NEXT U: Grab Bag

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Welcome to NEXT University! During the month of August, we are highlighting our most popular posts and videos on the NEXT blog from the past few years, with suggestions for how to use this content with church sessions, committees, staff and other leaders. 

Today we have a grab bag of unrelated articles that were widely read and shared. Pick one or more for discussion with your leaders, staff, session, etc.

NEXT Church Evangelism by Jessica Tate tackles the statistics, the “nones,” and the why’s of church.

Key Quote:

According to Pew’s findings, we can’t blame liberal arts colleges and universities for undermining Truth or being hostile to faith, because religious affiliation declines among non-college educated people in the same rates as college educated people. Furthermore, it’s not true that if a church simply offered/hired/advertised [insert your community’s silver-bullet-idea here] the church would be overrun. 88% of “unaffiliateds” aren’t looking for a spiritual home.

For conversation:

  • Why do you go to church?
  • How would you articulate the gospel in seven words?


From Cultural Competency to Cultural Humility by Natasha Iwalani Hicks should be required reading for predominantly white religious communities—such as the PC(USA)—especially in the wake of conversations following the situation in Ferguson, MO.


Key Quote:

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.

For conversation:

  • Tasha asks, “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?” Spend some time sharing one another’s stories in your gathering. Practice this skill with one another so that you are better able to do so with people who are radically different from you. How might this storytelling space be created? Who are potential conversation partners?
  • What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “cultural humility”? What must be learned and unlearned in order to cultivate it?
  • Consider and reflect on this quote by anthropologist Wade Davis in light of the article: “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” 


Being the Church in the World by Robert Austell provides a snapshot of one church’s attempt to live more missionally in their community.

Key Quote:

I have heard a long list of ideas, critiques, strategies, models, and more about problems and solutions for the ailing Church. I’m all for strategic thinking, clever communication, and the next great thing, but in God’s grace, here’s something God stirred up with us not too long ago:

Let’s do what we’ve been doing faithfully for so long and let’s do it out there where our neighbors live.

 We stopped and took a good, hard look at what being the church had been for us. We sent money and teams out for missions and service (and still do); but that was far away, even in the city where we live. Who was being the Church – being the body of Christ – to OUR neighbors… the literal ones?

For conversation:

  • Reflect on the congregation’s “Wednesday night experiment.” What draws you toward this kind of activity? Where do you feel resistance to it?
  • What do you do faithfully and well, and how could you do it “out there” rather than “in here”?

NEXT U: Leadership in the NEXT Church

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Welcome to NEXT University! During the month of August, we are highlighting our most popular posts and videos on the NEXT blog from the past few years, with suggestions for how to use this content with church sessions, committees, staff and other leaders. 

Today we highlight two articles that address leadership. You may wish to discuss these posts separately or combine them into one larger study.

Creating Tension is a Pastoral Skill by Andrew Foster Connors explores the ways that good leaders are called upon to “turn up the heat,” but in the right amount, in order to inspire change.

Key Quote:

Even a novice student of the Jesus Way would recognize early on how much tension there is in the Gospels.  Anytime Jesus comes around, someone is likely to be challenged.  In any church that finds itself “stuck,” or leans toward a status quo that has or will endanger its ability to adjust to changing circumstances, tension is the fire that we light to get people moving.

For conversation:

  • Andrew writes, “There is a fine line between effective agitation that challenges people to act in ways that are consistent with what they say is important to them, and irritation that poisons relationships unnecessarily.” Have you seen either of these circumstances at work—in the church or in other organizations? What factors allow the former, healthy version of tension to thrive? What factors foster the latter, unhealthy version? Assess your own congregation’s comfort with tension.
  • Looking at the example Andrew gives about the church member complaining about the lack of a small-group ministry, consider one or two ways you might respond in a way that creates healthy tension and inspires growth.

Curing Presbyopia by Becca Messman offers a diagnosis of what afflicts those of us who are stuck in “mainline decline.”

Key Quote:

We see the distant past…when every sermon was masterful and coffers spilled over and there were traffic jams of Dodge DeSotos cramming into church parking lots.

We see the distant future…when we fear moss will overtake pulpits and raccoons will take up residence in the organ.

For conversation:

  • How could your leadership cultivate “better eyes”? What aspects of your church or community do you need to see more clearly, with the eyes of Christ?
  • And how can you cultivate “longer arms”? Who in your community needs to be embraced with the love of Christ? What’s one way you could venture into your neighborhood, to “come to others’ doorstep”?

