Re-post: What?!? You Don’t Want To Take Responsibility for Centuries of Christian Oppression, Pogroms, and Genocide? I Can’t Imagine Why Not!

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on November 24, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Jarrett McLaughlin

The church where I serve is currently reading Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross The Road together in small groups. After getting about two weeks in, our Director of Spiritual Growth met with the group facilitators to get some feedback – the leaders reported a discomfort among several participants that echoed what I heard around my table at McLaren’s lecture at George Mason University earlier this month.

Photo Credit: ARISE Campus Ministry

In Chapter 9 – “How a Liberal Arts Education Ruined My Opinion of Christopher Columbus” – McLaren relates the experiences of going to college where his course work invited him to swap out the childhood tale of Columbus sailing the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two for first-hand accounts of the enslavement, rape, and torture of the local Taino population. The point is that the way we remember and tell and shape young minds in the patterns of our history…all of that matters. If history is truly prologue to the present, then we need to tell the truth about our prologue – and the Christian Church needs this as much as any one else if we are to cultivate a “strong-benevolent” Christian identity.

It seems, however, that more than a few people experience some discomfort with this idea – and perhaps I have a simplistic view of the objections, but I believe it mostly boils down to a sense that “that was then and this is now – why should I take responsibility for the crimes committed by people who lived hundreds of years ago?” Some responses to that question:

  • “Because Jesus Does It All The Time” – A Doctrinal Response From Scripture

In 2 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks about the ministry of reconciliation and penned some incredible words (pardon my selective editing, I have a word limit) – “…in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors of Christ, since God is making his appeal through us…for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

It’s difficult to overstate how tremendously huge this is. God made Jesus to take on sin that was not his own and only by doing so was there ever going to be a chance at reconciliation. Without getting into the mechanics of exactly how this all works, the general sense is that Jesus is sinless and yet Jesus takes on the sins of others in order to create an environment where peace might be possible and where reconciliation becomes a reality. If we are following Jesus to the other side of the road, then surely we must follow in these footsteps as well.

  • “What Does it Hurt?” – A Practical Response From Scripture

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is filled with many beautiful and memorable passages – about the body and its members, about the greatest of these being love; but the part that gets very little air time is chapter 8 in which Paul addresses the seemingly anachronistic topic of whether Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols. At the end of the day, Paul says idols are not real gods and so, of course, eating that meat doesn’t hurt you in the least.

If, however, somebody else who is less certain in their faith sees you eating that meat, will it cause that person to stumble and give up the Gospel because of your example? If the answer to that is yes – as it must have been in the Corinthian community – then maybe one small sacrifice you can make for the greater good would be to give up eating meat offered to an idol. It will not hurt YOU, but it might hurt somebody else – and that is reason enough to temper that particular liberty.

In the same way I would ask what it really hurts to acknowledge to somebody of another faith – “You know, the Church has not always been the most faithful in its witness to the Gospel…I wish it had been in that time and place and I hope that it will be different in this time and in this place.” I can’t help but wonder how a confessional posture might open the conversation in a way that a defensive or even a distancing posture might now allow.

  • “Because Christians Do This All The Time” – A Liturgical Response

The posture of confession may be a practical way to engage in more healthy and productive interfaith engagement, and the good news is that it’s not really as difficult as it might seem – Christian worship has given us great practice at assuming the sins of another. Every week, many churches offer a prayer of confession – and the common critique is not so different from the discomfort here – “I don’t do those things, why should I have to read this prayer that indicts me for things I did not do?”

When we confess our sin together in corporate prayer, we’re not necessarily confessing our individual sins but rather the sinfulness that is always a part of us. One way or another, we take responsibility for the actions of others all the time. It’s in our worship; it’s in our theology; and thanks to Jesus Christ, it’s in our genes, too…thanks be to God.


Jarrett McLaughlin Jarrett McLaughlin and wife Meg Peery McLaughlin are co-Pastors at Burke Presbyterian Church in Burke, VA.  

Re-post: Leadership: Our Faith Depends on It

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on February 6, 2018. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Laura Cheifetz

I don’t know if we can blame this on American individualism, white Christianity, or a misunderstanding of what Jesus did and how he did it. We have a habit of thinking single leaders will save us. Whether it’s deciding that the election of an African American stated clerk represents a turning point and then sitting back and waiting for change to happen (so what I’m saying is y’all better be showing up and doing your own work instead of waiting for the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson to magically transform the church by his lonesome). Or that an out gay Latino heading up PMA will be such an important change for the church (represents a change? Yes. WAS the change? That’s not how change works.). Or that hiring a charismatic white under-40 pastor will do for the congregation what the congregation has not been able to do for itself.

