Multiple Memberships on a Journey of Faith and Perseverance

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Mark Davis is curating a series that will explore the idea of membership and the challenges and promises that come with it. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Sid Chapman

As a part-time pastor in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, an educator, former president of a local education association, a president of the Georgia affiliate of the National Education Association, former candidate for the Georgia State School Superintendent, and the current Chair of the Spalding County Democratic Committee, I have a broad area of participation in church , education, politics, and social organizations. One may ask how can one person be so involved in so many directions? Honestly, I don’t even know how I do all that I do without at least a cape! I can only say that I have a passion for faith, education, politics, and social issues in general.

(Photo by Eugene Zaycev on Unsplash)

I was born and reared in a small town in Georgia by a divorced Mother of six. We lived on a tight budget and with a faith that sustained my mother and kept us going. It certainly wasn’t a cake walk for any of us. My mother came from a Methodist family and spent a lot of time in a Presbyterian Church on altering Sundays. It was the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. My mom went through the catechism of the ARPC but remained a Methodist until she married into a Pentecostal Holiness family. My paternal grandfather was a Pentecostal Holiness pastor (converting from Methodism during the Great Depression at a “Tent Meeting”). I suppose you could say that I have strong Wesleyan roots with a splash of Calvinism—sounds like Tanqueray and Tonic!

I spent most of my early years in the Pentecostal Holiness tradition. I confirmed my faith and was baptized in the now International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC), received an undergraduate degree at the denomination’s Emmanuel College. I was licensed to preach and ordained in the Georgia Conference of the IPHC and was pastor of one small church after college. While I was in college, I began to question my faith and particularly my affiliation with the IPHC for several reasons. I suppose this conservative was realizing he wasn’t as conservative as he pretended to be and certainly not the fundamentalist scripturally as he wanted to be perceived. My life was full of contradictions and deep groanings to be free from the microscope of a religion that I didn’t feel comfortable in though I experienced glossolalia and prayed earnestly to be sanctified!

To make a long story short, 1987, I started visiting the United Methodist Church. I was totally disillusioned with religion, but I was still seeking a faith, a home, a compass for my life. I was encouraged to transfer into a program that would have led to my becoming an Elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church by my new pastor. I spoke to him about my feelings of possibly entering teaching. My pastor said something profound, “the call of God is fluid and can take many shapes and forms!” I became certified and taught high school social studies, adult education classes, college level economics courses, and finally union leadership. During this time, I started serving as a part-time pastor of small churches in the UMC. I must say my journey has been busy by all these positions and adding Master of Education, Doctor of Education degrees, and a Course of Study in United Methodist Ministry at Candler Theological Seminary at Emory University.

It would take a lot of time to share my whole story and all my struggles in my lifetime. My struggles have been very personal that have affected me physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, with numerous nuances. I have persevered to reach this juncture of my life. I now find myself in a situation in my adopted denomination of facing the very real possibility of schism. Our denomination is torn over LGBTQIA+ and other issues. Whether members of this community should be in ministry and whether UMC members can perform gay weddings and/or can they be performed in our churches. The Church in the USA has a majority for inclusion; however, the UMC is an international connectional church governed by a General Conference and Book of Discipline compiled by the General Conference delegates from around the world. I find myself once again not knowing where my ministry will continue or if at all.

One of these days, I’m going to write a book revealing all my struggles and my triumphs. My story is a story of faith and perseverance. A high school dropout that took the GED and now holds a doctorate degree. A guy who has so many interests and came through many dangers, toils and snares. I suppose if I were a good Presbyterian, I’d say it was all Providence! A good Methodist would say the same or Prevenient Grace. The church in general must decide its role in an ever-changing society. Before I am gone from this earth, I pray most of these questions will have been settled, but no victory lap so far!


Sidney “Sid” Lanier Chapman, Ed.D. is an educator and education leader in Georgia. Immediate past President of Georgia Association of Educators. Currently Assistant Coordinator of Textbook Division of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment in Clayton County Public School in Metro Atlanta. Sid is also pastor of Faith United Methodist Church, Riverdale, GA. Chapman is also the Spalding County Democratic Committee Chair, Griffin, GA.

