Transforming our Tradition

By Emily Powers

Over the past two months I’ve done a lot of reflecting over my experience at NEXT. I have come to some conclusions.

  • First, there is nothing better than celebrating the church with a bunch of Presbyterians.
  • Second, we all are looking for some kind of change and renewal.
  • Third, setting the scene is just as important as the content at the conference.

As I prepared to leave DC for a week, I found myself getting more excited, it helped that my housemate is the NEXT YAV (Young Adult Volunteer). I was extremely excited to get to hear Brian Ellison, my pastor of 13 years, preach and to get to see friends from all over the Presbyterian world. I also found myself excited to see a conference that was going to focus on not just creative preachers and speakers, but also focus on a creative and artistic approach to liturgy. Worship is always something special when art is valued as an important part of the experience.

Throughout the conference the audience became a part of the artistic experience. It started by taking pieces of Presbyterian works (the hymnal, the confessions) cut into pieces. First, we wrote on these pieces of our tradition what was holding us back. I wrote of my fears at putting my life into the church. Then we turned them in and they were linked into a chain wall that divided Fourth’s sanctuary. In the next service, we got up and wrote what was holding us together, as Joy Douglas Strome preached, our third spaces. I wrote about my YAV community and the amazing women I’ve been sharing this year with. In the next worship, we broke down the wall and everything that was holding us back. It was a moving experience to tear down the physical barrier that we built up around us and between us, and to see our power in community to move beyond those walls.

This was an amazing experience but what was truly remarkable was witnessing what these broken chains became. The next morning, the final day of the conference, we walked into the sanctuary to see a phoenix hanging above us. Its feathers and flames were created from our fears, our safe spaces, and our love for one another. A truly wonderful sight to see. Not only was it beautiful, but it showed the transformation that can come from all the fear and pain in the world. This collaborative art gives us hope–

  • that together we can transform the parts of our tradition that have hurt and excluded beloved children of God
  • that together, we can reconfigure the parts of our tradition that are beautiful and meaningful to fit our evolving context
  • that we can truly rise from the ashes and become something whole, created by us all.




That is what I took away from the National Gathering. That we all have different stories and different opinions, but when we work together to break down those barriers, we can become something new. The church has a long way to go to be the best it can be, but like the phoenix, we have the opportunity to be new again. I learned a lot about starting again and remembering where you came from, but also that we are better together. We learn more when we listen to all the voices, especially the voices who are often ignored. I think if we can learn all of this from something so simple as scraps of paper, then we’re off to a pretty good start.

Editor’s note: For another perspective on liturgical art at the National Gathering, check out “Scraps of Paper” by Christopher Edmonston. 

Emily Powers Emily Powers is a Young Adult Volunteer at the Washington, D.C. site where she serves with Capitol Hill Group Ministries and the Washington Seminar Center by doing street outreach and advocacy with D.C. residents experiencing homelessness. Emily is a connoisseur of hotdogs, macaroni and cheese, and–according to Netflix–‘Emotional Dramas Featuring a Female Lead.’

A Challenge to the Church

We continue to reap the harvest of the 2015 National Gathering and hope you continue to be inspired by creative ministry, challenging ideas, and deepened relationships. NEXT leaders are continuing to process places of tension in the gathering so that we may learn and grow from them. Today, Rebecca Messman’s blog piece offers some reflection on the last presentation of the gathering, offered by George Srour, a ruling elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. There were strong feelings expressed at the time of the presentation and some difficult conversations in the wake of the conversation. What Becca does in this piece is take a step back from the intensity of the moment and respond to various constituencies with thoughtfulness and grace.


The church is getting lapped by secular organizations doing the work church started. And they’re doing it better.”