We are not a church of individual leaders fixing things. I mean, sometimes we think we are, but that’s not how we are set up. It is not how we flourish. It is not how we get things done.

Which leads me to the matter of leadership development.

We can’t, in fact, neglect leadership development in a church with no bishops. And we can’t focus leadership development only on the conventional choice (the young, the male, the outspoken). We need to develop everyone. You never know when you need someone to organize a group of people to march in a parade, corral knitters to make hats for preemies, or arrange the food pantry.

I hate being the youngest in the room; by the time I was in my mid-30s, I realized it is a chronic issue in many church circles. It’s a sign that we aren’t doing our job to find and cultivate leaders and make leadership development opportunities accessible. That’s not true anymore; I’m the second oldest on staff at my organization. I am delighted I can play my true heart’s role: grumpy older lady who knows some things. Every day is an exercise in leadership development.

That’s what church should be. A daily exercise in leadership development. The story of our faith in Scripture lays out a myriad of prophets, common folk getting things done, a community of people following Jesus and sharing the good news, scrappy early churches. We need people with the capacity to show up after their day (or night) jobs and be leaders. Our faith literally depends upon it.

This series of blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons.

Here is the lesson I offer.

Leadership development is training people up to love God, love neighbor, and have the strength to withstand being uncomfortable. You know what’s uncomfortable, at least at first? Difficult conversations. Leading Bible study. Talking with strangers. Speaking in front of others. Marching past counter-protestors. Antiracism work. Guiding a community of faith to learn more about and be inclusive of LGBTQ people. Being in a different cultural context. Learning new skills. Engaging in a community that is simultaneously lovable and completely exasperating. Integrating people with intellectual disabilities in worship for the first time. Visiting people in prisons and detention centers. Being in community with people who live with addiction.

You know, being the church.

Church should be uncomfortable. Church should develop leaders.

Go and do likewise.


Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as assistant dean of admissions, vocation, and stewardship at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Re-post: Free to Journey Towards Home

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on September 4, 2013. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

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 traveling 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).

Re-post: A Theology of Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on April 23, 2018. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Cristina Paglinauan

A few weeks ago when a wicked nor’easter blew through town, “Do you have power?” was a common refrain.

Thinking about power is something I find myself doing a lot these days. Perhaps it’s because of the seemingly never-ending examples of abuses of power, rampant in the news. Perhaps because, as a parent and as clergy, knowing how to responsibly and appropriately use the power I have is paramount. Perhaps it’s simply because power, as a theological concept, is both interesting, relevant and important to noodle over and wrestle with.

The passage from scripture that first comes to my mind when reflecting on a theology of power grounded in the Christian tradition is from the second chapter of the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

This idea/concept/image, of the fullness and power of God, the Source of all things seen and unseen, emptying Godself into human form — the limitless, infinite God becoming limited, finite, human — in the service and for the sake of humankind, lies at the heart of traditional Christian theology.

Alongside this central image arise other images of power associated with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit: the power that flows through Jesus to cure the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years (Luke 8:43-48); the power Jesus commands to silence the wind and the waves (Mark 4:35-41, Matthew 8:23-27, Luke 8:22-25), to restore sight to the blind (Mark 8:22-26, Luke 18:35-43, John 9:1-41), to raise people from the dead (Jairus’ daughter: Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26; Lazarus: John 11:1-44); the power of the Holy Spirit that alights on Jesus’ followers on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), to inspire them to spread the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection; indeed, the very power of God to raise Jesus from the dead and to conquer death for all time.

It feels important to note that in performing healing miracles, Jesus acts in response to requests put forth to him by others, or only after having asked someone, “What is it that you would like me to do for you?” and listening to the response. In other words, Jesus uses his God-given power to heal in respect of and in accordance with the free will and free choice of a human being; Jesus’ power is relational.

Flickr photo by Dallas Epperson

Today’s most popular contemporary myths and stories centering around power, and the right use vs. the abuse of power, mirror a similar theology of power presented in scripture: power used in the service of and for the benefit of others, to heal, uplift, and empower them, in harmony with their own desires, free will, free choices, and self-identified needs, is “good”; whereas power used to control, manipulate, harm, take advantage of, abuse or oppress others, against their own free will and self-determination, is “evil.” Darth Vader and the Emperor in Star Wars mythology, and Voldemort in Harry Potter lore, are evil precisely because they view and use power as a tool to dominate and control others for their own self-aggrandizement, against individuals’ free will.

