How NEXT Church Got Stuck

by Jen James
January 30, 2024

Over the past seven years, I’ve been on the balcony and the dance floor as NEXT Church fumbled its way forward on its antiracist journey. It hasn’t always been pretty. In fact, if I’m being honest, it’s been incredibly painful, humbling, and raw. But it has also been the most life-giving and deeply sacred journey of my life. Over the years, this organization has learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot. We are committed to ongoing learning and transparent reflection. And I think, just maybe, some of these learnings might resonate with you and the larger church.

We got caught in a binary trap.

At the infancy of our antiracist journey, we did a lot of sorting of good and bad – right and wrong. It was a natural reaction at the organizational awakening stage. We started to take inventory of all that was before us. We began to evaluate our practices and postures. We deeply desired to grow in our antiracist ways, so we sorted things into two buckets of the right way and the wrong way. It was a starting point.

But we stayed at that starting point for too long. I sat in meetings and cringed when fellow white people said the “wrong” things and felt quietly relieved when it wasn’t me. I thought about the “right” thing to say obsessively. Leaders were called out regularly. We fought about the right words, the right prayers, the right time to be quiet and the right time to speak. It bled out to our network.

These churches were bad.
This speaker was good.
These leaders over there were bad.
This music and these lyrics were good.

We fought about the right words, the right prayers, the right time to be quiet and the right time to speak. It bled out to our network.

In the larger NEXT Church network, you had to speak a certain way, use certain words, approve (and disapprove) of certain books and authors. And if you couldn’t meet the bar, you were out. We drove people away with our performative expectations. We shamed people for not being perfect pillars of wokeness.

This doesn’t negate or excuse harm. People say and do harmful things. We all say and do harmful things. Harm needs to be addressed. And those moments are also invitations to expand understanding, strengthen muscles for resiliency, and repair what was harmed. When we expect to be perfect, we make it about ourselves and miss the point entirely.

I see the binary trap playing out in our churches and communities. Maybe you do, too. Committees and teams of well-meaning, justice-seeking people, who want to bring about a new reality, are getting increasingly frustrated. This frustration builds when programs aren’t well attended, or book clubs fall flat, or congregational votes remain divided. They aren’t adding to their flock. These Antiracism Teams and Justice Committees are becoming siloed from the rest of their community furthering the divide and halting movement towards justice. Congregations, presbyteries, and denominations are sorting people, too.

So is the country. “He’s a Trumpster.” “They are not from here.” “She’s a pro-lifer.” “He’s a socialist.” We’ve twisted ourselves in knots trying to sort people into pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups. Americans don’t do well with complexities. Our culture isn’t designed for it. Creativity, expansiveness, and coalition-building are all threats to power and status quo. So instead, we settle for the safety of being on the “right” side and shaking our heads at those who think so differently from us.

We drove people away with our performative expectations. We shamed people for not being perfect pillars of wokeness.

As a white person, it feels so good to be on the woke side of the line. But the line is a lie. There is no simple right and wrong when it comes to this work. It is way more complicated than that. (Thanks be to God.) The commitment is not to get it right. Instead, the commitment is to get up and fight towards justice and equality every day. It’s a commitment to cultivate new ways of being in myself and practice them daily. To learn. And grow. To face plant. To get back up. To repair harm. To commit and recommit to relationships. Again and again.

It’s a commitment to walk alongside you, fellow journeyer. Wherever you are. Whoever you are. Let’s courageously uncover the beauty by vulnerably walking together.

As a white person, it feels so good to be on the woke side of the line. But the line is a lie.

Jen James (she/her) is on staff for NEXT Church as the Director of Programs and Operations. She is a facilitator, trained coach, and Educator-at-Large who loves working with congregations to help church leaders vision, assess, and strategically transform ministries. Jen holds a Master of Divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary and lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband and twin boys.