Engaging and Changing the World

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Susan Fox

impossible copyThe Huffington Post recently published an article by Wayne Meisel, a Presbyterian minister whose many hats include working with the Faith3 initiative. This program is designed to support and resource the Church in its efforts to share the gospel with young adults in ways that significantly impact their lives. The title of the Post article,“Seminaries that Change the World. A Growing List of Transitioning Institutions for Transformational Times,” grabbed my attention immediately. Now, those of us connected with theological education do a lot of talking about our formative and transformative work with students and institutions (i.e., “the church”), and often that language shows up in seminary mission and vision statements. But changing the world? That’s an audacious claim, except for the fact that this is exactly what Christ calls us to do.

Since the title further suggests that there’s a list of such seminaries, of course I quickly skimmed the article to learn which ones made the cut. Sure, the organization behind this concept doesn’t pretend to be the final arbiter of seminary status and worth. It’s a tiny upstart with a big heart. Still, which seminary doesn’t want to be among the “world-changing” elect?

Being included in a list of world-changing seminaries by a program that has no official standing or power may appear to be an empty honor, but what about the underlying premise? Seminaries that change the world must engage the world. Herein lies the trajectory of theological education both now and in the future. Our charge: to understand and effectively prepare leaders to serve in a world that bears little resemblance to the world in the days when the concept of a classic theological education first appeared. The tasks that confront the new pastor or educator today include what we might describe as “traditional” ministry but set in a context that is increasingly diverse and complex. A seminary that crosses its academic fingers and hopes its graduates learn how to navigate one’s ministry context post-graduation is fortunately becoming a thing of the past.

The Presbyterian and Reformed Theological Field Educators caucus is a close-knit group of colleagues who are, obviously, passionate about contextual education. As a member of that group for twenty-four years, I’ve seen exciting developments in our discipline. To do our work we must have one foot in the academy and the other in the church and world. Our contextual settings for internships increasingly intersect the multi-faith and multi-ethnic realities of society. Targeted internships in small membership congregations promote discernment of call while introducing students to a growing denominational demographic. In one of the most exciting developments in years, our students now have the opportunity to engage in new church developments through the 1001 Worshipping Communities initiative. Through participation in this program, students learn 21st century ministry skills such as entrepreneurship, evangelism, and discipleship. Most important, perhaps, is the paradigm-shifting experience of taking the church to the people, broadening the concept of “church” to include non-traditional formats.

There is much to be excited about in theological education today and in the future. There is also much work and, yes, reforming, to be done. In an age in which the futures of denominations and seminaries are subjects of serious speculation, it seems imminently clear that stasis is not an option. The driver of the evolving and future shape of theological education is found largely in the two adjectives in Meisel’s titular phrase, “Transitioning institutions for transformational times.” Gone are the days when theological education could be limited to a three-year immersion of Bible, history, and theology and the hope that any other necessary ministerial formation would occur in the first call context. Not only is that poor pedagogy for today; it is inadequate preparation for ministry in a world that is, in popular jargon, a hot mess. Information is not enough. Today’s seminaries are charged with teaching students whose gifts may not include familiarity with the language, disciplines, and traditions of faith. Our graduates walk into ministry settings that expect them to be more than founts of knowledge. They must hit the ground able to provide leadership in a community and world that is culturally and religiously complex, technologically sophisticated, politically charged, and populated with a growing number of “nones” and aging baby-boomers.

I suspect that Meisel and his small band of colleagues in the Faith3 endeavor are onto something important. By putting forth a definition of a “world-changing” seminary, they have thrown down a curriculum-challenging ethos-examining gauntlet. Even a small “world-engaging” step is a step in the right direction. Seminaries that change the world, according to the selection criteria, develop a culture of sustained engagement on campus and offer courses and programming that integrate knowledge, faith and service. Internships—as important as they are—cannot be the sole realm of that engagement. Other professional degree programs such as k-12 education require students to participate in practicums from day one. Some seminaries are doing the same by adding diverse contextual learning experiences throughout the three years of the M.Div. degree program. Others offer young adults free on-campus housing or seminary scholarships if they participate in AmeriCorps or Peace Corps for a year before they matriculate.

Students and churches should not be the only foci for formation and transformation. Our seminaries too, fall under the same mandate. Perhaps that notion should be written into our mission and vision statements lest we fall victim to our own hubris. Nineteenth century historian Henry B. Adams wrote “Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.” Change – shifting gears – tends to make us nervous, especially in uncertain times. The exciting news is that the spirit of change is wafting through our theological institutions, the Church and through the world.

Give us open minds, O God, ready to see and embrace the new thing that You are calling us to do in our seminaries, churches, and world. May we resist the urge to cling so tightly to the past that we set limits on the future. Surprise us with new possibilities as we strive t0 make a difference in this world. In your holy name we pray. Amen.

Fox, Susan picIn November of 2013 Susan Fox entered her twenty-fifth year of service at Union Presbyterian Seminary. An administrator and faculty member, Susan directs the Supervised Ministry and Vocational Planning office. She characterizes her work today at Union as bridging academics with practical ministry during a critically important and energizing time in the life of the Church.