Power that empowers and uplifts others, to be able to “love one’s neighbor as oneself”, is Godly and goodly power; power that is accumulated for the purpose of being shared, given away and multiplied, for the healing of individuals and communities, likewise, is Godly and goodly power. Power that is accumulated, hoarded, and centralized in the service of a select individual or an elite group, at the expense of and against the free will of others, is not of God.

Lately, I have enjoyed learning and thinking about power through a new lens: the lens of community organizing. Thanks to a week-long training last fall co-sponsored by Metro IAF, NEXT Church, and Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and the work I’ve been engaged with through BUILD, the Metro IAF affiliate in Baltimore, I have come to understand an additional perspective of power. Power “in the world as it is” (as opposed to the world “as it should be”) = “organized people” and “organized money.” Further, the accumulation of power around people’s shared values and common self-interests — “self-interest” having to do with the true “essence” of each human being — and where these interests align, can lead to effective action, moving the “world as it is” bit by bit towards the realization of “the world as it should be.” In my view, this new understanding of power complements and helps to “ground” and “bring down to earth” the theology of power that I understand through the lens of Christian scripture. It provides a practical “how to” approach, to help realize more pockets and places of “heaven on earth” for all of God’s people.


Cristina Paglinauan serves as Associate Rector for Community Engagement at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore, MD. She enjoys spending time with her husband David Warner, their two children Grace and Ben, and their feline child, Olmsted the cat.

Re-post: The Challenge and Opportunity of Timely Adaptations

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on September 19, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Christopher Edmonston

I sat on the third pew and listened as Scott, the inspiring pastor of Saint Matthew’s, a Church of Scotland congregation, told us story after story of what ministry is like there.

St. Matthew's

Take a look at this picture. The place, the sanctuary, the space is huge.

St. Matthew's Front View

And far too often it is empty. Pews and balconies once brimming with gospel proclamation and ministry remain silent too much of the time. They are silent in spite of the fact that the pastor is an inspiring, dynamic, and amazing disciple of Jesus Christ. He is a faithful risk taker. I found myself marveling at his energy and integrity. I found myself listening to the invigorating work that he is doing. I found myself thinking: that is the kind of ministry I want to be doing! He is the kind of pastor I want to be!

For years I have said, in meetings public and private, that the future of the church depended largely on leadership. Here before me was the kind of dynamic and wonderful leader that I have long admired.

Even more challenging was this realization: every pastor we met from the Church of Scotland was theologically engaging, intellectually astute, and pastorally alive. They were each of them willing to be creative for the gospel. Compared to the churches I have served, some of the Church of Scotland congregations were years ahead of us in innovating new ways of being church.

And yet too often the church in Scotland struggles to find an audience for the beautiful message of the gospel in its cities and neighborhoods. Scott talked about feeling lost sometimes. He gave witness to the ecclesiastical depression that comes with empty pews, programs, and worship.

What happened to the church in Scotland?

Not being from there, the best I can offer is an educated guess. But here it goes:

The towns were changing, the culture was changing, attitudes about the relationship between church and spirituality were changing and the church was not adapting alongside the larger shifts. On Sundays people were going to soccer (across the pond – football) games, rugby matches, yoga classes – finding in these events and activities ritualized practices, community interactions, and authentic meaning. They were doing all these things and more, and going to church less and less or not going to church at all.

The statistics are sobering. Presented by Doug Gay from the University of Glasgow, we learned that during the two decades of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the Church of Scotland lost thousands of members. They saw it happening, and yet, they were paralyzed — paralyzed by the pain they felt as their faith communities dwindled. Big churches became empty churches. Downward trends became downward spirals. Budgets collapsed. It was a negative exodus.

Scott arrived at St. Matthew’s six years ago in the middle of that storm. The church has added 62 members since he arrived, which makes St. Matthew’s among the faster growing communities in the Church of Scotland.

This story may seem far off, across an ocean. But it is very close.

At White Memorial, where I serve, our Clerk of Session writes to the congregation annually. This year, our clerk, Laura, wrote about her sadness in sharing our congregation’s booming baptismal records with a church who had only one baptism in 2013. That church, the church of one baptism, is not across an ocean. It is here in North Carolina, in the Bible belt.