NEXT U: Worship in the NEXT Church

The communion table at NEXT 2014 gathering

The communion table at NEXT 2014 gathering

Welcome to NEXT University! During the month of August, we are highlighting our most popular posts and videos on the NEXT blog from the past few years, with suggestions for how to use this content with church sessions, committees, staff and other leaders. 

Today we highlight a few articles that address worship. You may wish to discuss these posts separately or combine them into one larger study.

Changing Worship Space is a dispatch from our Paracletos coaching project and describes one congregation’s process of worshiping in a new space… which led to new ways of worshiping once they moved back into the sanctuary.

  • Many congregations worship in an alternate space only out of necessity, e.g. when a sanctuary is being renovated. How about experiencing some “creative displacement” just to see what emerges? Could you worship in a fellowship hall? Outside?
  • What about your worship space or liturgy feels essential? What elements could be set aside for a season or longer?

Why We Welcome Little Children to Worship by Kara Root provides background on why it’s important to have children in worship and provides suggestions for adults with children, and adults without children, to help the worship hour be a hospitable place.

  • Take a look at the suggestions provided. In which areas is your congregation strong? Which need more work?
  • Choose 1-2 areas of growth and make a commitment to focus on those areas. What are concrete steps you might take to help worship be a hospitable place for all?

Worship: Style vs. Substance by Jeff Krehbiel describes how one congregation transformed its worship life, and argues for moving beyond the old “worship wars” idea of traditional v. contemporary styles. Instead, worship should be transformational for those gathered.

  • Do an evaluation/audit of a recent worship service. How is it experiential? Participatory? Image-driven? Connectional? Choose one of these elements (borrowed from the work of Leonard Sweet) and see how you might develop that attribute in your worship.

Bonus Link: Rodger Nishioka’s article Children’s Church is the Church inspired a great deal of discussion. Check it out!

NEXT U: Beyond Church Boards and Butts in Seats


Welcome to NEXT University! During the month of August, we are highlighting our most popular posts and videos on the NEXT blog from the past few years, with suggestions for how to use this content with church sessions, committees, staff and other leaders. 

Today we pair two previous posts that each addressed the issue of stagnating and declining numbers in different ways. You may wish to discuss these posts separately or combine them into one larger study.

Challenges of Membership by Leslie King describes a congregation’s process of moving beyond “needing to grow” for institutional survival.

  • Leslie would tell her congregation as they fretted about membership loss: “The crowd that gathers is the perfect crowd, I want no more.” The words were healing and took the pressure off so that true change could take place. How do you react to Leslie’s statement?
  • Christianity is an evangelistic religion. How does this emphasis spur us on, and how does it set us up to feel shame and failure if we do not grow?
  • Reflect on the membership process described in the article and the fruits of that process. What questions do you have about it? What might we learn or explore more fully in the process described?
  • Evaluate your own process of membership. Does the formation occur before or after, or both? What are the positives and negatives of each approach?
  • More broadly: does the concept of “membership” have a place in the church that is becoming? Why or why not?


Why Church Boards Need to Die by Bill Habicht explores the current makeup of many of our church boards—in our case, sessions and ministry teams—and how they may not be the right folks for the transformational work that needs to occur. Bill offers a provocative challenge. Proceed with this article only if your group has the trust, self-awareness and good humor to be open to where the conversation goes.

  • Reflect on Bill’s five bullet points about current church boards. Which of these are reflected in your church’s governance.
  • How do you react to Bill’s suggestion of a “bicameral” system?
  • Who are the people in your congregation who might be well suited for a “future church” board?
  • Bill concludes with this question: What structural changes could you imagine that would truly break open the church when it comes to the church board? What do you think?

photo credit: DaveLawler via photopin cc

NEXT U: Poetry, Prayer and Prophetic Wisdom

school room

Welcome to NEXT University! During the month of August, we are highlighting our most popular posts and videos on the NEXT blog from the past few years, with suggestions for how to use this content with church sessions, committees, staff and other leaders. 

Of all the thoughtful speakers and provocative blog posts and videos we’ve shared over the years, whether at our conferences or on our blog, Stacy Johnson’s keynote address at our 2012 National Gathering in Dallas remains a highlight. Stacy Johnson is Arthur M. Adams Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and a member of NEXT’s advisory team.

Stacy’s remarks have been quoted and shared widely over the years. In today’s installment of NEXT U, we annotate this video and break it into topical sections. You’re invited to view some or all of the segments and engage the questions provided… or let Stacy’s words spark your own imaginations.


(all times below are approximate)

Introduction — The Logic of Survival v. The Logic of the Cross (1:50-5:05 on video) 

  • Where have you seen the logic of survival at work in your context? the logic of the cross?
  • Jesus, according to Stacy, did not advocate fighting or giving in to the logic of survival, but rather to trust in a different reign. Where do you see that reflected biblically? What does that different reign look like right where you live?