Image: shutterstock.com/bahri altay

What Is Coming and Becoming in Doctor of Ministry Education?

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Jeff Japinga

railroad copyWe’ve all heard the tales of woe about the declining place and role of the church in the West. The statistics are real, the reality at times staggering. Gather with clergy, and at some point, the talk inevitably turns to survival.

Except when it doesn’t. Last spring, gathered with a couple dozen McCormick doctor of ministry students on the eve of their graduation, I invited each of them to say just a few summary words about their DMin studies and its impact on their ministries. One-by-one, they stood, and by the time all of them had spoken, I had heard the collective voice of a modern-day Jeremiah, expressing their dream for the church with the same verve and confidence of the prophet: “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the LORD; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.” (Jer 29:11, CEB)

It is because of the work of people like Rachel, Antonio, Ranjith, Llewellyn, Annika, that I believe doctor of ministry education stands squarely at the crossroads of the church’s future. In dynamic, interactive, ministry-oriented classrooms across North America, experienced leaders like these five are bringing their hopes and dreams, their successes and failures, their love for the church and their respect for each other, and putting it all into honest and open dialogue with Scripture, theology, tradition, and contemporary thought.

The result is a new generation of leaders ready and able to ask the right questions, in specific places and contexts and circumstances, that is making the gospel alive and relevant in their own places of ministry. In the dynamic interaction of instructor and student, peers and congregations, research and development, study grounded squarely in ministry joins an individual student’s work to God’s work in the world, in the words of my colleague David Hester at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

At San Francisco Seminary, “We ask several questions of our students as they begin DMin studies,” says Virstan Choy. “‘At this point in your ministry, what are the real-life challenges your ministry needs to address?  What conditions in the life of the people you serve need the response of ministry?  What resources and tools for that ministry are missing and need to be developed?  How might something you work on be something your colleagues will see to be a real contribution to their practice of ministry?’  If students come back and report that they could not find already researched material or already developed approaches to a particular problem, we suggest that they will be the ones to do that research, they will be the ones to do that development.”  Incubators for innovation was how Jack Haberer described DMin programs in a September 2013 edition of Presbyterian Outlook.

Every day, at the grocery store, or the gas pump, or the workplace, we encounter first-hand what it means to live in an increasingly flat, globalized, third-millennium world. But what is the gospel for a third-millennium world? That’s what DMin students are working on, in areas of preaching, evangelism, cross-cultural studies, discipleship–new and sustainable practices that are helping our churches today build relevant ministry in their own congregations and communities, and in ministries as diverse as hospital and prison  and college chaplaincies, interfaith settings, and non-profit service agencies.

I know there was a time when DMin programs carried some not-so-flattering descriptors: the cash-cow (for the seminaries); a ticket to a bigger church (for its holders); a cheap and easy title. Whether accurate or exaggerated then, what DMin programs are now is nothing of the sort. Today, a DMin points to a future we ignore at our own peril.

That’s what I think is right with the doctor of ministry degree. Here’s what’s wrong with it: the numbers. For all the potential for DMin grads to inspire and mobilize the church of the future, the church boiler, a child’s college fund, the local food pantry–all things good and right–too often restrict the church and pastor’s capacity to invest in its future. In the end, the tuition needed and the tuition available simply do not match, and thus too few people have the opportunity to dream and to create.

There are no simple answers for the challenges faced by the church in North America. No one-day seminar or trendy music style will refill our pews. No quick fix will balance our budgets. And yet, having seen their work firsthand, I stand with my DMin students, and those of my colleagues, in believing that the future of the church is “filled with hope.” And I stand behind them as the leaders who will guide us there.

JJapingaThe Rev. Dr. Jeffrey S. Japinga has served as associate dean for doctor of ministry programs at McCormick since 2008.  Jeff received a B.S. in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, an M.Div. from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and a D.Min. from McCormick Theological Seminary.  Prior to joining the McCormick faculty, Jeff served for twenty-one years on the denominational staff of the Reformed Church in America and taught at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. An ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America, Jeff leads workshops in the areas of leadership, decision-making, and Christian formation.

Image: Shutterstock.com/Nneirda

Anchoring-Tethering: A Perspective on Present-Future Theological Education

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Neal Presa

tether copyLeonard Sweet in Viral describes two tribes: Gutenbergers and Googlers. Gutenbergers are accustomed to the one-dimensionality of what paper expresses and are more comfortable with paper books and paper essays, not as adept with the Information Age and its multiple platforms. Googlers were born into the Internet Age.

Sweet says that in a so-called TGIF (Twitter, Google, iPad, Facebook) world, two things are needed: an EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-rich, connective) approach to communication that values an MRI (missional, relational, incarnational) way of being.

Now, it is possible for those who are Gutenberger in their biological age to be Googlers in their way of seeing and engaging the world; likewise, it is possible for those who are Googler in age to be Gutenberger in their approach to faith and life.  What 21st century contexts continually show is an approach to theological education and vocational formation which Googlers understand quite well.

