Onward and Upward!

On August 18th, teaching and rulers elders from Roanoke, Virginia to Atlanta, Georgia and communities across the Mid-Atlantic met for the NEXT Church Regional Gathering at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham, North Carolina. Upon reflection, I imagined this day stretching out like a tall tree reaches up to the sky. Here’s what I mean:

We began in the courtyard, tilling the fertile soil of connectionalism. Participants were quickly registered and, while enjoying food compliments of University Presbyterian in Chapel Hill, we greeted one another in peace. As I understand it, NEXT Church is all about nurturing these healthy relationships to grow.

Then we came into the peace of the sanctuary. Worship included visual interpretations of scripture passages by a leadership team organized by Lori Raible, Associate for Congregational Life and Adult Christian Education at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. NEXT Church is also about planting seeds by introducing new liturgical practices, which engage the senses in thoughtful and faithful ways.

Those who have attended NEXT national gatherings have come to expect dynamic keynote presentations. They were not disappointed in Durham. Weaving humorous and poignant personal stories with theological claims about Christ’s boundary-breaking power, Franklin Golden outlined the ministry of Durham Church, a cross-generational, multicultural partnership with another congregation, Iglesia Emanuel. Co-pastor Amanda Diekman led a panel discussion with members of these two churches. Navigating cultural differences is by no means easy, and I heard several participants appreciate the honesty with which these pastors and panel members confessed their mistakes. Durham Church also models a different way of “being church,” an idea that correlates to the PC (USA)’s initiative to start 1001 new congregations.

Afternoon workshops were the branches that spread out from our corporate worship and keynote. A host of bright and committed people led participants to explore a variety of topics listed here. In brief, there were many “A-ha!” moments, the fruit of sharing both best practices and struggles about various aspects of ministry. One elder at New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Virginia came away from the workshops with the distinct feeling that “our denomination is heading in the right direction.” Amen, may it be so!

After the final workshop, everyone headed back into the sanctuary. Once again, we made a joyful noise through the music leadership of Steve Lindsley, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy, North Carolina, and a talented team from the Presbyterian Collegiate Fellowship at Virginia Commonwealth University. Esta Jarrett, pastor of Canton Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, preached on the parable of the leaven (Matthew 13:33) and shared her experience of God’s reign moving among her church and community, sometimes hidden yet always inspiring. She also presided over the Lord’s Supper and sent us out with a charge to leaven our communities with the hope of Jesus Christ.

I have tried to provide a tiny snapshot of this gathering with words, images, and pictures; however, I confess that it is difficult to describe the energy that was generated from the experience. Who knows where this will take us? Indeed, what lies ahead for the NEXT Church? I believe the future is still unfolding and we are being led to trust a process that Wendell Berry once described as the willingness to “submit to making, the shape of what is made.”

But I will say this: as I went forward to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation as part of the closing worship, I felt a part of something wonderful, deeply rooted in tradition and relationships; and yet, something that was likewise growing, stretching out and up beyond the four walls of one church and towards the blue sky in the great beyond.

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