“The Desert in Bloom: Living, Dying, and Rising in a Wilderness Church”

Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel
Baltimore, MD

February 26-28, 2018

Looking for liturgy, workshop materials, or recordings from the 2018 National Gathering? You can find them in the “resources” section of our website.


David Leong

Jonathan Walton
Kathryn Johnston
Billy Honor
Jennifer Barchi
Sheri Parks
Betsy Nix
Turnaround Tuesday
John Schmidt


Sooner or later, our sacred stories — individual and communal —  return to the desert. Jacob. Moses. Miriam. Hagar. Jesus. The Desert Mothers and Fathers. Sometimes we retreat there. Sometimes we are driven there against our will. Sometimes it is simply where we find ourselves. Regardless, we eventually dwell in that harsh and empty place where the line between life and death grows thin. However improbably, Scripture says that this is precisely the place where God’s promises begin to bloom. The prophet Isaiah wrote to a people in despair: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (35:1).

For many of us, wilderness is a metaphor. It can be understood as a spiritually renewing place to strip away distraction and re-center on God. It can represent the isolation sometimes felt in ministry and life. It can symbolize times of testing and temptation. It can suggest moving outside our comfort zones to places of uncertainty and risk, creativity and opportunity. Wilderness is also found in real places — from dying towns and blighted city neighborhoods, to the retreat spaces where we seek discernment and clarity.

Throughout Scripture and the history of the people of God, the wilderness is a place of radical change and reliance on God’s unwavering care.

At the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering, we will ask how the church can embrace a wilderness identity in pursuit of the hope, resilience, clarity, and resurrection so often found there. We’ll bear witness to promises blooming in desert spaces — from the corners of Baltimore City to wide open places to sprawling suburbs to coastal towns and every other space God calls us to be present. We’ll seek desert blossoms in our politics, our prayers, our pews, in each other and ourselves. We will find fellow travelers on the Holy Way.  We will embrace the wildernesses of our present moment, trusting with the prophet Isaiah that there we “shall see the glory of the Lord” (35:2).


Keynote: David Leong
Keynote: Jonathan Walton
Sermon: Kathryn Johnston
Sermon: Jennifer Barchi
Testimony: Turnaround Tuesday
Testimony: Sheri Parks & Betsy Nix
Testimony: John Schmidt
Worship: Testimonies
2018 NEXT Church Update
Ignite: Heather Colletto
Ignite: Lisa Scott Jones
Ignite: Cristin Thorpe
Ignite: Linda Kurtz
Ignite: Mark Elsdon
Ignite: Jason Santos


Want to learn more about what happened at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering? Check out these great articles from the Presbyterian Outlook:

We also asked a variety of people to reflect on the National Gathering on our blog. Here’s what some attendees of the 2018 National Gathering had to say:

On the Holy Way

In the closing worship service of the 2018 National Gathering in Baltimore, Rev. Kathryn Johnston invites us to consider the holy way through her engaging sermon. Consider using this resource for any group looking to consider doing things a new way.

Cultural Contempt

I had the pleasure of hearing Jonathan Walton of Harvard Divinity School speak at this year’s NEXT Church gathering. His answer to a participant’s question sticks with me; he responded that we must know and name our “moral frame.” How do we morally view life, people, situations? He noted that his moral frame meant he is always aware of who the most vulnerable person or people are in the room. He knows his moral frame, and others know it too because he names it.

Hope For What’s Next

If we are in a desert, it truly is a desert in bloom. So much good is happening out there! Almighty God is still Sovereign. Jesus Christ will never stop calling forth a church to worship, grow in faith, support one another, and serve the ones he called “the least of these.”

Questions? Please email Jen James, our National Gathering coordinator.