In a TGIF world where EPIC and MRI are needed, Googlers show us that it is not so much about installing PowerPoint projectors, or requiring iPads in the classroom, or going the distance-learning route; although all those are helpful in classroom pedagogy for many reasons.  Googlers live with a hermeneutic of the world that is nimble, that is multilingual, that is interdisciplinary, that seeks the flourishing of the entirety of humanity.  TGIF – the world in which Googlers were born, reared, studied, and are working in – showed them Instagram images, iReports, Tweets, Facebook statuses and Youtube videos of what Craig Barnes called in his inaugural address as Princeton Theological Seminary’s president, “Beauty and Truth.”  Googlers see the truth of suffering on micro- and macro- scales, from the enormous effects of a Philippine typhoon to human trafficking to millions dying of malaria. Googlers also see the beauty when humanity – whether of a Christian faith tradition or not – runs to the aid of a Boston marathoner, or heroically climbs 80 flights of stairs of a crumbling World Trade tower.

Theological education in the Reformed tradition for a 21st century world requires us to orientate our methods, our approach, and our own theology of theological education in such way so that anchoring-tethering occurs: i.e. confidently and passionately anchored to the healing, reconciling Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, while humbly and generously tethered to the Reformed traditions.

Anchoring tells us to whom we belong, our core identity, the substance of who we are. We are people of the Gospel, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit who has baptized us, called us, sent us, gathers us. But we belong to a particular community, a specific neighborhood in the body of Christ called the Reformed tradition. And even then, those of us in the United States are part of the Reformed tradition that has taken an American form of Calvinism, which is somewhat different from the Calvinism in parts of Africa, in parts of Asia, in parts of Latin and South Americas. These multiple contexts require tethering.

Still yet, we are members of the human family, a planet of 7 billion people. The multiplication of contexts require tethering. We belong to a community, where there is identity and belongingness, but we are not locked nor prevented to engage the richness of diversity in the human family.

Faithful and full engagement in multiple contexts requires multilinguality (not literally learning Mandarin, Spanish, Korean, Italian, Swahili – although it could mean that too!), but being able to converse with and be conversant in multiple subjects, perspectives, methodologies, approaches; in other words, being nimble and flexible so as to offer authentic presence and to be authentically present.

I am privileged to be teaching at New Brunswick Theological Seminary (NBTS), the oldest seminary in North America founded in 1784, nestled in the heart of Rutgers University in central New Jersey.  It is one of the two seminaries of the Reformed Church in America (RCA). We also have a campus presence at St. John’s University in Queens, New York City.  While anchored to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and tethered to the Reformed tradition of the RCA, NBTS’s student body, staff community and faculty are not majority RCA. Our faculty is diverse – half of whom are people of color, more than half are not RCA. Our faculty and students come from Baptist, Pentecostal, AME, and non-denominational churches, as well as RCA and PC(USA).  Our academic dean is the first African American and first non-RCA (he comes from the American Baptist tradition) in NBTS’s history.

Many of our own PC(USA) seminaries are in a similar place of serving an increasingly diverse student body.  While an anchoring-tethering approach may instill a certain sense of angst for folks who want to insure the endurance and durability of what they have been accustomed to as THE Reformed tradition, a TGIF 21st century world calls us to take risks, knowing who and whose we are as anchored in the Gospel, tethered to the Reformed traditions, and following the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us to be in solidarity with humanity. . .an approach which our Lord Jesus taught his disciples in their own theological education and vocational formation.

Presa, Neal PictureNeal is a Filipino American, serving as pastor of Middlesex Presbyterian Church (NJ), Affiliate Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and Extraordinary Associate Professor of Practical Theology at the North-West University in Potschefsroom, South Africa.  He is also Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Neal studied at Drew University (Ph.D, M.Phil. in liturgical studies/liturgical theology), Princeton Theological Seminary (Th.M. in pastoral theology), San Francisco Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Westminster Theological Seminary California (graduate theology/history courses), and the University of California, Davis (B.A. in political science summa cum laude and history cum laude). Born in Guam, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now living in New Jersey, Neal and his wife have two sons. Neal enjoys hanging out with his family and friends, traveling, fine wine and great food, working out, reading, and politics.

Image: shutterstock.com/Robert D Young

Tearing Down the Walls

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

by Ellie Roscher

wall copyA former student of mine works for an e-commerce start up company whose office is in an old church in Minneapolis. He shares the church office space with his co-workers – a priest who got into real estate to make ends meet and a man who started a grain-based veggie burger business. The church started renting its space out during the week to small businesses for the financial benefit of everyone. This worship space/business office collaboration makes sense. Being some of the biggest community spaces in the neighborhood, churches can engage in a ministry of shared space. Sharing becomes not only a creative, mutually symbiotic idea, but in some cases a financial necessity. Boundaries that used to separate church and life are blurring.

Seminaries are following suit by thinking of ways to get creative with space.

  • Can seminaries require our students to move their families to our campus for three years?
  • Can they afford to own all of these buildings?
  • How do seminaries get students out into the world?
  • Seminaries are exploring online classes and regional campuses.
  • They are experimenting with seminary intensives followed up with life-long continuing education.
  • They are considering inter-campus and inter-denominational collaboration, wider definitions of call and on-going internships during coursework.