Talking Membership… in a Join-Averse World

by Mark Davis

About four times a year I lead a “New Members Inquiry.” Once upon a time it was called “New Members Workshop,” but we had to adjust the language because many people were interested in the content but wary of being committed if they attended. The name change was a small concession to a large challenge. It’s just the case that many people are not “joiners.” I suspect that wariness is a symptom of a larger suspicion of institutionalization in general. Curiously, I am finding that many people are not commitment-avoidant when it comes to showing up, pitching in, and even supporting with time or money. But, becoming a “member” seems to be another matter.

While I share many (not all) of the concerns that people have regarding institutions, I am a strong advocate for church membership for two reasons – one of which is theological and the other of which is biblical.

The theological reason I strongly push membership is because I do not want to see the church reduced to yet another cog in the wheel of capitalism, where every decision is predicated on passing the muster of “What’s in it for me?” The church is not a vendor, at which we shop as long as we like the products it carries and the service it provides. It may be the case that this is exactly how people will approach the church regardless of my theological convictions, because we are surely steeped in capitalist rationalization. And, while many people whom I admire argue that we should de-institutionalize the church, starting with eliminating the notion of membership itself, I worry that we would lose something extremely valuable in the process. What we might lose falls under the biblical reason that I strongly push for church membership.

When the apostle Paul addresses church membership, his ongoing analogy is to speak of the church as a “body.” Indeed, one meaning of the English term “member” is “body part.” Most of us have lost this association in our language, except for the term “dismember,” which we still use to speak of losing a body part. Likewise, the term “remember” carries the connotation of being re-attached to something that is part of us. In Paul’s language – which I believe we should strive hard to recover – “membership” is an organic term, not an organizational one.

My favorite illustration of what membership means is a story I once read about Ben Franklin. He was writing a letter to a friend and asked the friend to excuse his handwriting, because the gout in his large right toe was being particularly bothersome. The very idea that swelling in the large right toe could make writing with his left hand shaky is a perfect example of what it means when Paul speaks of being “members one of another.” We weep because another is hurting; we rejoice because another is dancing; we tremble because another has gout. Becoming a member is not simply a matter of joining an organization until it no longer suits us. Members take the risk of being vulnerable to each others’ joys and concerns.

This organic use of the word “member” is richer and more authentic than our typical, organizational approach to the term – whether we consider ourselves for or against it. While I do not want to discard the word “member” because it seems to be overly institutional, I am not suggesting that we simply chug along, using “membership” a metric for measuring success. What a wonderful moment it could be if we lean into our aversion to “membership,” explore what it is that we find untenable about it, and express a vision of what an authentic church would look like if we were organically “members” of one another.

Throughout this month we will reflect on membership, with many of the challenges and promises that come with it. Stay tuned.


Mark Davis is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

Re-post: Back to the Future: A Sankofa Moment

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 December 27, 2013. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Paul Roberts

17 If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” 18 do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, 19 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the Lord your God brought you out. (Deuteronomy 7:17-19)

13 So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14 After I looked these things over, I stood up and said to the nobles and the officials and the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes. (Nehemiah 4:13-14)

And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran” (Acts 7:2)

These are just a few snapshots in the life of Israel, moments when they are commanded to go forward into new and sometimes dangerous places and circumstances. Each time, the people of God are challenged to first look back, to remember, to be confident not in themselves but in the God who is constantly sending and rescuing and delivering and saving and calling and loving.

sankofaIn the African-American community, we have embraced the concept of SANKOFA, from a West African proverb. SANKOFA teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. SANKOFA is visually represented by a bird that is in forward flight while looking back, with the egg of the future in its mouth.

At Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, our tag line is “called to create what’s next.” But to create what’s next, I believe we do well to first look back, gather all the best in preparation for exploring what’s next. Should theological education today resemble that represented in scripture? Many would question whether that is even reasonable, but, if it should, then it seems that that education must be less about the accumulation of knowledge and more about the formation of a way of life, of being.

