Jessica Tate and the Power of Openness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we are curating a series that showcases the brilliant leaders speaking and preaching at our 2020 National Gathering in March. Each of these people have been carefully chosen by a dedicated team of people who have championed these leaders and the gifts they bring to NEXT Church. So learn why we’re so excited, and then let your own excitement compel you to register and join us! If you’re already planning to go, we invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, and tell us what you’re most excited about for this year’s gathering.

by Eliana Maxim

No sooner does a faith or community leader begin to get a handle on their context, than the landscape begins to shift and change. The reality of our work as church leaders is that everything is in constant motion, and most of our “it used to work this way” fallbacks no longer fit the bill.

The truth is that we need to be light on our feet and open-minded to creativity and innovation; to new ways of considering how to connect with people and adapt to culture; to interpret theology and biblical understandings with the myriad of lenses available to us.

Next Church executive director and this year’s Next Church National gathering preacher Rev. Jessica Tate is a voice urging this movement.

Jessica weaves her theological insights with hands on experience in organizational leadership and community organizing. Jessica has helped shape an openness to what church can be without losing the rich tapestry of where we have been. She is able to own her place and identity as a leader, yet call and affirm the presence of others, particularly those usually not seen or recognized.

The ties that bind us can become frayed or loosened through the years: theological differences, financial insecurity, missional confusion, varying contextual realities, and more. NEXT Church, with Jessica at the helm, has provided for the past 10 years space for the voices of many, many church leaders to share, learn, experiment, and commiserate in an environment that is creative and non-judgmental. The National Gathering is an event where I witness the greatest diversity – race, ethnic, gender, orientation, location, economic – within the PC(USA) and beyond. Courageous conversations happen here. Insight and understanding are nurtured and mutual. The spirit of God is on the move and perceptively so.

Jessica embodies the type of leadership that enables this sort of culture. She deftly leads within a structure yet allows corporate discernment to happen organically. Every person, every idea is welcome and considered an opportunity to stretch and discover.

Inviting Jessica to the pulpit, on the 10th anniversary of NEXT Church is a prophetic move to see where we may be going next.


Rev. Eliana Maxim is the Co-Executive Presbyter of Seattle Presbytery and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. Eliana and her husband of 35 years, Alex, have two adult daughters Sacha and Gabi, both Seattle residents, plus a spoiled rescue Boxer dog named Lola.

Miguel De La Torre and the Power of Hopelessness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we are curating a series that showcases the brilliant leaders speaking and preaching at our 2020 National Gathering in March. Each of these people have been carefully chosen by a dedicated team of people who have championed these leaders and the gifts they bring to NEXT Church. So learn why we’re so excited, and then let your own excitement compel you to register and join us! If you’re already planning to go, we invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, and tell us what you’re most excited about for this year’s gathering.

by Andrew Kukla

As a youth I had a tennis coach who taught “stick-to-it-ive-ness” and regularly said, “We don’t play hope tennis where we stop mid-stride and tell ourselves, ‘oh, I hope that ball goes out.’  You run down every ball.” That always made sense to me…for tennis. But it would take years for me to realize how problematic hope can be in all arenas of life. This kind of hope, which is more an excuse for not making a personal effort, can be a self-perpetuating endorsement of the status quo.  I grew up a Cub fan, and as lovable losers the refrain of “there is always next year” was as much an excuse as any sense of eschatological hope for a better tomorrow…or 108 next years.

I learned to think about not “playing hope tennis” in many ways through my life.  But it wasn’t until 2015 that I was invited to imagine going further, that I needed to think about the move of hopelessness.  That was the year that I met Dr. Miguel A. De La Torre. He spoke to a clergy group I belong to; he looked out at us—white clergy of “successful” churches one of which had Hope in its very name—and said we needed to embrace a theology of hopelessness.  That got quite the reaction! But, I can still hear his voice saying to me, “What if neo-liberalism has won…and what if global capitalism has won? What if the few will continue to get rich off the backs of the poor for a very, very, long time? What then can I speak to those people?  Because it isn’t hope, and it isn’t that the moral arc bends toward justice.”

“…To provide a false ’rah, rah’ of hope to people whose lives are hopeless is a false practice.”