This shift honors the financial need and a generational shift in thoughts about faith. Theological education is moving to the context of the entire world, not just within seminary buildings.

When walls come down, some people get scared. We get attached to the boundaries we build. Redefining space with fewer walls can, however, build community, enhance academic rigor and promote God’s love in the world.

A few decades ago, many people went to work from 9-5 Monday through Friday. Family time happened at night while church happened on Sunday mornings. The walls that used to separate worship time from the rest of our lives are dissolving. More people are working from home, telecommuting, or working multiple jobs and taking odd hours. Millennials, loosely people born between 1980 and 1996, are driving the change. They don’t want church boxed into Sundays, limited to a building, quarantined from our daily lives. They don’t want to see God’s call for our lives as only what we get paid to do, but our entire life’s work. They want to make a difference in their communities, and they see that as church. They want their church to be relevant in the world first.

In her Human Resource Magazine article “Mixing It Up,” Adrienne Fox reminds us that Millennials are optimistic. They love collaboration and consensus building. Some believe Millennials view power as organic – it grows when shared. Churches and seminaries are finding it challenging to connect with Millennials with their existing models. Millennials grew up watching religious extremism lead to 9-11. They watched sexual scandals covered up in multiple faiths and denominations, the co-opting of the religious right by republican politicians and infighting in mainline protestant denominations. Young people are skeptical of a church that stays locked up away from the world. Diana Butler Bass in Christianity After Religion tells us that young people want the old church order of believing, behaving, belonging to shift to the ancient approach of belonging, behaving, believing. They want churches to be counter-cultural prophetic voices relevant to the world. They want societal transformation. The networks are interconnected and dependent on each other. The walls are coming down.

I see this shift as more than just a choice to see opportunity instead of crisis. I see the shift as a reclaiming of the Gospel. Jesus’ ministry happened wherever and whenever it needed to happen. He did not only teach in the synagogue. He did not heal people just on Sabbath. Walls could not contain his ministry, his love. The early church that started worshipping Jesus met in homes, in small groups, and we are seeing a swing back to that model in our context. What’s coming in our seminaries is training our leaders to celebrate the dissolving of walls – training leaders to think collaboratively, share power to grow it, and get out into the communities and be part of the revolution.

Roscher Ellie pic2 copyEllie Roscher is the author of How Coffee Saved My Life, and Other Stories of Stumbling to Grace and has appeared multiple times in The Thoughtful Christian, Spirit Magazine, Alive Magazine and DAPS Zine. She also edited Keeping the Faith in Seminary and Keeping the Faith in Education for Avenida Books. Ellie holds a master’s degree in Theology from Luther Seminary and an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Find her writing at ellieroscher.com and  Keeping the Faith Today. Follow her @ellieroscher.  

Image: shutterstock.com/monbibi

Futuristic Traditionalism: Small Congregations and NEXT Church


By Andrew Taylor-Troutman

How wonderful that we have met with a paradox! Now we have some hope of making progress.

~Niels Bohr

Recently I came across an essay by Don Share, the new editor of Poetry, in which he cited a quote from the composer, Van Dyke Parks, as that of a “futuristic traditionalist.” This notion is a paradox by which two opposite notions, when thrown together, are somehow complementary. If the one holy catholic and apostolic church is engaged and invested in today’s world for the next generations, this paradox stems from a certain peripatetic Jew in ancient Palestine who was connected to his religious tradition, including its own cherished past; and yet likewise insisted that the basileia tou theou is an up-to-the-moment fulfillment of that tradition in each and every believer’s breath.

How then can we, as his disciples in next church, be futuristic traditionalists?

This month, our blog posts – though very different – will each engage this paradox through the lens of the “small church.” I place quotations around this term because it seems to me that, when used, it actually designates a characteristic spirit as manifested in beliefs and aspirations, not only pertaining to literal size. I think you know what I mean. Perhaps you have heard a wistful, elaborate description of someone’s memory of his or her “small church” from long ago, often uttered with a far-off gleam in the speaker’s eyes. Maybe you’ve heard stories of Dr. So-and-So preaching a loved one’s funeral, and Mrs. Saint teaching rambunctious children the Ten Commandments, and Mr. Rock quietly maintaining the building and grounds.

You can trust the voices gathered here this month to honor and respect such traditions. In her or his own way, our authors devout the majority of working hours, efforts, hopes, and prayers working side-by-side with such people and their living memories. And yet, with God’s grace, they labor with their communities as forces in our broken and badly battered world. Yes, “forces” – perhaps this strength-giving, mind-altering, soul-inspiring, heart-touching, life-giving ministry is greatest paradox of today’s small church, an unlikely power that is not ours but from the one who promised, For wherever two or three are gathered, there I will be also. I think that notion might be a paradox as well, and I hope and pray that, as we “meet” this month by encountering a wide range of voices, therein lies our hope.