Pastoral education should not take place in an isolated academic environment, but in the midst of the world for which the disciple is being prepared. It should, at least in part, take place at a point within which there is a seamless integration of spiritual, intellectual and practical concerns; there should be strong mentoring/partnering relationships with individuals who have not just experience, but are themselves active learners, willing to push against and test the status quo, who themselves embody faith rather than just imbibe knowledge about faith. These mentors should be men and women who can exegete the culture as effectively as they can exegete Scripture and are able to guide the disciple in how to weave both exegeses together.  So, pedagogy should move outside the walls of academe and into the world of the missioning God where people live and work and worship. The interaction between academy, church and community should be always in flux.

Looking back for one more moment, Gregory of Nazianzus (who fled the pastorate four times and was finally forcibly ordained by his congregation) noted that pastoral formation is a life-long endeavor: “Not even extreme old age would be too long a limit to assign.”). Becoming a pastor is the work of a lifetime. Theological education needs to give pastors a better start on becoming a pastor.


Roberts

Paul Timothy Roberts is president-dean of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. You can watch his keynote to the 2013 NEXT Gathering here.

Re-post: Creating Tension is a Pastoral Skill

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 June 2, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Andrew Foster Connors

tension copy“Madame Mayor,” I said, opening the meeting as our group of leaders had planned, “we’re here today because we are disappointed in your lack of leadership. You’ve told us you were going to double the number of jobs for youth and that hasn’t happened. You said you would double funding for after school funding and that hasn’t happened. And you’re closing rec centers after we agreed that Baltimore’s youth need more recreation, not less. When you were elected you made a promise that you would be the Mayor for opportunities for youth. We’ve come here today to see whether we can count on you to make good on your promises.”

Tension. All community organizing expects tension at some point in time. Sometimes we introduce it intentionally. We “agitate” leaders to produce a reaction.

Yet within the congregation, most of us are reluctant to introduce tension. Some of us see introducing tension as inconsistent with pastoral ethics or approach.

Many of us in the pastorate either grew up in systems that trained us to smooth over tension, or were intentionally trained that reducing tension is part of our job description. Our comfort with tension has been further eroded by the qualities of tension that we have witnessed within our denomination and within our political environment that we have experienced as tension leading to the destruction of relationships rather than in the deepening of them.

And yet, 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. Those of us who have completed Clinical Pastoral Education often report learning the most from the supervisor who asked the question that seemed too “impolite” or “aggressive” to ask. “The patient said she was afraid of dying and you responded by asking her if she was enjoying the food. Why did you ask that question? Are you afraid of hearing her fears?”

We should expect tension in our communities and learn how to face it with more confidence. In fact, we should learn how to introduce it in constructive ways that shift the burden and the opportunity of leadership off the pastor(s) and onto more leaders and potential leaders in the congregation.

Pastors who want to become leaders within and beyond their congregations can start by practicing creative tension in their own backyard. Take one example – someone comes to you and says they are disappointed with the lack of small group ministry in your church. In their previous church, they say, there were all kinds of small groups that were active.

Pastors afraid of tension are likely to react in a couple of predictable ways. We might react as if this is our responsibility: “I really need to do something about the lack of small groups. I need to work harder on this!” Or we might react defensively: “Well, sorry, but this is not your former church, and we don’t have the resources for a small group ministry.” Both responses deprive the person of the possibility to grow as a leader. They deprive the community of the potential gifts that arise as a result of this leader’s passion and willingness to act on that passion.

A pastor who is comfortable with tension, after listening well, might respond with all sorts of questions that preserve tension rather than dissipating it: “Have you talked with others who share your concern? Would you be willing to? Is this important enough to you that you would be willing to lead such a group or to recruit others to do so? How could I support you in that effort?” By placing some of the tension for the lack of small groups back on the person who first noticed it, the pastor gives that person the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership potential, and prevents the pastor from inadvertently becoming the fix-it person for everything that’s wrong with the church.

Of course, that person might not be a leader and might not be interested in becoming one. But we’ll never know unless we’re willing to test them out. Every pastor who introduces tension must be prepared to receive at least as much as she gives. But this is a good thing. Imagine the leader who returns to you and says, “I want to start three new small groups. I’m willing to recruit those leaders if you’re willing to train all of us.” Or imagine the mayor who responds to the tension our organization introduced into the room by coming back with, “I’m prepared to double after school funding, but I need you to meet with these five council people and pressure them to vote for my budget.”