I will never forget that.  Never.

So when, late last year, I was asked to help find speakers for a NEXT Church Conference on “Witness, Power, and Hope” I knew we needed Dr. De La Torre to be there with us.  The NEXT Church endeavors to prophetically reveal our false practices; among them we need to unveil the way we speak of hope as any kind of pie-in-the-sky panacea that will cover the sins of injustice within the church and society in which we preach, teach, and lead.  As we “cross the river” and ask “What do these stones mean?” we need to think about how to do that in way that in way that confronts our history (and present) of using hope as an excuse for inaction, a maintenance of the status quo, and ultimately as a tool of control and oppression. 

Dr. De La Torre’s keynote is what I am most looking forward to at NEXT this year, not because I will enjoy it the most but because I am convinced he will speak to me words of discomfort and hopelessness that I need to hear in order to sit in the dust and ashes that properly fuel the gospel.  I’m coming to the river to be reminded of essential ways we need to chase down every ball and smack it back into the face of the unjust systems of our world inside, and outside, the Church that is next; the life of the world that is now cannot simply stand aside and wait for the moral arc to bend or imagine that it will do so without it being because we all jumped onto the monolithic towers of our making and pulled them over. 


Andrew Kukla is pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, ID. He also served on the speaker selection team for the 2020 NEXT Church National Gathering. 

Brian Blount And The Power of Proclamation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we are curating a series that showcases the brilliant leaders speaking and preaching at our 2020 National Gathering in March. Each of these people have been carefully chosen by a dedicated team of people who have championed these leaders and the gifts they bring to NEXT Church. So learn why we’re so excited, and then let your own excitement compel you to register and join us! If you’re already planning to go, we invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, and tell us what you’re most excited about for this year’s gathering.

by Amy Starr-Rewine

I first met Brian Blount more than twenty years ago. I was twenty-two years old and a senior in college, visiting seminaries to decide where to enroll. Because I was a religion major and had just finished my senior thesis on the gospel of Mark, some wise person in the Princeton Seminary admissions office arranged for me to meet with Dr. Blount as part of my campus tour. 

I was immediately in awe of his quiet presence, his thoughtfulness, his willingness to engage with me even though it quickly became obvious to me (and surely to us both) that my scholarship paled to near transparency when compared with his. I left his office that day knowing this was someone from whom I had a lot to learn, and that meeting was no small part of my decision to attend Princeton Seminary.  

What I could not have known that day was that, as personable and brilliant as Dr. Blount was one on one, something transformative happened when he stepped up to the lecture podium of a classroom. I heard him preach many times in seminary, but only once or twice from an actual pulpit in a worship service.  I count every lecture of his that I attended as a sermon, because, truly, in his teaching, he was proclaiming the Word. I was a prolific note-taker, but I quickly learned that, in one of Dr. Blount’s lectures, there was really no point in trying to take notes – better to let it wash over you and hope that what he said, taught, proclaimed would indeed take root, not just in your mind, but somewhere deeper and more profound, in your heart and in your soul. 

I learned a lot from Dr. Blount about the gospel of Mark and how Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God, sometimes even tearing the very fabric of the universe so that God’s kingdom could break into our world. But Dr. Blount also taught me about the power of proclamation (even though I never took a preaching class from him) – how to make the gospel relevant, how to use stories and metaphors to illustrate a difficult-to-articulate biblical concept, how to awaken your listeners to the awareness that even we, broken as we may be, have within us the capacity to make God’s kingdom a reality, here and now. 

I have not come close to mastering the skills Dr. Blount taught or demonstrated, but I am a better preacher and a more thoughtful student of scripture because of him – and anytime there is an opportunity hear him preach, I’ll be there. 


Amy Starr-Rewine is pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia.

Mike, De’Amon, and Miguel

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we are curating a series that showcases the brilliant leaders speaking and preaching at our 2020 National Gathering in March. Each of these people have been carefully chosen by a dedicated team of people who have championed these leaders and the gifts they bring to NEXT Church. So learn why we’re so excited, and then let your own excitement compel you to register and join us! If you’re already planning to go, we invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, and tell us what you’re most excited about for this year’s gathering.

by Jan Edmiston

How comfortable are you feeling right now?  Most of us like to feel comfortable.