Author photoAndrew Taylor-Troutman serves as teaching elder of New Dublin Presbyterian Church. His memoir about this experience, Take My Hand, is published by Wipf & Stock and can be ordered here: www.takemyhandmemoir.com  

Image: fusion-of-horizons via photopin cc

Children’s Church is the Church

By Rodger Nishioka

one-eared-mickeyIn their book, The Godbearing Life, which has now become a youth ministry standard, Kenda Creasy Dean who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary and Ron Foster, pastor of a United Methodist congregation, identify one of the most problematic models traditional youth ministry as the “one-eared Mickey Mouse.”  In their description, the congregation and its ministry form the head of Mickey Mouse while youth ministry forms one ear that, like the Mickey Mouse image, is barely attached to the head.  The problem, they say, is that young people grow up with an understanding that youth ministry is only tangentially connected to the life of the whole church if it is connected at all.  They view youth ministry as something that is separate.  This view ends up reinforcing the natural egocentrism of adolescence and while that may suffice for a while, when young people grow up, they find themselves bereft of any understanding of church and the whole church’s ministry and their part in it.  That is when they drift away.  Tragically, we set them up for this by locating their ministry as something apart from the rest of the church.  This analogy is potent as we consider the place of children in the church.

In too many congregations, our children are “dismissed” to go to “children’s church” or something like it either a few minutes into the congregation’s worship or in place of being present in the congregation’s worship at all.  As far as I can tell, this is a 20th century phenomenon.  In reviewing session minutes from Presbyterian congregations in the archives here at Columbia Theological Seminary, this action of sending children out of worship began in the 1950s at the height of the post-war baby boom.  Prior to this, no such thing existed.  Children were in the whole of worship with their families.  But in the years following the second world war with the tremendous influx of newborns, congregations began looking for immediate and cost effective ways to gain more space in the sanctuary to accommodate all these young families and their children and some inventive pastor or church educator thought about sending the children out to make more space for adults and thus, the phenomenon of “dismissing” children from worship was born.  If a generation runs approximately 20 years, then we are into our third generation of this experience and it has become normative for us all.  Indeed, when I have preached in congregations where there is now plenty of room for all ages to worship together, church after church still sends children out of worship because “that’s what we have always done.”  The truth is, that is NOT what we have always done and even more, we are now reaping what we have sown.

We have sown three generations of children leaving or never worshipping with us, and it is no wonder that so many find worship boring and incomprehensible when they come of age and are expected to join us.  Further, when I suggest that children remain with us during the whole of worship, some of the loudest objections come from some young parents who want worship to be a time for them when they do not have to worry about their child’s behavior.  My own sense is that this reflects the current belief among developmental theorists that adolescence is extending well into young adulthood and what else is a true sign of adolescence but the primary focus on one’s own needs over others.  And after all, these parents of young children experienced the pattern of a separate “adult worship” and “children’s worship” when they were young so is not that what church is supposed to be like?

Here is the greatest problem I find in separating our children from us in the worship of God.  In Matthew’s gospel, he relays the story also found in Mark and Luke about Jesus encountering little children.  Parents are bringing their children to Jesus because they want their daughters and sons to meet him, but the disciples turn them away.  Jesus tells the disciples to , “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”  (Matt. 19:14).  Readers of Matthew know that the gospel writer often uses the words “kingdom of heaven”  euphemistically for “God.”  Given the quote from Jesus, he seems to be telling us all that God belongs to children.  This is unique, truly.  I can find no other place in the gospels where God is said to belong to anyone.  It seems that there is something about children that they alone are named as the ones who possess God.  For me, then, the question of children and the church is first and foremost a theological one.  If we are called as the body of Christ to worship God and to glorify God and to enjoy God (as the Westminster divines tell us in the catechism), then does it not make sense that those to whom God is said to belong, our children, should at least be present among us?   In fact, should not our children be leading us in this endeavor for which we were created?

There is no “children’s church” separate from the “church.”  Children’s church IS the church.  Amen.

Rodger Nishioka is the Benton Family Chair in Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.

Faithful Millennials, Children, and the Steps In Between

Beginning today, we’re changing up the NEXT Church blog a bit. We’ll continue to post good content, but each month will have a different theme or lens for what’s NEXT. We’ve asked leaders across the PC(USA) to curate a month of blog content based on their own passion in ministry. This does two things:

  1. Allows us to delve more deeply into specific topics, and
  2. Increases the number and variety of voices from whom we’re hearing as we practice ministry in the church that is becoming.

Thanks to Steve Lindsley and Lynn Turnage for curating this first month as we talk about what’s now and what’s next in faith formation of children.


It’s time to talk children!

Over the next weeks, you will hear from various folks who are pastors, theologians, advocates, educators, parents, elders – or some combination of these – all who are passionate about children in church, children in worship, and children’s faith formation.

Who are the primary shapers of children’s faith? The church, the pastors, the officers, the teachers, and we know parents are the primary educators.

This series of blog posts brings together all of these voices as we think about forming the faith of children in the church, and most importantly in worship.

We know we are blessed to have children in our churches (what church doesn’t want more of them?!), and still we encounter people who could care less or “don’t know what to do with them” or are weary (or scared?) of children’s energy.