Such leadership expands the involvement of all involved, asks more from everybody, and when directed by prayerful discernment, delivers more for the kingdom of God.

Admittedly this kind of agitation is an art, not a science. Tension is only as effective as the strength of the relationships that bear it. 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. But while irritation is never a good thing, neither is a boring church that never expects anything of its own members. The best way to learn how to navigate tension is to practice it, evaluate it, and try again.

AFCAndrew Foster Connors is the pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. He is co-chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team and co-chair of the IAF community organization, BUILD.

Re-post: Wrestling with Christianity’s Issues

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 18, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Yena Hwang

I attended the Brian McLaren conference at George Mason University in October, having enjoyed his book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road.” I have heard Brian McLaren’s “talks” at various events in the past, so I knew that the conference would be good and that I would benefit from what he had to share and teach. As expected, Brian McLaren’s presentation helped me to gain a deeper insight and helped me to acquire new vocabularies and ideas to engage in more meaningful interfaith dialogues. The structure of the conference, where participants were invited to listen to Brian’s presentation and then invited to engage in more intimate conversations through table discussions, provided a good framework to help me digest the contents being presented.

What I realized through this conference is that we as Christians need to do a better job of understanding our own issues, before pointing our fingers at others’ religious issues. At the beginning of one of our table discussions, each participant was asked to share a personal story involving our encounter with a religion that was different than our own. This is the story I shared.

My encounter was not with a different religion. I was a freshman in college and had joined a campus Christian fellowship geared towards Korean Americans, called Agape Ministry. It was customary to share our joys and concerns at the weekly gathering, where we sang praise songs, listened to someone’s testimony and shared fellowship. That particular night, I had shared a prayer request for my mother, who just learned that her brother, my uncle, had died in Korea. My mother’s grief was compounded by the fact that she had hoped to visit him and share the Gospel with him, but she had missed that opportunity. I shared that it was comforting to be visited by our pastor and that we had a service at home, since my mother could not attend the funeral being held in Korea. At the end of the night, during the free fellowship time, someone came up to me and said, “I’m sorry about your uncle…but you know that he is going to hell, right?” I don’t remember how I responded, but I do remember how I felt. I felt confused. I felt sad and then angry.

That night, I decided that there was something wrong with our understanding of Agape God, that there had to be more than just orthodox teachings and doctrines heaven and hell and about salvation in general. That was the beginning of my journey into questioning and wrestling with my Christian belief and faith and identity. How do we encourage fellow Christians to engage, struggle, strife, and wrestle with our own Christian issues? Until we come face to face with our own demons, name them and claim them, we will continue to live in a fear-based, “strong and hostile” attitude towards those ideas and beliefs that are foreign to us. Until we work through unpacking our own baggage and sift through what is valuable to keep and what is no longer useful, we will not even be ready to understand that “strong and benevolent” Christian identity is possible.

As someone from our table shared, we need to be the best Christian that we can be–the kind of Christian who puts into action/practice the greatest commandment to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves, no matter what that neighbor’s religious beliefs are and most certainly, no matter what that neighbor may look or sound like. May it begin with me. May it be so. Amen.


 Yena-HwangYena Hwang is the Associate Pastor of Christian Formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church. Yena was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to the United States with her parents when she as 11 years old. Yena received her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Yena is married to Rick Choi and together, they are parents to two children, Justin and Nathan. 

Re-post: Holy Ground

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 December 3, 2012. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

By Esta Jarrett

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 2:3-5 (NRSV)

Recently, a stand-up routine by the comedian Tig Notaro made the rounds of “you have to listen to this” lists on the Internet. Last summer, Notaro nearly died from a rare combination of medical problems. About a week later, her mom died in a tragic accident. Not long after that, Notaro went through an awful breakup. Then, right after that, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in both breasts. At the time of the recording, after time counted in hours, not weeks, she found herself onstage at the Largo Comedy Club, in front of an audience anticipating a stand-up routine.

