forgiven and forgiving people who don’t claim to have all the answers, a story about a God whose ways of showing love will forever confound those who insist that they do have all the answers.

No, we don’t have all the answers, but for that very reason we often get it right. In recognizing what we don’t know, I believe we’re practicing good theology. Our story won’t fit on a church sign (or in a Tweet), but who cares? Maybe God’s call to the church is to embrace and share that story with a world that really needs to hear some good theology. Because I believe the story we have to tell—especially if we all take part in telling it—may just come as a breath of fresh air to a lot of people out there.

How might it go? We’ll all have our own ways of telling it, but here are a few versions that come to mind:

Been beaten down one too many times by the Bible used as a weapon? Come and join us; we don’t have all the answers, but we’ll approach the Scriptures in humility and faith and do our best to listen carefully.

Had it up to here with the church’s certainty about who is or who isn’t acceptable in God’s sight? You’re welcomed here; come and join us.

Sick at heart from being told that when tragedy strikes, it’s all part of God’s plan? Well, no it’s not; come and join us, and we’ll be with you, and God will be with you.

Think there’s more to the Christian life than making your reservations for heaven? There is, and we can use your help as we seek to follow Jesus; come and join us.

Those are a few of the ways I might tell our story. How will you tell it?

Dwight Head ShotDwight Christenbury is Associate Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Hendersonville, North Carolina. Dwight and his wife, the Rev. Carol Steele, enjoy exploring the mountains with their sons, Olin and Dean. This essay is adapted from a sermon Dwight preached at Trinity on March 11, 2012.

Homecoming Sundays: When Opening Our Doors Isn’t Enough

By Wayne Meisel

Here is the church smallThis coming Sunday, many churches across the country dust off “Homecoming Sunday” signs and banners. Though not part of the official church calendar, its subtext might as well be: “Summer is over, time to get back to your church!” (And get current with your pledge).

Even with all the hoopla, it isn’t likely that this upcoming event will draw many young adults. Anyone reading the religion section or blogs and posts knows that there has been a lot written about why Millennials don’t go to church.

Rather than ask for an explanation (church is boring, irrelevant, judgmental and at a bad time of day), my question is: why isn’t the church reaching out, and supporting, and loving on the Millennials?

No, this is not a covert operation to try and get converts for Jesus and to fill up our pews and collection plates in the process. I know it is hard for some to believe that there are Christian leaders and Christian communities that seek to love by showing love, but there are.

We should not just withhold our love, coffee, juice and cookies for those who come through our church doors. The pope was pretty clear about that earlier this summer.

“We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities when so many people are waiting for the Gospel!” Pope Francis said. “It’s not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people.”

We are called to welcome, invite, include and build together. When that welcome is not very inviting, it is time to change how we live. Let’s go look, listen and follow through.


Where are they? How do you find them? That is the question I get all the time when I remind church people that there are young adults everywhere, many of whom are serving in our communities. What bugs me about this question is that if they want to find an accountant, they go find one. Yet, when we are looking for the young adult community, we shut off our brains. Why do we lose our initiative? Why is it so hard? Perhaps it’s because many of us feel awkward.

Where are they? They are our own kids and our kids’ friends. They work in the schools our children attend, they work out at the Y where we exercise, they shop in the stores where we shop, and they serve at the agencies that we support through the United Way, and yes, even through our congregations.

We don’t see them because we only seek them when we are looking for someone to fill the empty seat in the pew or lead the youth group. Yet, if we are looking for children of God who are living out the call to serve, they are everywhere that you are. And if they are not there, they are not hard to find.

When opening our doors isn’t enough, we have to look, listen, and follow through.


One of the prophetic voices of our time, Rachel Held Evans, writes: “Millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.” She goes on to say, “I would encourage church leaders eager to win Millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.”

So let’s talk: But…

Don’t assume you know what they want to talk about or what they need.

Don’t think about what you want out of it; think about they want and need from you.

Instead … Ask about:

The service that they do and the joys and challenge that come with it

What inspired them to serve?

Have they ever been a part of a faith community? Were their parents? Grandparents? Did they grow up in a church? What has been their experience (good and bad)? What are their impressions (good and bad)? If you don’t get defensive about their critique, they may just talk to you again.

Ask them what they need … it may be as simple as where is the best coffee shop and as big as struggling with mental health issues and the need for a therapist.

Ask them what social issues they care about. Offer to connect them with individuals and local organizations and people that are involved in these issues.

Ask them what they like to read and what they like to watch. What do they do in their free time?

Ask about their future plans. Where do they hope to be next? What kind of help do they need to get there?

