Discerning What’s NEXT in a Time of Transition

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Karen Sapio has been curating a conversation around ministry in long established congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Mark Davis

changeI currently exist in that happy little bubble called “the honeymoon” of a new call. I know that the joy, my apparent marvelousness, the crowds and the hope all carry the strain of false advertising, reminiscent of the hope that rises when looking at an Easter Sunday crowd. But, I honestly felt that – aside from a few unlovely encounters along the way –my first congregation and I were in something like a honeymoon phase the whole eighteen years I was with them. I tend to be a ‘rose-colored glasses’ sort of person, so maybe there was much more ‘trouble in the land’ than I ever presumed. But, I felt like there were two things I learned in my first call that I hope will help me in my second call: Joining the Team and Instituting Change.

By “joining the team” I am referring to one of my clergy pet peeves, so please bear with me. I despise when clergy speak about ourselves and our congregations as if ‘we’ are the only ones who really get Jesus while ‘they’ are all stuck in their ways and obstacle to what God is really trying to do among us. (It all starts with the dreadful ‘C&E Christians’ jokes.) Perhaps if that is how we comport ourselves vis-a-vis the congregations that we serve, then that is how each of us will act out. If we pretend that we are the voice crying out in the wilderness and our congregations are the brood of vipers gathered along the river; if we imagine that we are in the role of Jesus in this story while our congregations are the errant disciples, if we preach as if we are Paul and our congregations are the infighting Corinthians – then perhaps that is how we will all start to act in order to appear as good, biblical people. But, if we assume that Pentecost really did happen, a healthier perspective emerges: We – the congregation together with those who serve them – are a prophetic community, pointing toward a reign of God that sometimes puts us in direct conflict with the predominant values of our contextual communities. We are, by grace and giftedness, on the same team. Whatever resistance, hope, pettiness, glory, or fear that I see in the congregation I serve are akin to the same qualities that are in me. I see them because I know them. That’s why even my most ardent opinion about ‘them’ becomes a word about ‘us’ when I preach. It’s not faux humility. It’s truth.

By “instituting change” I am joining one of the most popular and one of the most despised of our current buzzwords quite deliberately. What I hope to ‘institutionalize,’ i.e. make a part of our routine expectation, is change itself. Frankly, I think admonitions against “change for the sake of change” are wrong. Even if a particular change ends up seeming contrived and a waste of time, the act of changing itself breeds openness to the creative God who is ever making all things new. Of course there are limits to what can and ought to be changed, of course there is discernment that is necessary, and of course the relationships behind our practices are tantamount. But, those are not typically the areas where conversations about change arise. They arise over the adiaphora, preferences, and conveniences – all of which are best kept when we subject them to change continually and deliberately. I want people coming to worship wondering, “What has the Worship Committee cooked up this time?” I want people whining, “But we did this last year!” And they will, once we’ve worked together to institutionalize change.

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

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