We Are Still Gathered

by Lori Raible

There was a time when almost 600 educators, elders, and clergy folk filled a church in the middle of Atlanta. We worshipped. We danced. We painted. We preached (man did we preach). From the belly of our souls, we sung. Remember our song?

We asked ourselves some challenging questions.

What is the unintentional impact of our mission work?

If God is so kind, why are we so intent on making enemies?

How do we hear and hold one another’s pain and anger with respect, and courage?

Memories. Wounds. Justice. Healing. Joy. We claimed hope.

_MG_9339 (1)But Allan Boesak asked us point blank: “Do we proclaim the Hope of the Gospel with anger and courage?”

To be specific,

“With courage, with compassion; do we [proclaim the Gospel] with faithfulness to those who suffer? The wrongs we see are not just randomly happening, they are made to happen, and they are happening to the vast majority of God’s children who are walking this earth. They are not happening randomly, they are deeply systemic, deliberately built into systems of oppression, domination, and dehumanization. And we must not be afraid to say it…

We speak a language couched in such caution, such ambiguity, such fear, that it becomes almost meaningless. The truth is carefully camouflaged in our diplomacy… Because the perpetrators of these wrongs are powerful and rich and privileged we are tempted to speak in a language guaranteed not to give offence…”

We stood on our feet and applauded. Then he cut to the chase.

“As…Dietrich Bonheoffer, has taught us: ‘The time for pious words is over… when the deck is loaded, when cowardice heaps praises upon that which was before recognized as despicable, then it is the task of the church to realize that the signs of the church have always been the dove, the lamb, the lion and the fish, but never the chameleon.’”

We want things to change. Don’t we?

Hands in the air, like palms waving all around, we stood on our feet and shouted, ‘Hosanna!’ We threw it down like purple robes on yesterday’s dirt road.  Beating feet and drums.

Yes, we did that. It felt good to be together. Even though we knew the cross was coming, we shouted anyway. We gathered at the table. We prayed. We listened. We were challenged. We tried to understand. Lent is like that.

alison-harrington-audienceNEXT Church is founded on the conviction that God is active in the world, and together we are invited into that activity. For this reason, the NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta was organized with our deepening relationships in mind. Seminarians gathered to consider the church they will inherit sooner than later. Nine Scottish pastors joined our conference to share stories of tenacity and creativity through a changing culture and church. Almost 50 workshops engaged us in honest conversations that impact our communities. The Church is God’s people in relationship with a purpose, a vocation, a particular call; a call to move from applause and inspiration to courage and risk.

We can’t simply talk about change; we must do what we say we believe.

Last year, NEXT Church leaned in to this truth. We walked beside leaders in a variety of contexts for the purpose of change. NEXT Church seeks to equip and connect the newly ordained to community, resources, and mentors. Last week, 80 pastors and educators gathered with 15 coaches and mentors for the Trent@Montreat conference for the newly ordained. Along with Montreat Conference Center, Macedonian Ministries, Union Presbyterian Seminary, and Second Presbyterian Roanoke, VA, NEXT Church sponsored a week of practical equipping and connecting with peers and coaches.

For the purpose of connecting and equipping our leaders with the tools they need to thrive, The PC(USA) Board of Pensions and NEXT Church has created an online resource center for those in their early years of ministry, www.nextconnectpcusa.org.

Several regional conferences were hosted with the intent of creating highly relational experiences, particular to the needs of the communities who organized and participated in them.

Looking ahead, NEXT Church held a vast and swift listening campaign with the intent of hearing and unifying our voices for change within our denomination. We heard from nearly 500 Presbyterians across the country in 50 gatherings. Our question: What is the Church’s mission in the world?

It is Easter… we are active in the world aren’t we?

White sheets still dance in the wind holding onto the neck of our firmly planted, wooden crosses as traffic races by. Budgets, members, hospitals, sermons, pre-schools, committees, elections, violence, borders, jails, schools, them and us. Life is so busy, reconciliation is so costly, and here we are right back where we started. Which way do we go?

Remember Easter?  Hosanna turned Alleluia, an empty cross, and Christ loose in the world.

Our vision. Our goal. Our standard. Our hope: NEXT Church will reflect the beauty and creativity of God’s Kingdom in a way that celebrates the best parts of our diverse Church. Courage. Anger. Risk. Reconciliation. Are we really in relationship?

Currently racial diversity amidst our strategy and advisory teams is 20%. A goal of 50%  leadership by people of color by 2017 hinges on our ability to build organic relationships of depth and purpose. Is claiming a measurable goal some sort of manufactured solution? No. Does it express a commitment to examine and change unintentional patterns of privilege and discrimination? Yes. The leadership team will intentionally seek relationships with colleagues in ministry who are different than they assume themselves to be, and we invite you to join us in this endeavor.

As Rev. Jeff Krehbiel, a board member of the More Light Presbyterians Group, and Rev. Don Meeks, an active participant of The Fellowship Community, shared in Atlanta, knowing and loving one another in the name of Christ can transcends any barrier we humans have created.

We are a network of thousands of hopeful and faithful PCUSA leaders, and as long as our denomination is in transition, there is work for NEXT Church to do.

How can we nourish our roots in the best parts of our history and reformed faith, while the withering branches of power and hierarchy are pruned for change?

How do you motivate change within your community? We can’t stand by our crosses idly and watch the traffic. It can’t be them and us.

What could our churches be doing if we weren’t so busy hanging on?

What needs to change? What is possible if it does?

In exchange for sparing you the Gandhi quote that just popped into your head, consider this: last year, we raised $118,000. This small budget supports our dedicated and gifted director, Rev. Jessica Tate, and Linda Kurtz, NEXT Church’s part-time communication specialist as she continues to improve the way we connect with one another through our updated website. We also supported a Young Adult Volunteer, and a few initiatives such Trent@Montreat. That money came from only 30 congregations and 50 individuals.

Pennies, dollars, and very large checks… we need you to invest. We need you to explain NEXT Church to your sessions and colleagues. Simply ask them to support NEXT Church as we seek to build the body of Christ through connecting and equipping leaders across our denomination.

We are still gathered. You won’t find us paralyzed by the empty cross or huddled in dark and isolated rooms. Let’s remember we are Christ’s body at work in the world together.

Perhaps we too are zipping right past the cross. I suspect God is okay with that as long as we have an idea of where we are going. Jesus isn’t on the cross, and Pentecost is around the corner anyway.

I lean on you, each of you, as if my vocation depends on it.  There are times when I am leaning on your hope, leaning your faith, leaning on your voice… to sing the song, from the depths of your soul, when mine feels empty, and the words won’t come. I am leaning….

Remember our song. I’m humming it now, and there is plenty of room in the car….  

In addition to supporting NEXT Church with a donation made online, you can also send your gift via check to Village Presbyterian Church, earmarked NEXT Church:

Village Presbyterian Church
6641 Mission Road
Prairie Village, KS 66208

Lori RaibleLori Raible is a pastor at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a co-chair of the NEXT Church strategy team.