NEXT U: Poetry, Prayer and Prophetic Wisdom

school room

Welcome to NEXT University! During the month of August, we are highlighting our most popular posts and videos on the NEXT blog from the past few years, with suggestions for how to use this content with church sessions, committees, staff and other leaders. 

Of all the thoughtful speakers and provocative blog posts and videos we’ve shared over the years, whether at our conferences or on our blog, Stacy Johnson’s keynote address at our 2012 National Gathering in Dallas remains a highlight. Stacy Johnson is Arthur M. Adams Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and a member of NEXT’s advisory team.

Stacy’s remarks have been quoted and shared widely over the years. In today’s installment of NEXT U, we annotate this video and break it into topical sections. You’re invited to view some or all of the segments and engage the questions provided… or let Stacy’s words spark your own imaginations.


(all times below are approximate)

Introduction — The Logic of Survival v. The Logic of the Cross (1:50-5:05 on video) 

  • Where have you seen the logic of survival at work in your context? the logic of the cross?
  • Jesus, according to Stacy, did not advocate fighting or giving in to the logic of survival, but rather to trust in a different reign. Where do you see that reflected biblically? What does that different reign look like right where you live?


The “Cultural Tsunami”: Technical and Adaptive Challenges (5:05-9:55 on video)

This section takes us through some of the statistics facing our denomination, as well as some of the attitudes of millenials and “nones.” Stacy also unpacks the difference between technical and adaptive challenges.

  • How do Stacy’s comments about millenials and nones “wanting to learn the game” play out where you live?
  • What are some of the technical and adaptive challenges in your congregation? To use Stacy’s analogy, have you found yourself treating a sprained ankle when in fact the leg is gone?
  • Do you agree that “Christianity as usual is not working”? Why or why not?


The Gospel and Our Adaptive Challenges (9:50-15:10 on video)

In this section, Stacy argues that the adaptive work we need emerges from the gospel itself—that the biblical witness itself is a testimony to the need for constant reform, grappling and change (see shifting attitudes toward slavery, the role of women, and the place of torture).

  • According to Stacy, theologians say christendom is on the decline and that we should find new ways of being church. But then their remedy is to repeat the same doctrinal structures of christendom. Do you agree? Where have you seen this play out, or resisted?
  • Do you agree that we have “hardly begun” to understand the full depth of the gospel?
  • According to Stacy, “We stand between reform and revolution.” Where do you see yourself and your congregation on this continuum? (Or do you?)


Where Do We Go from Here, Part 1: The Poetry of Ministry (15:10-21:00 on video)

  • The word “poesis” means “to make or to create.” How does your congregation engage in poesis? What does your church “make”? As Christian communities, what should we be in the business of “creating”?
  • What are some practical ways to engage in the “poetry of ministry” in your context?
  • “The gospel is not a theory; it’s about a life.” What’s your response to this? If this is true, what does it mean for our life together? Our polity? Or way of “doing theology”?
  • Bibliographical Note: Stacy references Craig Barnes’s The Pastor as Minor Poet and Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet. Both are worth checking out for further conversation.


Where Do We Go from Here, Part 2: Prayer (21:00-26:25 on video) 

  • Think about the ways we pray in our congregations. To what extent are we tending to God v. asking God to attend to us?
  • Reflect on this definition of nihilism: “if a single standard is not good for everyone, then there is no standard good for anyone at any time.” How do you respond? Have you seen this principle play out in the church?
  • Reflect on this comment from Gerald May, that it’s only when our beliefs crumble that we stop worshiping our beliefs and begin to worship God. Have you seen this process take place in your congregation? Has it ever taken place in your own life?


Where Do We Go from Here, Part 3: Prophetic Witness (26:20-30:30 on video)

  • How do you see prophetic religion as distinct from liberal or conservative religion?
  • The world is the arena in which God is acting.” Where have you seen God at work this week?
  • Reflect on this statement: “We are not yet what we shall be.”


Conclusion (30:00-end of video)

Here Stacy revisits the “fear of perishing v. the logic of the cross” that he introduced in the beginning.

  • How has the gospel “happened to you” lately?
  • How can we tell those stories more fully in the congregations we serve… to make the gospel more “conspicuous”?
1 reply
  1. Gary Swaim
    Gary Swaim says:

    My warm appreciation to Rev. Stacy Johnson, whom I’ve never met. His welcome words came as something of a surprise, though they (in my estimation) should not have been surprising at all. It’s just that as a man of many years, having heard so, so many sermons (and having preached more than a few myself), I was surprised to hear “poetry” used in the same sentence as “prayer.”

    Oh, yes, I’ve heard the word poetry used, especially with reference to the Psalms and an occasional other Hebrew or Christian scripture reference, but Rev. Johnson steps out further, ushering poetry into the pulpit. Now, admittedly, I’ve heard more Hallmark-card-poems crash on my ears from behind the podium. But, that’s typically just bad poetry written by, let’s assume, well-intentioned persons, and it does not tell truly the stories of God, Jesus, or the Spirit that Rev. Johnson believes, as do I, that must be told.

    I’ve long equated poetry with prayer / prayer with poetry, but then I teach the writing of poetry and have both written and read more poems and books about poetry than most persons have read newspapers. I would urge readers here to read Edward Hirsch’s HOW TO READ A POEM AND FALL IN LOVE WITH POETRY. It is a majestic book in which Hirsch says, “Poetry is a form of necessary speech.” He then says, as to his aim in the writing of this book,
    “I have sought to restore the aura of SACRED PRACTICE (my emphasis) that accompanies true poetic creating, to honor both the rational and the irrational elements in poetry. I would restore the burden of the mystery. I would illuminate an experience that takes us to the very heart of being.” And, this is just in the introduction of 300+ page stunner of a book. He seeks, as poetry seeks, to do precisely what Rev. Johnson suggests should be done: e.g., “illuminate an experience that takes us to the very heart of being.” Evangelistic poetry, if you please, telling the story that goes to the heart, with drama. Do our schools of theology / seminaries need to be teaching some really good seminars in poetry? My genuine thanks to Rev. Johnson, and I leave you with one of my recent poems from a VIA DOLOROSA collection.


    “All of you,” Jesus said, “and you daughters of the land,
    you have walked far to be with me, in my sorrow.
    I have seen your tears. And, I am tired,” he says, “as are you,
    but do not weep for me. Because you have heard my word,
    and do not truly hear and have not understood what awaits
    you. Because you do not know what awaits me, it is I who
    weeps for you.”

    Murmurings grow among the crowd surrounding Jesus.
    Questioning, even angry words ripple from their mouths.
    One speaks boldly: “Here are his riddles again.” Jesus
    stretches His arms outward as if begging to join the hands
    of his puzzled followers with Jaweh’s. “No, dear ones,
    here is your riddle.” He lifts his head skyward, closes his eyes
    tightly, and says,

    “Myrrh, a gift for me at my birth, is taken from the Commiphora
    tree. Aromatic, bitter-to-the-taste resin flows from each branch
    where spikes have been driving, and as it falls to the ground,
    hardening into droplets of white tears, a sweet-smelling aroma
    fills the whole of the valley where trees grow.” “Master, a woman
    says, “I am sorry. I do NOT understand.”

    On hearing the soft voice of the woman, Jesus opens his eyes and says,
    “I have walked sands, hot to the touch of my feet in the direction of
    Golgotha, carrying in my body a rich, red gift to be spilled freely
    over the earth. When spikes tear through flesh, tears will fall. And,
    in all the valleys of all the trees, there will be a sweet, sweet smell.

    Gary D. Swaim copyright 2011

    Peace to us all.

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