It is my experience that whenever things go wrong, people frequently start looking for causes. They start looking for something to blame in order to cut the source of decline from their midst (think: I am going to cut carbs out of my diet; or, we are going to stop wearing robes in worship).

But what if there is no one thing, or even no one, to blame?

I remember a church I once visited in New York. It was a Czechoslovakian Reformed Church, and for generations they worshipped using Slavic languages. As the neighborhood evolved and there were fewer and fewer Slavic speakers, fewer people came to church.   Keep in mind that their core membership still spoke in mother tongues. To change the language whole-heartedly would have been pastorally unacceptable and unkind.

But that pastoral reality did not stop the world from changing around the church. By the time I arrived in 2010, there were a dozen or so members in a church that once held hundreds.

I thought about the church with one baptism and the Czechoslovakian Reformed Church as I sat in St. Matthew’s.

As we look around, there is ample evidence of the church’s end if we deny ourselves a commitment to being adaptable to the changes in our midst. But it doesn’t have to be so. Nowhere in the great commission (Matthew 28) does Jesus suggest that the disciples are never to change or adapt. Indeed, by the Apostle’s reckoning, everything is adaptable in order to spread the gospel’s good news (1 Corinthians 9). In Scotland, I became convinced we are living, even in our strongholds of church (like Raleigh, NC), in an age of adaptation.

My new friend Scott is hopeful and passionate about his ministry. His is a faith in God to do all things – a faith tempered by trial and error and the realization that the status quo will neither save the church nor share the gospel in his context. In his hopefulness he has become an adaptable pastor in an adapting and adaptable church.

Am I?

Are we?


Christopher Edmonston and Amelia - DEP

Christopher Edmonston began ministry at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in September of 2011. His primary responsibilities are preaching, teaching, pastoral care, membership development, staff development, and long term planning. Christopher has moderated Presbytery Committees, serves on the Montreat Retreat Association Board, and serves as the President of the Board of the Presbyterian Outlook. He is a contributor to the forthcoming Feasting on the Gospels and is on the national strategy team for NEXT Church, a renewal movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA). He was recently recognized as a William Friday Fellow (2011-13). Christopher is a graduate of Davidson College, Union Presbyterian Seminary (Master of Divinity), and Columbia Theological Seminary (Doctor of Ministry).

He is married to Colleen Camaione-Edmonston, who is a 7th grade grammar and literature teacher at St. Timothy’s School here in Raleigh. They have three children, Patrick, Gabriel, and Amelia, ranging from sixth grade to first grade, all three of whom attend St. Timothy’s as well.

Re-Post: We’re a Praying Congregation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on November 12, 2013. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Jim Lunde

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about our church over the years, it’s that we’re a praying congregation.” These were the words shared with me by a church member during my first hospital visit in my new congregation this summer. At first I thought it was a sweet statement to make about one’s church, but (as you’re likely thinking) isn’t every church a praying congregation? Over the next few months I would plunge past sentimentality and learn the true depth of this statement.

One Sunday school class exchanges prayer cards at the end of each lesson and commits to hold that person in prayer throughout the week. This class also maintains a prayer blanket ministry. The congregation’s monthly prayer group compiles a list of prayer concerns and creates a “calendar” for church members to lift specific people and places in their prayer lives throughout the month. One of the most powerful moments I witnessed was a prayer vigil that the congregation held for a member before a complicated surgery. At a moment’s notice, forty people came to the church one evening to pray and support this member and his family. I learned that this is a long-standing tradition of this congregation, as they often meet in hospital chapels and in the homes of members before tests, surgeries and procedures.

This practice has even become a community effort. Recently our congregation has joined with four other faith communities in the South Knoxville neighborhood to engage in combined mission efforts. At our monthly meetings, we basically ask one another: How can we be in prayer for your congregation? We gather to support one another in prayer as we discern how God is calling us to serve the South Knoxville community together. In this way, we have become living prayers for one another as well.

As stated earlier, every congregation prays, so what makes this one so different? To me, the difference is that prayer has become a self-defining characteristic of the congregation. It wasn’t a pastor-originated effort, but came organically through the needs and circumstances of the community. Over the generations, it has shaped their common life together. To become part of this congregation means that you are committing to praying for the community and, perhaps even more difficult for some, you are willing to be prayed for.

