Seeing the Possibilities in Ministry

by Jessica Tate

Back in 2011, at the first NEXT Church National Gathering, Joe Clifford gave a short talk in which he introduced the chemistry concept of the “adjacent possible.” The concept, so far as I understand, is that specific chemical reactions are possible based on what elements are next to one another. Clifford suggested it is important for the church to pay attention to what is next to us because there are numerous possibilities available to us based on what is adjacent to us. Too often, moving down well-worn paths, we forget that other possibilities exist. On the flip side, we are limited by what is next to us. There are set possibilities of how elements interact with one another. Hydrogen and oxygen combine for water. If you have hydrogen and carbon, you can’t get water, no matter how much you wish it.

The concept of adjacent possible has stayed with me since 2011. In moments when I have felt stuck, it has encouraged me to take a step back and look at the adjacent possible. What combinations might exists that I have been ignoring? What reaction am I wishing for but don’t have the right elements in the right places?

NEXT Church gatherings – local or national – seek to connect leaders to one another, to spark imagination, to offer an honest reflection about the challenges confronting the church, remind us that God’s Spirit is up to something, and encourage us to see possibilities to which we had been blind before.

In 2014, Kara Root told the story of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church and the congregation’s creative reimagining of a rhythm for worship in their community. As is true for many congregations, Kara described Lake Nokomis as a congregation that had declined numerically and yet tried to keep up with all the demands and programmatic offerings of a larger congregation. The result was exhaustion. Congregational burnout. Together, the congregation undertook a serious study of Sabbath which led them to be more honest with one another about their energy, their capacity, and a desire to practice the act of Sabbath keeping together as a community. The creative result was a change in their worship pattern so that some weeks they meet on Sunday morning for worship. Other weeks they meet on Saturday evening for a simple supper and evening prayer, preserving Sunday for communal Sabbath keeping. Some weeks they lead worship at a local home for children. A radical change in the rhythm of life was borne out of honesty, theological reflection, and Christian practice.

All of the speakers and leaders at NEXT Church gatherings bring their gifts as an offering to the church in hope and in faith – not with the expectation that everything shared will be directly relevant across all contexts, but trusting that hearing testimony from leaders reflecting on their own contexts might spark a new insight for your own. As an organization, NEXT Church creates space for these offerings, recognizing that though we cannot control what is heard, what takes root, and what is acted upon, we trust that these interactions bear fruit over time.

This month, we are going to revisit some speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle, as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit.

As we continue to journey through Lent and as I, along with other NEXT Church leaders begin an audit process this week with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, I am reminded again of the powerful keynote Allan Boesak gave at the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering. During the Q&A, a participant noted the church’s long silence on racism and asked him, “what does the church need to give up moving forward?” Boesak responded with a story.

South African author Alan Paton wrote a book about a principal in Soweto, where the 1976 uprising began. The principal was a gentle guy, not controversial, not one who goes to protests. “Very much like me,” said Allan Boesak. He had many friends in the white community because he did not come to their tea parties to talk about politics. “He was reasonable.”

One day the whites saw him sitting on a stage at a rally. Then the next time they saw him and he spoke at the rally. Then he was in the front leading the march. And they said to him, “What has happened to you? We depended on you! Now you are making things worse.”

He responded to them: One day I will die and the Great Judge in heaven will ask me, “where are your wounds?” And I will have to say, “I don’t have any.” And when I say, “I don’t have any,” the Great Judge will say to me, “Was there then nothing to fight for?”

Boesak continued: In the end the one who will ask you about your wounds will not be me, will not be #blacklivesmatter, will not be the women, will not be the children. It will be the one who appeared before Thomas and said to Thomas, “look at my hands and my feet and put your hand in my side.”

“I pray God,” Boesak concluded, “we will have something to show.”

Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church and lives in Washington, DC. 

3 replies
  1. Scott Black Johnston
    Scott Black Johnston says:

    Hey Jessica,

    Thank you for your blog post today.

    I have a huge amount of respect for Allan Boesak. His sermon, “The Rueben Option,” is forever stuck in my mind. In it, Boesak makes it clear that our souls are in danger when we avoid taking a stand against evil/wrong/sin.

    In the story you share, however, I struggle with the notion that wounds (and fighting) are such a clear badge of honor for Christians. Christ accepts us as wounded people, but Christ does not ask us to show our wounds to be accepted. To suggest otherwise feels like works righteousness. Christ doesn’t say to Thomas, “Go and be wounded like this.” Christ says, “Do not doubt that God would endure this sort of violence for you.”

    More important, however, in my mind, is the fact that every church meeting I attend right now seems to revolve around fighting—fighting that often (although, not always) seems pointless—i.e., too darn narcissistic, rarely oriented on the neighbor in need. We live in an age in which fighting has become a badge of honor. Rage is a badge of honor. We celebrate “Festivus” (Are you a Seinfeld fan?) all the time. Every gathering devolves into an airing of grievances—a presentation of wounds.

    Can we get beyond this? Should we?

    I am not usually at my best when I am listing my hurts and asking for some sort of cred for having them.

    Am I missing the point?

    Behind my question is an honest struggle.

    Some weeks I address the rage-provoking issue of the day in my sermon. Some weeks I do not. Is there a place for peacemakers in this time? Or are things so bad, so much worse than they have ever been, that those who call for peace (in this imperfect, now-but-not-yet-fully redeemed world) are traitors to the cause of justice?

    Grace and (dare I say it?) peace to you,


  2. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Scott —

    I always appreciate your questions, engagement, and wrestling. I fear I miscommunicated the point I took from Boesak’s story. I did not hear it as a call to fight or to showcase wounds or to air grievances, but rather a call that is central to the gospel — namely, to place myself beside those who are in danger. Be that the widows, the orphans, the poor, the cast out, or so many others. Standing beside and with those in marginalized spaces in meaningful ways requires that I take on risk. In our culture, I also believe it to be true that if I am standing with those in marginalized spaces in meaningful ways, I’m not likely to come out unscathed. Those are the kinds of wounds I believe Boesak was talking about. Not badges of honor, or works righteousness, but a radical obedience to Christ that doesn’t let me stay protected from the very real pain and violence in the world. I also believe Jesus’ call was to take those risks as people of peace — working, praying, acting for peace — which is, as you point out, a counter cultural way of being.

    So yes, my friend, grace and peace to you —

  3. Scott Black Johnston
    Scott Black Johnston says:

    Jessica –

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. You are charitable. In interpreting this story, I like your theology (and your ethics) better than Boesak’s. A lot.

    Your articulation of Christ’s call to solidarity with “the widows, the orphans and the aliens in our midst” pushes me in the right direction. I reference this phrase all the time in preaching and teaching. I have not been, however, thinking about this calling (and its attendant risk) in regard to its community building power. Doh. It makes perfect sense. How did Jesus build community? Precisely as you describe.

    I feel spun around (and exhausted) by the furious arguments that our culture takes up (and abandons) every day, but I am not (I hope) tired of God asking the faithful to stand in solidarity with those whom you (and Jesus) rightly identify.

    Thank you.



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