So now’s the time to think about the issues, attitudes and perspectives we juggle, what parents are thinking, what children have to say, and WHY we care. Enjoy these gifts of God!

Faithful Millennials, Children, and the Steps In Between

By Adam J. Copeland

parent child smallWatchers of religion online in recent months will likely have seen Rachel Held Evan’s CNN Belief Blog piece flying around the internet, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” (Most classify millennials as those born between 1980 and 2000.) After Rachel’s post was shared thousands of times via social media, other bloggers penned responses to Rachel’s piece.

Brian McCracken wrote in the Washington Post that the way to keep millennials in the church is to keep church “uncool.”

A Lutheran bishop, James Hazelwood asked, “Is Rachel Held Evans Right?” and Rachel linked to the post on her blog. Christopher Smith called for a “Slow Church” way forward, emphasizing dialogue with one and all.

Though the hubbub about millennials has died down for now, I’ve continued to ponder faith development and children.

I teach at a church-related college and am working on a book in which 20-somethings share essays about wrestling with faith and college. As I read through dozens of submissions for the book, a theme surfaced.

Too many millennials have reflected on their faith saying, in part….“I just went through the church motions until college. I mean, my parents took me to church growing up, but it didn’t mean anything. My parents didn’t seem to care. Not until college did I being to wonder, ‘What is this faith stuff anyway?’”

The millennial writers share deep, meaningful, diverse, beautiful stories. Certainly there is much more to the essays than this thread. And yes, certainly, there are some developmental issues at play here.

But, with all the millennial-related blog posts swirling around the Internet, what might parents to do to prepare their children for the transition to college or a workplace? How, today, do we raise a child in the faith?

If the essays that have come across my desk are any indication, a good start is a simple one: talk about faith.

Faith communities are essential, of course, but for many of us a solid faith foundation is first built at home. So parents, do your best to connect all of living to faith. Talking about God’s blessing—and God’s call— at home, in the car, over meals, even online.

One simple way to support the faith of our children is to teach prayer practices. And, as is true with much of the faith, sometimes it’s best to learn by doing. Praying at meals and before bedtime can begin a lifelong practice of prayer. Silence or sabbath, too, can be prayerful if approached in a meditative, thoughtful way focused on God. (See MaryAnn McKibben-Dana’s new book, “Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time.”)

In my family growing up, discussing the sermon after worship was a sort of Olympic sport. Most young children won’t be up for debating the finer points of the sermon each Sunday, but they will gain a lot if parents model engaged, thoughtful reflection on worship and Christian education. Inviting children into a conversation about the Bible stories encountered on Sunday shows that faith matters beyond Sunday at noon.

One of the recurring themes of the essays I’m working through is millennials’ faith struggles when met with pain, suffering, or loss. After all, what does God have to do with disease or natural disaster?

When parents are honest about their faith lives—the joys, sorrows, and struggles—they can model for their children a resilient, thoughtful faith that embraces the ups and downs of live.

Faith is a head thing, after all, but it’s also a direction of the heart.

At the risk of being flippant, if parents believe it’s worth the trouble to take their children to church in the first place then it behooves them not to stop there. Veggie Tales, though fun, don’t substitute for a committed life of discipleship.

Christianity, after all, is a holistic faith. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ matters not just for an hour on Sunday, but for the whole of life, for the whole of the world.

Why are millennials leaving the church? Who knows and, let’s be real, many of the reasons are probably beyond our immediate control. What we can control, though, is our commitment to living out the faith we teach our children, the faith in which we baptize.

Adam Copeland CCAdam J. Copeland is Faculty Director for Faith and Leadership at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota where he teaches in the department of religion. He blogs at A Wee Blether (http://adamjcopeland.com) and tweets @ajc123.

Image Credits: steeple: Anita Patterson Peppers/shutterstock; parent and child: kuma/shutterstock

From Cultural Competency to Cultural Humility

God colors smallBy Rev. Natasha Iwalani Hicks

I was in a meeting a few months back and a gentleman approached me asking me about pastoring a church in White Center, a diverse urban community in Seattle.  As our conversation proceeded he interjected and asked me why I do not preach in Spanish, and before allowing me to answer, he continued to give his rationale behind why I should be preaching in Spanish if I really cared about this particular community.

I rebutted with a similar question, asking if this gentleman speaks Spanish in order to better engage with the community that he is seemingly so passionate about.  His response was that he does not, but he is not Hispanic.

So, let me begin with the fact that I am actually not Latina/Hispanic either, despite my brownish skin tone, long brown hair and brown eyes.  I am Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Irish, German, Dutch Welch, I grew up on a Native American Reservation, and I speak English and some Romanian (as I was a missionary in Romania for a period of time).

In the past I used to get fired up about the assumptions that people make about me and my cultural/ethnic background, especially because it often came with a lack of expectation based on my appearance and my quiet presence.  However, as I have grown to be more and more comfortable in my own skin and to truly value my experiences as a multi-cultural person, I have increasingly learned to lean in and to engage in conversation instead of allowing anger or disappointment to lead my response.  I will admit though, that I still do experience those knee-jerk responses of anger and disappointment at times, especially when I see assumptions being placed upon others.