Whatever size your church might be, I believe herein lies something that can be transformative for any faith community. Having recently served in a large congregation, I realize that such practices would look much different in their context, but there are some common threads which could nourish any community. I think the biggest one is that prayer is not a program, it’s a ministry. It’s not something you can advertise or use as a hope to “draw” in new members, but when a praying ministry becomes part of your missional identity, the result is truly transformational. Rather than catchy programs or even charismatic leaders, across different demographics, people are seeking communities who genuinely care about them. Communities where more people than just the pastor promise to pray.

Every congregation prays, but the congregations for whom prayer becomes a defining characteristic can truly be transformational by reflecting Christ’s love. Blessings in your ministry of prayer.


Jim Lunde is pastor of Graystone Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, TN.

photo credit: Loving Earth via photopin cc

Re-post: The Well at Burke Presbyterian Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on August 27, 2013.

by Arlene Decina

For the past two summers at Burke Presbyterian Church, we have taken a leap — from the traditional Vacation Bible School that had always been a highlight of our programming into something that is, for us, brand new and refreshing.

By many standards, our Vacation Bible School was a smashing success. In recent years we have created and developed our own original program with an emphasis on slowing our pace, going deeper, and forming community . . . and we filled to capacity, attracting gifted and energetic leaders. We became known for our unique approach, and, in fact, the model that we created for VBS has now been borrowed and implemented in other churches with their programs. So why, you might ask, should we do something different? Why fix something that is not broken?

A year and a half ago, in January 2012 – when we gathered for our annual “What-are-we-going-to-do-for VBS?” meeting – none of us had the level of energy and enthusiasm that we had experienced in the past. We sat in silence for a time until our Elder for Children’s Spiritual Growth quietly interrupted with a heartfelt and earnest, “What if we were to try something entirely new this year?”  She had our full attention.

Giving ourselves permission and invitation to ponder, we realized that as captivating as our originally conceived and fashioned VBS had been, it too had become a reliable, nearly institutionalized model. We began to ask ourselves the big wondering questions of how we could best use our time and energies both to strengthen the bonds within our church and to serve God and the community. How could we live into the phrase that we often repeat as a mantra, “Less is More,” to provide a fresh wellspring of spiritual growth and nurture for those who generally do so much of the work of the church? What would bear the most nourishing fruit for us in this time?

Out of these frank questions and honest wonderings, and within the new space created by letting go of our traditional Vacation Bible School, The Well was born.

Of course, there were birthing pains associated with growing The Well. The team knew that not having a Vacation Bible School would be hard for some folks to understand, let alone imagine. Therefore, the greatest hope and chance for success would only be possible with intentional introduction and thoughtful explanation of The Well.  We began with the leaders of the church. The idea of The Well was first proposed to the Spiritual Growth Ministry Team, and then to the Session. Carefully timed communications via church-wide letters, emails, and newsletter articles rounded out the way we shared this change with the community.  Along with these corporate notifications, each member of the planning team also spoke about The Well with small groups and individuals along the way. While news of The Well was largely met with anticipation and openness, there were people who pushed back and with certainty said that letting go of VBS was shirking our commitment to evangelism and showing a sign of a church in decline. Ultimately, the number of dissenters was quite small. In fact, in the second year of The Well, some of the original dissenters from the previous year came to The Well!

It is important to note that during this time, Burke was beginning an interim pastorate after a much-loved pastor of 27 years retired.  Change of this magnitude was new for many at BPC.  Allowing for this dissent was important, even while it was hard for the planning team to hear.

BPC2As a result of all these conversations and hopes and labor pains, in July 2012, and again in this summer of 2013, The Well blossomed into a three-evening multi-generational event that included Burke Presbyterian Church members and friends of all ages and all stages and all family configurations. Each evening, we began our time outdoors with an informal and invitational gathering marked by live and beckoning music on the front lawn, games and sidewalk chalk and bubbles, and water and process art choices that drew children – and the child in all of us – together for sharing and conversation.

BPC3Meanwhile, the tables inside were beautifully set for the next part of our evening, a family-style meal. Participants’ nametags indicated which was their table, so there was no need to wonder, “Where will I sit?” or “Is there a place for me?” Guided by our host, who like a liturgist artfully set the tone, we enjoyed a delicious supper with our table-group “families” in a gathering that became central to our time together.