The “Cultural Tsunami”: Technical and Adaptive Challenges (5:05-9:55 on video)

This section takes us through some of the statistics facing our denomination, as well as some of the attitudes of millenials and “nones.” Stacy also unpacks the difference between technical and adaptive challenges.

  • How do Stacy’s comments about millenials and nones “wanting to learn the game” play out where you live?
  • What are some of the technical and adaptive challenges in your congregation? To use Stacy’s analogy, have you found yourself treating a sprained ankle when in fact the leg is gone?
  • Do you agree that “Christianity as usual is not working”? Why or why not?


The Gospel and Our Adaptive Challenges (9:50-15:10 on video)

In this section, Stacy argues that the adaptive work we need emerges from the gospel itself—that the biblical witness itself is a testimony to the need for constant reform, grappling and change (see shifting attitudes toward slavery, the role of women, and the place of torture).

  • According to Stacy, theologians say christendom is on the decline and that we should find new ways of being church. But then their remedy is to repeat the same doctrinal structures of christendom. Do you agree? Where have you seen this play out, or resisted?
  • Do you agree that we have “hardly begun” to understand the full depth of the gospel?
  • According to Stacy, “We stand between reform and revolution.” Where do you see yourself and your congregation on this continuum? (Or do you?)


Where Do We Go from Here, Part 1: The Poetry of Ministry (15:10-21:00 on video)

  • The word “poesis” means “to make or to create.” How does your congregation engage in poesis? What does your church “make”? As Christian communities, what should we be in the business of “creating”?
  • What are some practical ways to engage in the “poetry of ministry” in your context?
  • “The gospel is not a theory; it’s about a life.” What’s your response to this? If this is true, what does it mean for our life together? Our polity? Or way of “doing theology”?
  • Bibliographical Note: Stacy references Craig Barnes’s The Pastor as Minor Poet and Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet. Both are worth checking out for further conversation.


Where Do We Go from Here, Part 2: Prayer (21:00-26:25 on video) 

  • Think about the ways we pray in our congregations. To what extent are we tending to God v. asking God to attend to us?
  • Reflect on this definition of nihilism: “if a single standard is not good for everyone, then there is no standard good for anyone at any time.” How do you respond? Have you seen this principle play out in the church?
  • Reflect on this comment from Gerald May, that it’s only when our beliefs crumble that we stop worshiping our beliefs and begin to worship God. Have you seen this process take place in your congregation? Has it ever taken place in your own life?


Where Do We Go from Here, Part 3: Prophetic Witness (26:20-30:30 on video)

  • How do you see prophetic religion as distinct from liberal or conservative religion?
  • The world is the arena in which God is acting.” Where have you seen God at work this week?
  • Reflect on this statement: “We are not yet what we shall be.”


Conclusion (30:00-end of video)

Here Stacy revisits the “fear of perishing v. the logic of the cross” that he introduced in the beginning.

  • How has the gospel “happened to you” lately?
  • How can we tell those stories more fully in the congregations we serve… to make the gospel more “conspicuous”?

NEXT U: Mission Shift in Christian Education

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Welcome to NEXT University! During the month of August, we are highlighting our most popular posts and videos on the NEXT blog from the past few years, with suggestions for how to use this content with church sessions, committees, staff and other leaders. 

Today we reprise one of our 2014 Ignite presentations, from Jen James, an educator in the DC area. At just seven minutes, the video is ideal for the beginning of a Christian Education ministry team meeting, session meeting or staff study.

Mission Shift in Christian Education — Access the Video and Transcript Here

The whole thing is worth your time, but here are a few highlights with questions for discussion:

“But the missional church, the next church, is a return to the original calling of the church – to go into the world to share the Good News of Christ, love our neighbors, and seek the welfare for our community. It recognizes that the local church is only as healthy as the community surrounding it.” 

  • Where are the places of health in your community? Do you see this health reflected in your congregation? If so, how?
  • Where are the places of brokenness in your community? Are those places of brokenness present in the congregation too?
  • What breaks God’s heart in your community?

“Consider Christian Education in the missional church to be like a greenhouse. It’s a place for new beginnings where plants are intentionally fed and nourished to become strong enough for transplanting. Plants will never thrive in the greenhouse the same way they will thrive in their natural environment.”

  • Make a “map” of your Christian education greenhouse. What’s currently growing there? Are there some plants that are thriving and others that are struggling?
  • Have you gotten stuck in the greenhouse? Or have you been transplanting these plants into their natural environments? How might you view Christian Education more missionally?

