By Frank Spencer
When asked to reflect on the NEXT Church event in Charlotte, I find that I cannot limit my thoughts to this one gathering. For me, the development of the NEXT Church movement will always be tied to my own development at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte.
Attending the first NEXT Church gathering in Indianapolis, I was struck by the passion and optimism of the assembled teaching elders. Those of us who were there as ruling elders were eagerly and openly invited into the conversations about how to enliven and enrich the PC (USA). That gathering drew approximately 300 people and engaged themes of waiting and exile. There was tension and anxiety around the formation of the group that would subsequently become The Fellowship/ECO. Participants were unsure about the future, even as faith and relationships were strengthened. Feeling a call from God to engage more deeply my own faith in the context of PC (USA), I entered seminary in May 2011.
By the fall of 2011, NEXT Church was hammering out a mission statement and planning its second meeting in Dallas. What developed from the fall meetings has guided NEXT Church in a direction that seems to be bearing much fruit. Everyone involved is dedicated to PC (USA). The purpose of gathering is to worship, to share ideas and to build relationships in the PC (USA). There was a decision against voting on any issues and a further determination to leave the definition of doctrinal matters to others. Dallas exceeded all expectations with 600 participants. The planning for regional meetings began and optimism abounded. A senior minister attending his first NEXT Church gathering commented to me, “This is without question the best church event I have been to in my 35 years of ministry.” I became an inquirer at the Presbytery meeting.
Coming out of Dallas, NEXT Church hired a director and regional meetings occurred around the country during the summer and fall. The Charlotte community embraced the planning for the 2013 meeting with commitments and volunteers from a range of congregations, large and small. The plans for worship and programming were intentionally diverse and forward looking. Gone was the sense of anxiety from Indianapolis. The excitement and expectation of life together in Christ Jesus was evident throughout the two days in Charlotte. We worshipped together in new ways and yet focused on the heart of our faith, from Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus through the movement of the Spirit at Pentecost. We shared stories of innovative ministries and explored ideas for new worshipping communities. I became a candidate for the office of Teaching Elder.
How have the developments of NEXT Church and my own call to ministry become so closely linked? It is because I have found authentic community in PC (USA) supported in no small part through my participation in NEXT Church. I have claimed my faith and my call not through my intellectual effort to decide for myself, but rather through the faith of the community that sustains me in my journey. Those relationships, the body of Christ, confirm for me what God has placed on my heart.
The traditional structures of PC (USA) have been shaken with financial and doctrinal challenges. This reality has left older members nostalgic for a time of greater stability and young seminarians nervous about the prospects for full-time ministry. Sitting in both camps as a mid-fifties second career seminarian who has served the church in many roles, I find NEXT Church is good for what ails me. As a seminarian, it is heartening that NEXT Church provides a forum for innovation and exploration of new forms of ministry. As a part of the established structure of PC (USA), it is exciting to experience the passionate faith leadership that our young (younger than me anyway) teaching elders are providing. Old or young, we should be optimistic when those who love the Church come together for the sole purpose of building her up.
Frank Spencer is a ruling elder at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church. He is President of Habitat for Humanity Charlotte and a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary. He served four years as Chairman of Montreat Conference Center and currently serves on the Board of Pensions. Frank’s first book, The Benefit of the Doubt: Claiming faith in an uncertain world, explores the Reformed tradition in a unique and engaging format that developed through a conversation between six of Frank’s current and former pastors and their one common parishioner. It is available in hard copy or Kindle through Amazon.com.