And yet I increasingly believe that we learn life’s most important lessons when we are uncomfortable.  And I’m not talking about mattresses and shoes.

I’m talking about embracing uncomfortable situations and having uncomfortable conversations.  This is how we stretch and grow and move forward.  Or we can seek comfort and stay where we are.

The National Gathering of NEXT Church is perennially inspiring, fun, and motivating.  Yes, there have been speakers who jolt us and spark new ideas.  The 2020 National Gathering – in particular – promises to make us uncomfortable.

Image is one Jan uses when talking with congregations about being uncomfortable in church. How would you feel sitting beside this guy next Sunday? And what could we learn from him? And what could we learn about ourselves?

Yay.

Keynoters Mike Mather, De’Amon Harges, and Miguel de la Torre will make us decidedly uncomfortable in Cincinnati March 2-4, 2020.  And this is very good.

One of the questions Brene Brown asks in her book Daring Greatly when trying to figure out an institution’s culture is this one:

What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort?  Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

Let’s say you are sitting in a church pew on Sunday morning and a guy comes in wearing a torn t-shirt and he smells bad.  And he sits beside you.  Or there’s a woman you’ve never seen before who sobs throughout the whole worship service.  Do you approach her?  Or there’s a young man clearly dealing with some sort of brain injury who is sitting behind you in worship and he keeps touching your hair.  All these things make us uncomfortable.  All these things are opportunities to love someone.

Spiritual growth is essential for humans and we have a lot of growing to do if we are going to follow Jesus in a tumultuous world.  And it’s going to be uncomfortable, but also holy and worth it.

I hope you consider welcoming some uncomfortable conversations with Mike, De’Amon, and Miguel in March.  Register for NEXT Church here.  It will be holy and worth it.

(This blog post was originally published to Jan Edmiston’s blog, A Church for Starving Artists)


Jan Edmiston is General Presbyter of The Presbytery of Charlotte. She serve in two congregations in New York and Virginia as a solo and co-pastor, and was Associate Executive Presbyter in Chicago for seven years. Jan was also Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly with Denise Anderson.

Listening to Living Stones

When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you?” then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord… Joshua 4:6-7

by members of the speaker selection committee for NEXT Church

“What’s with the stones?” It’s the kind of thing you would expect a child to ponder when encountering a seemingly random set of rocks piled orderly by the river. The stones, the reply would start, are a reminder. They help us remember that God has led God’s people, and on a day very much like today, God opened up a future we had not fully dreamed about. The questions would continue for generations as they came to that spot by the river. The questions would be about the past. The answers would be about the future: don’t forget God’s power makes it possible for us to live in resilient hope anticipating what God will do next.

With 700 amazing church leaders descending on Cincinnati for the 2020 NEXT Church National Gathering shaped by that Joshua passage, the team tasked with inviting key-noters, preachers and testimony-givers for this conference knew that our invitations needed to go to people actively involved in relevant ministry. The team needed these speakers to help us look to the future, to reflect on the way in which God has worked in them and through them, and to give us a word of challenge to ignite our witness, hope, and power in God.

The team was made of people with an enduring commitment to NEXT Church (which, incidentally, is celebrating its 10th anniversary!). Those of us in that team are from throughout the country, but there are key participants from Cincinnati and the surrounding area. We wanted the narrative of the gathering to have a local and a national flavor, all at once. That is no small task.

The team discerned together for several months, though we depended on video conferencing to meet “face to face.” We each contributed names of people we knew, people we would LOVE to hear speak, people others were recommending. We did our research not just by going online, but by asking our networks what they knew about these potential speakers (and whether they knew other folks to add to the mix).

Knowing that those 700 participants would be coming, knowing that we would be celebrating a big anniversary for NEXT Church, and knowing that God is always articulating hope in new ways, we set out to discern how God could use these speakers to help us reflect not on a pile of static rocks from the past, but consider the dynamic gathering of living stones which is shaping the church’s future.

Join us in Cincinnati and let these amazing speakers help us remember why God has gathered us as the church to begin with.


You can read more about all of our speakers, preachers, and testimony givers on our speakers page, and you can register for our 2020 National Gathering on our registration page