She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t pretend that everything was okay. Instead of telling her usual witticisms, in which bees taking the expressway figure prominently, she told the truth. “Hello, good evening,” she said. “I have cancer . . . just found out. Good evening.”

During her set, Notaro led the audience through a masterpiece of comedy and an anthropological study of grief. I’ve never heard anything like it. The audience struggled to know how to react. There were moans of sympathy and distress from some, uncertain laughter from others, and hushing noises from the rest.

By the end of the set, the crowd was eating out of Notaro’s hand. They would have done anything she told them to do. It was as if the audience realized the enormity of the gift they had been given: the fit of Notaro’s own self . . . her refusal to pretend to be something she wasn’t.

Had Notaro just performed her usual set, it would have felt like a crime of inauthenticity, posturing instead of art. Toward the end of the performance, at the urging of the audience, she did tell her standard “bee taking the expressway” joke. Because of everything that was not said, the joke assumed an almost debilitating poignancy. The audience, who had witnessed the depth of her pain and beauty, could no longer be satisfied with pro-forma jokes. As they all confronted the reality of death, and found the grace to laugh, the Largo was transformed; the comedy club became holy ground.

When the church is at its best, it resembles that night at the Largo. People need a place to give voice to truth, before God and everybody, and know that they are held in safety and love. Whether in or out of a church building, we need a community where healing and reconciliation mean more than appearances and convention, even if it goes off script . . . and especially if it challenges our expectations of what we paid to see.

A few years ago, while doing my Clinical Pastoral Education, I visited a certain patient in the hospital. She had breast cancer, and her body was rejecting the cosmetic implants that she wanted to conceal her double mastectomy. She was bald, gaunt, red-eyed, and wild in her grief. She needed to talk to someone about how mad she was . . . at her body, at the cancer, and at God.

In my memory, there was no noise in the hospital except her voice, no light but that illuminating her bed. For forty-five minutes she raged, wept, and confessed everything on her heart to this inexperienced seminary grad.

When her storm had passed, we gripped hands, hard, and prayed together. It was hard to know when we stopped talking and started praying. The feeling of God’s presence throughout our conversation was so strong, you could almost feel its warmth emanating as from fire. As we prayed, we laughed, and cussed, and cried some more. After we said “Amen,” the patient’s face was serene, and I was changed forever. That hospital room became holy ground.

Every church I know has unspoken rules about acceptable behavior, whether in or out of worship. Most of the time, enforcement of these rules is self-policing: if people aren’t feeling presentable, they stay home, rather than burdening others with their troubles. They don’t want to cry, and risk embarrassing themselves. They feel too raw from the sharp edges of their lives to be able to put on a polite face.

But when wounded people feel safe enough to speak their truth, to say when they’re mad or confused or scared, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work miracles in church. Healing begins when a friend hugs your shoulders as you cry during the hymn. Sympathy and help are found as you discuss problems after worship. Even the simple act of being in a crowd of people who are praying and worshiping God can bring about change when change seems impossible. It is precisely in those moments when our lives are messy and unpresentable need that we need church the most.

We talk a lot about our brokenness when we confess our sins on Sunday. But theologically abstract brokenness looks very different from everyday brokenness, the kind of brokenness that makes you feel that you’re not good enough. In the church I want us to be, everyday brokenness becomes a blessing. When we bring our cracked and chipped lives to the font, to the table, to the people, to the Lord, we find ourselves on holy ground.

My prayer is that our awareness of God’s presence will grow and sharpen, becoming as keen as any other sense, so that we might walk barefoot everywhere we go. In comedy clubs, in hospital rooms, and yes, in church, may we say what needs to be said, in the deep and challenging love of God. May the church be a place that people seek out for such healing and transformation, instead of feeling they must stay away until they are presentable. May we all find ourselves on holy ground.


esta jarrettEsta Jarrett is the Pastor at Canton Presbyterian Church in Canton NC, through the “For Such a Time as This” small church residency program. She is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary (although she still calls it Union PSCE in her head).

Image: jayzee/shutterstock.com

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: 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.