Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month we will be featuring reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
This post was originally shared on the Union Presbyterian Seminary RSGA blog.
by Owen Gray
Spending four days in Atlanta for the NEXT Church National Gathering was a great reinvigorating jolt of caffeine in the mist of our ongoing class work. Hearing from well-known figures like Allan Boesak (South African Dutch-Reformed cleric and anti-apartheid activist), Robert Lupton (author of Toxic Charity) and preacher Denise Anderson (DC-area pastor standing for co-moderator of the PC(USA)) was powerful. Even more powerful, for me, was hearing from folks serving in super diverse ministry contexts that are redefining every day what successful ministry looks like.
For example: Miriam Mauritzen from First Presbyterian Kalispell, Montana. Her church, like many in the denomination, was aging, shrinking in membership and resources, and seeking identity. Several years back they began partnering with a local unaffiliated ministry called Serious Ju Ju. Serious Ju Ju is a weekly weekend gathering of area teenagers for skateboarding and fellowship. Many of the kids come from broken homes where parents are in and out of prison, experiencing substance addiction, or dire poverty. For some, Ju Ju is their only stable place for meals on weekends. After a while, kids who would never step foot in a sanctuary started calling Ju Ju home; calling it their church. It was equal parts comical and inspiring to see retirees from First Pres fellowshipping and serving teenage skaters in the church’s barn where they had set up a mini skate park.
To so many, a successful church is marked by a healthy choir, extensive Christian Ed programs, abundant fellowship opportunities, a large budget and staff, and dynamic local and international missions. NEXT gives permission to move beyond that understanding (not that it’s bad, it just isn’t realistic for LOTS of contexts) and replace it with a pursuit of faithful, creative, and non-traditional ways to be church. Sure enough, First Pres Kalispell found new life in embracing a ministry that is, without a doubt, non-traditional.
You hear stories like this hourly at NEXT, many centered on congregational contexts, but many others completely unrelated to parish ministry. It’s almost impossible to leave the gathering feeling pessimistic about the future of the church. It speaks completely counter to the ever-present narrative that the church is dying. Doing all that in the presence of 500 other Presbyterian friends (and a huge group of Union folks!) was well worth the drive.