Start-ups, Phoenixes…..and the Rest of Us

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Karen Sapio has been curating a conversation around ministry in long established congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Karen Sapio

pheonix smallIn a follow-up to his family’s wildly successful “Christmas Jammies” video, Penn Holderness recently released “Christmas Jammies, part 2”  in which he laments the disconnect between the hipster ensemble his wife gave him for Christmas and the realities of his middle-aging body.  Go ahead and watch it. I’ll wait…

I have to admit that when I return from NEXT Church conferences and regional gatherings, I often have something like the refrain from this video buzzing in my head:  They looked so good on that guy from the Internet—but they don’t look so good on me…”

It worked so well for that speaker from the NEXT Conference–but that won’t work so well for me…..

NEXT conferences often showcases fantastically creative ministry startups, or formerly dead congregations rising phoenix-like from their own ashes.  The host churches for the national gatherings have all been large, vital, resource-rich congregations able to support their current ministries with funds to spare for experimentation and innovation.

Like many who are inspired by NEXT Church’s vision, however, that’s not where I live.  I am pastor of a medium sized congregation with about ⅔ of the members over age 60.  In another year we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of our founding.  We can just about make the budget work most of the time, and we are keeping an anxious eye on our small cushion of reserves.  We are not in immediate crisis, but it is becoming clear to those who are paying attention–and there are thankfully a number of those attentive, faithful people–that the current trajectory is not good and that our current strategy of hopeful tweaking is not enough.

I attend NEXT Church gatherings and wonder: How can we generate the energy and excitement of a start-up when we are a long established institution?  How do we foster the kind of urgency and focus that attends a true crisis of viability when we’ve got enough resources to maintain at least some semblance of the status-quo for another decade or so? How do we find the imagination and resources to operate in two worlds: the traditional church we’ve inherited and the new form of church we need to create, especially when we feel like we’ve got barely enough people and money to keep one world afloat?

During February the NEXT blog hopes to foster a conversation around these kinds of questions.  How do we bridge that disconnect between what works for the kinds of ministries that are so inspiring for us at NEXT gatherings and the kind of ministry that seems to be possible in our own contexts?  How do we discover what’s NEXT in the inertia of long-standing habits and traditions?  How do congregations embark on a journey toward the future while carrying the blessings and burdens of the past?  How do we find the energy and urgency to apply ourselves to this task NOW even when there is no immediate crisis to impel us toward big changes and bold risks?

We know it’s a mistake to go for hip and trendy if that’s not our style.  We also know that we can’t keep wearing grand dad’s clothes forever.

Jesus told his followers:  ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

How are you making these connections?  What have you found helpful if you are working toward transformation in an established church that is still doing okay in many respects?  How are you finding ways to generate energy and excitement? To  foster a sense of urgency and focus on the future?  To walk the tightrope between the current church and the NEXT church?  Join the conversation.

And hey, Penn Holderness–I hear you have Presbyterian connections: what do YOU think???

SapioKaren Sapio is Pastor of the Claremont Presbyterian Church a NEXT Church Advisory Team member.

Illustration credit: shutterstock/robodread

2 replies
  1. Erin Thomas
    Erin Thomas says:


    Really thought-provoking questions and timely too. We are headed to our 2nd Session Retreat on Saturday and I am going to share this with them. Our church is similar to yours and we can easily be enticed by “the Next Big Thing” that the megachurches around us are doing or even by what we read on blogs like NEXT. But it mostly just creates a lot of events/ministries that are not sustainable or authentic for our people. We don’t fit in those slim jeans. Ewwww. (Does anyone?) We realize that the best thing we can do right now is get clear on who we are as a church RIGHT NOW and what is most important to us? When we are clear on our identity, clear about what we do well, and what our purpose is, it makes it easier to invite others to join us. Thanks for the nudge.

  2. Richard Hong
    Richard Hong says:

    Great article and great questions. In my context (I came to a declining 300+ member church that is 150 years old), the turnaround started with small wins. Sometimes a church just needs a taste of something to work, and it doesn’t have to be a big thing. And what I came to understand is that most people are better editors than writers. What I mean by that is that if you ask them to create something new from scratch, it’s hard for most folks – but if you ask them to “edit” – take something that exists and make it better – they can do that. So when we TALK about vision instead of SHOWING them something visionary, it often doesn’t take root. This means that sometimes (maybe most times), the first “small wins” will be driven entirely by the energy of the leader and perhaps one or two folks who’ve bought in. The others have to see something work before they’ll start to buy in. One of my methods is to start something myself, then hand it off to someone else. Once they see it, they can improve it. Then I can shift my energy in another direction.

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