“The missional shift in Christian Education means our Children’s Ministry Committee will spend more time volunteering at a local elementary school than it will planning Vacation Bible School. It means you are more likely to find members of a Youth Ministry Team at the high school football game, or school play, or chaperoning a dance than in the state of the art youth lounge. It means adults will take a break from their study on Matthew to actually clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the prisons. It means bringing bagels and coffee to the families at the Sunday morning soccer game, and instead of rushing back for worship, staying to cheer for a child’s first goal.”

  • What ideas would you add to this list, given the particulars of your neighborhood and congregation?
  • What’s one concrete action you might take to make a missional shift in Christian Education?


photo credit: Christiaan Triebert via photopin cc

NEXT U: Organizing the Congregation

safety net copyWelcome to NEXT University! During the month of August, we are highlighting our most popular posts and videos on the NEXT blog from the past few years, with suggestions for how to use this content with church sessions, committees, staff and other leaders. 

Today we look at four resources that discuss relational organizing within the congregation. Use these resources individually, or take them together for a deeper study with your leaders. Or make it a four-session series!


Change Rooted in Relationships by Ashley Goff provides an introduction to relational work within the congregation and how it can transform old, “stuck” ministries. This article provides a thorough description of the 1-on-1 meeting, one of the backbones of relational organizing.

Questions for Conversation:

  • Ashley writes, I try to do relational meetings at least twice a month. I can feel it when my calendar runs low on these meetings. I feel more rooted in myself and my work when I am consistent with this discipline of organizing. When I do a 1-on-1 with someone new at Pilgrims the congregation feels even more alive. When I do a 1-on-1 with someone who has been at Pilgrims for 30 years, I cherish their story and commitment to this place with more fervor. What is your response? Even if you do not do relational meetings, have you experienced this “rootedness” when you spend more time with people in your community?
  • Ashley talks about what these meetings are not: an overly-intellectual “head trip,” a “hot seat,” a thinly-veiled excuse to shoehorn someone into an existing ministry. Do an honest self-assessment of your congregation’s culture. Where is the room for growth in building a relational spirit?
  • What would it look like for the session (or staff, or ministry team) to incorporate more 1-on-1 gatherings into its work? What kinds of attitudes or activities would need to shift or be set aside? Challenge yourselves to spend a season focusing on this to see what happens.


Building in Relationality by Karen Sapio fleshes out the potential for relational work in the congregation and shares her congregation’s experience in beginning this work.

  • Karen writes, For the first few years [I was here] I assumed that I was the newcomer and that everyone else in the congregation knew each other.  The longer I was there, however, the more I learned that this was not the case.  There were some in the church that had long-standing friendships, but those were the exception.  Many felt that they had a strong connection to only a few other members of the church, or only to one of the pastors.  When we held a listening campaign during Lent 2013, the biggest thing we heard was “We really don’t know each other very well.” How does this assessment connect with you. Where are your places of relational strength? Where are the challenges?
  • Karen lists several suggestions for incorporating relational elements into the congregation’s life. Have you tried these or similar approaches? What has been the fruit of these practices? If you have not, why not start now? (And share your experience and learning with NEXT!)


Congregational Power Analysis by Rebecca Messman is a meditation in the word “power” and how we understand it in the church. Rebecca then describes the practice of “power analysis” within the congregation to identify strengths, resources and energy. (This article is part 3 of today’s course because you cannot do an effective power analysis without laying the relational groundwork first.)

Questions for Conversation:

  • What positive and negative associations do you have with the word power? Does the term seem positive, neutral, negative or a combination?
  • Becca writes, Power is defined in community organizing simply as the ability to act on one’s values, from the Latin word poder, which means “to be able.” Power in organizing is not coercive power but relational power, the engine of relationships that are at work inside and outside of a congregation. What’s your response to this definition? How do you understand your congregation as an organization that wields power? (Or doesn’t.)
  • Becca writes, It is easy to talk about justice, making an impact, loving our neighbor, speaking truth to power, and feeding the multitudes, but a power analysis forces the questions, “How?” “Who would do that?” “What impact are we hoping to make?” Power analysis helps a congregation get from the theoretical to the practical. Many congregations get stuck in “should” thinking yet feel unable to move forward in practice. How might an analysis of your leadership, its gifts, and its sense of power move your congregation forward? How might you implement such an analysis?


Bonus Resource: In this video, Patrick Daymond talks about the power of relational (one-to-one) meetings as the building block of community and community change. Watch the video with your leaders and consider: what resonates with your experience? Which ideas intrigue you to lean in further to the practice of relational work? Which ideas sit less comfortably? Explore these sources of energy and tension with your group.