Let’s be honest, the PC(USA) has a long way to go in regards to authentic cultural engagement.  I heard much about cultural competency in seminary and I saw the attempt to paint a visually diverse picture of our seminaries, but the reality is when I attempted to question why there was such a lack of globally diverse voices included in the curriculum, I was told to go and take a class at the African American Seminary if I wanted that perspective.  Seriously, that was an actual response from a professor!  Don’t get me wrong, I do not share that to simply come down on the professor or our seminaries, but I use it to highlight the reality that we as a church have a long ways to go if this is still a reality in our seminaries, where leaders for the church are being formed.

Western culture values intellect.  We see a problem and we want to fix it.  We like process (decently and in order!).  We create resources and programs to overlay upon our increasingly diverse communities and wonder why they are not always well received or why they do not actually work.  Action, albeit at times well intentioned, takes precedence over the “inefficient,” time-consuming, practice of enlarging the circle to hear a wider array of voices and experiences.

Competency is easier than humility, because it implies that we can attain it and be done with it.  I have a Hawaiian friend, so I “get” Pacific Islander culture – check.  I’ve been on a mission trip to Mexico, so I understand Latino/HIspanic culture – check.  We’ve got a black person on staff, so we are diverse – check.  I BBQ with my white neighbor, so I “get” white folk – check.  Obviously, I am being somewhat facetious, but I honestly don’t think I am too far off.

Before I go on, I want to be clear that I do not think this is just an issue of “White Folk.”  I see this happen in the reverse all the time, where racial-ethnic folks disregard white folks, because they presume “they don’t get it” or they somehow come to believe that white folks do not have anything to contribute to the conversation around culture.  Reverse judgment, reverse prejudice, reverse exclusion gets us nowhere.  I understand the issue of white privilege and am not seeking to undermine or dodge the legitimate issue of power, but I believe the greater issue is a matter of humility, of the heart.

Each of us has a story.  I think we would all agree with this.  BUT, are we willing to truly enter into relationship with the firm belief that each person has something to contribute to “my” life and “my” story.  Period.  It doesn’t matter if they are poor or rich, Japanese or Lebanese, from the country or from the city.  Am I, are you, willing to enter each encounter with a posture of humility, desiring to learn, believing that the very heartbeat of God already exists within each person?

God came in flesh in Jesus Christ to share life with us.  To share life with us.  He was born within a particular culture, in a particular place, but he consistently pushed the boundary and invited those who followed him to do the same in order that life and culture could be shared and exchanged.

Jesus proclaimed that his followers would be known by their love.  He doesn’t lead with a clenched fist, but rather an open hand outstretched toward us.  He doesn’t lead with a heart of judgment, but rather a life of overflowing grace.  He doesn’t lead from an exclusive circle, but rather a table of invitation and belonging.

We get the ideal.  We understand the value of this intellectually, but where do we land practically?  How do our actions unveil the motivations of our hearts?  What do our day-to-day lives look like?  Who do we spend time with? Do we lead with assumptions, or curiosity to truly know another person and to value them?  Do we value them enough to embrace mutuality, sharing our lives with them, as they share theirs with us?  Do we speak for or about others, or do we ask questions and listen, giving them the opportunity to speak from their own lives and their own experiences?  Will we allow ourselves to be changed, our lives to be interrupted, and to risk our vision of the Kingdom of God being shattered wide open as we encounter the cultures and experiences of others?

As a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural person, I am often told by others what I am before a question is even asked.  I am tired of the assumptions.  I am tired of hearing that I am somehow not White enough, or Pacific-Islander enough or Asian enough, or that I don’t belong because I am not from a particular place, or my faith journey does not fit a specific mold.  I am, in fact, enough. I am held in God’s grace and I have experienced the power of God’s redemption in my life and know that I am beloved.  You are enough.  And we become enough-er when we choose to live life together, to grow with and from one another.  When we choose to learn the stories of one another.  When we choose to love for the sake of love, because we were first loved by the very God of life.  When we choose to be attentive to the ways the Holy Spirit is at work and to celebrate this with others instead of tearing down or dissecting the story of another because it doesn’t fit our cultural understanding.

We are called to bring out the “God-flavors and the God-colors” of this world (Matthew 5 MSG).  To bring out makes clear that the beautiful array of flavors and colors already exist.  How do we then encourage and draw out, to inspire and lift up?  It begins with a posture of humility, with a heart that desires to grow and be broken open by the joy and the pain of being in genuine relationship.  We have to move beyond intellect, to having things simply well articulated in writing, to lives lived. Cultural humility is about curiosity and wonder and it will always, always enlarge our hearts.  Perhaps this is what it means that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, [a new culture]: everything old has passed away; see everything, [yes, everything!] has become new.” The God-flavors and the God-colors of this world should delight our souls as we come to experience Christ anew through the lives, the experiences, and the cultures of another.  Everything is becoming new!  Amen.

Tasha Hicks is the pastor of the Mount View Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington and a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team.