Each evening following mealtime, we separated by age into groupings – the very youngest in the nursery, and children, youth, college-age, and adults – for an intentional time of engaging with one another and with the story, with Scripture, or with a Sabbath practice. On our opening night this year we welcomed keynote speaker Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana who shared insights from her recent book, Sabbath in the Suburbs. Subsequent evenings we delighted in hearing from our own Interim Pastor Rev. Diane Hutchins and Pastoral Associate Rev. Deryl Fleming. Drawing from these cherished resources within our community as well as outside of our community allowed for rich and dynamic keynotes. We concluded each evening of The Well by coming together in the Sanctuary for a short, ten minute Evensong liturgy written and led by two of our pastoral parishioners, Rev. Alice Petersen and Rev. Bill  Lowrey. Just the right amount of time for night prayers and prayer songs, for good nights and good byes.

BPC4Our second evening of The Well this year had something different in store; we were in for an amazing and memorable experience — Stop Hunger Now! In a matter of an hour and a half, the two hundred or so of us – ages three to mid 80s (with seating available for those who preferred to watch) – packaged 10,000 meals, which we learned would be sent to Haiti. Words will simply not do justice to what we as a church family experienced — it was Holy Ground, indeed! As we transitioned from Stop Hunger to our own mealtime, our liturgist called us together saying, “Just as we have prepared a meal for others, a meal has been prepared for us” … and with that we settled into suppertime. A reflection afterward on The Feeding of the Five Thousand, offered from the perspective of a child’s perception, and we all were filled to the brim in mind, body and spirit.

BPC1There was an elegant simplicity to The Well, exemplified by the tiny pile of things to be sorted and put away the following week compared to the usual digging-out after VBS!  Indeed, there were far fewer moving parts than with our traditional Vacation Bible School. Rather, our fresh goal for this experience was to set the scene – to offer the opportunities – for moving experiences, for deep-well moments, for making memories as a family of faith.

The Well is just what we have needed in this season of change for Burke Presbyterian Church.  As we look around we clearly see fruits born of letting go of the old and risking a new endeavor.  Out of one of the Adult offerings in The Well 2012, an intentional gathering of Contemplative Practices began to meet weekly, with 20-25 adults of various ages attending regularly.  Older adults with no previous ties to young families at BPC are now helping in our mid-week Logos program known as Rainbow. A new group for college age and older high school students has formed and plans to meet for study and fellowship during the year. Over two hundred people have a shared experience from the summer forging new or deeper relationships within the church community.  And yes, we even have new families visiting on Sunday morning as a result of their time spent at The Well.

This experience of The Well has reminded us of the surprising creativity, soul-full richness, and extravagant hospitality that is possible when we allow ourselves to be receptive to the refreshing guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We can only imagine what God will call us to in the future. Praise be to God!


Arlene Decina is the Director of Spiritual Growth Ministries at Burke Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.

A Sankofa September to Re-Member

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

Ever notice how you can hear a great idea, but when it’s the time to apply that wisdom you’ve completely forgotten all about it? Or even more, are there some things you’ve said you would not do next time, but yet when the next time comes around again, you repeat it the exact same way as if you don’t know any better?

As the church, we often become disconnected from the God-given gifts and graces – hopes and healing – trials and truths in our past. But there are many testimonies of faithful Christians. In the West African Akan culture of Ghana, Liberia, and Benin, there is a collection of Adinkra symbols that are connected to brilliant words of deep wisdom and spirituality.

One of these symbols is the Sankofa. Sankofa is symbolized in 2 ways: as two curved shapes facing each other, resembling something similar to a heart shape in our Western culture, and as a bird that is flying forward but looking backward as it tends to the future generations depicted as an egg.

The symbol of Sankofa is a sign to the divine truth that it is not wrong – it is not an anathema – it is not out of order – to go back and get which we have forgotten. In our Christian faith tradition, a key element of our faith is the ability to re-member our sacred story – to put together again – to experience anamnesis – a reconnection to the personal and communal memory of God’s faithfulness. It is in going back and tending to that which we have left unattended that we discover the grace of God in confession, vulnerability, repair breaches, and healing.

As many of our churches and community organizations are gearing up for what is coming next for the seasons and year ahead, we would like to re-connect (re-member) you to some communal wisdom from a diverse collection of voices from the NEXT Church community. As siblings and co-laborers for Christ, we hopeful are that you will find nourishment for your spirit and your leadership.

And – God-willing – we might pick up something we might have missed or left behind as we fly forward.

Interested in learning more about the connection of Adinkra symbols and Christianity? I commend this article and video on Weaving Adinkra Into the Christian Fabric by Griselda Lartey, Serials and Interlibrary Loan Assistant at John Bulow Campbell Library of Columbia Theological Seminary.


Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis is a member of the NEXT Church strategy team and serving as the interim NEXT Church communications specialist.