Tell them that they are loved, that you are grateful for their interests, and talents and gifts, and let them know that you are there for them, regardless of what they believe or what they do with themselves on a

Sunday morning or any other time for that matter.

Follow Through

Invite them for dinner and ask them to bring their friends.

Bring cookies to their work sites.

Offer them tickets to concerts, plays, ballgames and other events that they might not be able to attend because of the cost.

Offer your buildings as meeting spaces for their trainings and social events and don’t bother charging them.

And if offering them your space can be received as an in-kind donation, have it recorded as a contribution, thus showing that the church was involved and supportive.

Support their service organizations with your mission dollars.

Invite them to present a moment for mission, teach an adult education class, or even to preach a sermon.

Organize a service trip with members of the church, including but not limited to the youth group, and work side by side.

Host a film series that features documentary films that highlight the social justice issues young adults care about. Create space to have conversation where ideas and beliefs are exchanged, not where they are being preached at, or judged. Look at the Faith and Justice Film Series that was created by Macky Alston of Auburn Media.

Hold a weekly meal just for community and conversation and allow them to be both light and lingering.

Invite them to live with you in your home if you have extra room, or in the church manse if you have an empty one. Or you could do what Earl Koopercamp did at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem and just turn the church attic into bedrooms.

And if they do come to church for worship, here is a little advice about coffee hour conversation.

Don’t ask “How old are you?” Ask “What did you think of the service today?”

Don’t ask “Are you new here?” Say, “I don’t think we’ve met, my name is …”

Don’t say, “We need more young people.” Say, “Great to meet you.”

Wayne Meisel founded the Bonner Foundation and currently serves as the Director of Faith and Service at the C.F. Foundation in Atlanta, Ga. He is the unofficial chaplain to young adults in service through programs like AmeriCorps and Teach for America.

Free to Journey Towards Home

By Steve Willis

home smallThe elder said to me, “It feels like the church is in exile, like ancient Israel, away from home and in a foreign land.”  “Sydney” is an amazing elder, a professional mother of two great young kids, extremely well educated and remarkably committed to her church.  I’ve heard her exile description of the church since starting seminary over two decades ago.  Of course I have used it myself many times.  But this time it struck me as a metaphor that doesn’t work.  Let me explain why.

Part of the reason for my change of heart has been getting to know Sydney, the other elders of her church and the congregation as a whole.  For six months I’ve been serving her church, a 1,000 member congregation located in a beautiful, leafy old suburb in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Probably a bigger part of the reason for my change of heart is that I have been serving small, mostly rural congregations for eighteen years.  I also serve a remarkable congregation of 45 members in a beautiful, Appalachian hollow near Buchanan, Virginia.  The shared ministry between these two very different churches reminds me of how the church is changing and also makes me wonder about the church in exile metaphor.

Let me suggest an alternative telling of the covenant peoples’ story for today.  We are not in exile in Babylon any more.  We left years ago and didn’t notice.  And we’re unsure about how to make our way home.  Ironically, our captivity was due to our success in the American culture.  And the mainline church became a willing partner in the mythology of the American success story.  The post World War II boom of the successful suburban programmatic church was simply the fruit of seeds sown since post Civil War industrialists financed the creation of the first prototypes of the mega church.  Our situation today when read through the eyes of this American mythology can only be defined as the opposite of success – failure.  Yet through the eyes of covenant faith we may describe it as freedom.  We are free to love God and neighbor and know ourselves by the light of the Gospel.

So it’s good news.  Right?  Well, yes it is.  But freedom is a wonderful and fearful thing.  The dominant American culture has let us go.  Or more to the point – really doesn’t care about us much anymore.  The good news is that this is the opportunity to become more of who we really are and more of what we hope to be.  The challenge is that this requires traits like the ones the empire resisting St. Columba prayed for – courage, faith and cheerfulness.

If we are still in exile, then the implication is that we are waiting to return to our former success and status in the American culture.  But if we have left the exile of our captivity to the American success story, then we are already on our way home.  My mom likes to say, “When you’re on a journey, always travel light.”

Perhaps a large suburban programmatic church and a small rural family church sharing a pastor is one example among many of the church travelling light.  Multiple models for ministry are being created and reclaimed at the grass roots of the church.  You’ve heard them before: shared ministry, bivocational ministry, commissioned ruling elder ministry.  We could go on.  Embracing and cultivating a pluralistic view of ministry models helps the pilgrim church travel light.  The growth of these models embody the reality that our home is not our social location in the American culture.  Our home is the God of Jesus Christ.

Steve Willis is the author of Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path (Alban Institute).