We Don’t Have All the Answers

By Dwight Christenbury

storyWhat do you say we engage in a little church sign theology? Here are some notable examples I’ve spotted recently in my corner of western North Carolina; as always, sin and salvation are popular topics:

  • “Try Jesus. If you don’t like him, the devil will gladly take you back.”
  • “A praying man does not sin; a sinning man does not pray.”
  • “Eternity is a long time to think about what you should have done.”
  • “Christians have a lifetime guarantee.”
  • “Get right or get left.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seems to have less interest than some denominations in signs that allow us to post messages and slogans, a fact for which we can be grateful. But if we were to decide to embrace church sign theology, here’s a slogan that I believe we should all rally around: “We don’t have all the answers.”

Now, I recognize that we live in a world—and in a religious context—that craves certainty. And in such a world, you may find it less than inspiring to hear your preacher stand up in the pulpit and proclaim, “Well, folks, I don’t exactly know what I’m talking about.”

But think about it:

Is life neatly predictable? Is the world full of peace, love, and understanding? Does tragedy never strike? Does disappointment never rear its head? Is your Christian walk a wide, straight, brightly lit highway of daily inspiration and an ever-growing sense of closeness with your Lord and Savior?


Does the easy answer solve all of your problems? The world’s problems?

Then why do we Christians so often resort to church sign theology? “Get right or get left.” Really? That’s all there is to it? Hogwash.

And we know it’s hogwash.

But we’re not quite sure it’s okay to say that it’s hogwash. We’re not quite confident that it’s okay to admit that we don’t have all the answers.

Well, I’d like to suggest that it’s absolutely okay to admit this. (One of the refreshing things that I’ve discovered about NEXT Church is that it doesn’t claim to have all the answers either.)

But more than just quietly admitting that we don’t have all the answers, I’d like to suggest that we ought to embrace that truth as a great gift—that in fact we ought to be shouting from our rooftops to all the world that we don’t have all the answers. I’d like to suggest that we should be button-holing our friends and neighbors and people on the street who’ve been burned one too many times by simplistic faith and an offer of easy solutions and saying to them, Look: life is messy—we know that. We’ll promise you no easy solutions—but we’ll be with you, because we know what life is like, and we trust that God is with you, too.

Because we may not have all the answers, but along the way we’ve discovered some of them. We’ve learned that God is with us regardless of what we’re up against; we’ve learned humility and grace and hospitality; and we’ve learned that, when it comes to God, love is the basic reality: the motivation and the framework in which God operates.

Right. (Right?)

And yet we have to admit that we have a hard time trusting God’s loving vision for the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We watch the red numbers in our budgets grow larger. We watch the numbers of people in the pews grow smaller. We watch our columbaria grow faster than our youth groups.

Well, since when did God call anybody to sit and watch?

Maybe God is calling us Presbyterians to tell our story.

It’s a compelling story, because it’s a story told by imperfect people who don’t always remember the words and who sometimes get it wrong but who have nonetheless come to trust that God’s love is the guiding principle in their lives.

It’s a multifaceted story, a story told by people who don’t always agree on the details, a story with so many different versions that it would never fit on a church sign—but that’s okay: just come on in and hear us tell it because, well, there’s plenty of room in the pews.

It’s a heartfelt story, a story told by broken people who are nevertheless full of gratitude for the blessings of grace in their lives, blessings that might not turn negative budget numbers positive but that sure lead them to give sacrificially in other ways.

And it’s a humble, welcoming story, a story told by forgiven and forgiving people who don’t claim to have all the answers, a story about a God whose ways of showing love will forever confound those who insist that they do have all the answers.

No, we don’t have all the answers, but for that very reason we often get it right. In recognizing what we don’t know, I believe we’re practicing good theology. Our story won’t fit on a church sign (or in a Tweet), but who cares? Maybe God’s call to the church is to embrace and share that story with a world that really needs to hear some good theology. Because I believe the story we have to tell—especially if we all take part in telling it—may just come as a breath of fresh air to a lot of people out there.

How might it go? We’ll all have our own ways of telling it, but here are a few versions that come to mind:

Been beaten down one too many times by the Bible used as a weapon? Come and join us; we don’t have all the answers, but we’ll approach the Scriptures in humility and faith and do our best to listen carefully.

Had it up to here with the church’s certainty about who is or who isn’t acceptable in God’s sight? You’re welcomed here; come and join us.

Sick at heart from being told that when tragedy strikes, it’s all part of God’s plan? Well, no it’s not; come and join us, and we’ll be with you, and God will be with you.

Think there’s more to the Christian life than making your reservations for heaven? There is, and we can use your help as we seek to follow Jesus; come and join us.

Those are a few of the ways I might tell our story. How will you tell it?

Dwight Head ShotDwight Christenbury is Associate Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Hendersonville, North Carolina. Dwight and his wife, the Rev. Carol Steele, enjoy exploring the mountains with their sons, Olin and Dean. This essay is adapted from a sermon Dwight preached at Trinity on March 11, 2012.

Free to Journey Towards Home

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 travelling 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).