In that one statement, George Srour, one of the Forbes Top 30 under 30 for Social Entrepreneurship, said what most of us know to be true though we don’t know what to do about it. When Srour was in college, he learned that 900,000 children in Uganda had no school at all to attend. In response, over the last ten years, he has started a non-profit, Building Tomorrow, and built schools for 6,700 children, with more schools under construction. Those are impressive numbers. Srour grew up at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, the host church for the very first NEXT church conference. I felt certain that Srour would get a good hearing, even generate some pride, from those of us at this year’s NEXT conference.

The intense response he received, however, focused more on his appearance as potentially someone with a “white savior complex,” despite the fact that he is Lebanese-American, or conceivably someone dealing in “toxic charity,” despite his emphasis on local leadership, long-term partnership, and the use of donated land.

Srour was gracious in responding to our questions without a whiff of defensiveness, but I wonder if we have genuinely considered his challenge to the church, the Presbyterian Church that he, and we, love.

  • Make it real, he said. Non-profit organizations do a better job in communicating concrete goals. He made it real. $1.81 is what it would cost to build a school in Uganda, if all 5,500 students at William and Mary contributed. The ALS ice bucket challenge made it real, and we poured ice water on our heads and donated $100. Heifer international makes it real, and we buy a goat for a hungry family for Christmas. Churches know this! Last Thanksgiving, when I asked the congregation for $18 to purchase a turkey for the community banquet, saying that we needed 20 turkeys total to feed 300 people, we received 20 checks. And what blew me away, 15 of those checks were from individuals purchasing all 20 turkeys at once. Whether it’s the shoe drive or the angel tree, ministries that make it real work in most any setting. Why, then, are our congregational goals come October so tepid, so fuzzy, by comparison?
  • Be bold, he said. “Would you be you without a school?” Srour posed that agitating question to college kids, and set an enormous, but real, goal. 900,000 students in Uganda do not have a school. He didn’t say, “Millions worldwide.” That would have been true, but demoralizing. He didn’t say, “these 28 children.” That would have been manageable and impressive for a college student, but less inspiring. Churches know this! We have demographic data and statistics at our fingertips, but we don’t necessarily use it to set our goals. We may set goals that are catchy and even aggressive, but we don’t always stick with those goals long enough to realize them, which makes our big goals less trustworthy the next time around. Sometimes our goals are so small they are not goals at all, they are more about survival and status quo, less about our faith and more an expression of our fear. They start to sound like my marathon goal: “Start off slow, and ease up.” “Not dead, not dead last.”
  • God sends many teachers and many teammates. We should learn from non-profits. Jesus drafted fishermen to be his disciples, because they knew how to move where the fish were, without being tied to the land like farmers, or proud of the product like carpenters. Jesus pulled in tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars and blind people, perhaps because they weren’t too concerned with popularity or perfection in the hard work of discipleship. The harvest is plentiful, Jesus said, but the workers… they’re few! I am starting to think that there are more laborers in the field with the church than ever before—caring for the sick, binding up the brokenhearted, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked—non-profits, government organizations, community groups, school groups, other churches—and we have much to learn from each other.


I’ll never forget when I was in the car with my dad as a teenager, and I heard a song on the radio, maybe by Belinda Carlisle or Sinead O’Connor, and I quipped, “Uggh… This song is so cheesy, I could write one better than this.” And he quipped back, “Yes, but have you?”

It’s easy to pose a fiery question at a conference and muse on how we’d do it better or differently. But we need to be prepared for the question, “Yes, but have you?”


Rebecca Messman is a pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia. In a previous life she was in the corporate leadership track of Home Depot.


Lingering Questions from Chicago

Plans are already underway for our 2016 National Gathering! We are thrilled and honored that First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta GA will be our host congregation March 7-9. (In fact, stop what you’re doing right now and do two quick things:

  1. Put the gathering on your calendar.
  2.  Put on your to-do list to invite one friend, colleague or ruling elder from your congregation to join you.)

Tony Sundermeier is pastor of First Presbyterian and a member of our advisory team. As part of our series of posts reflecting on our time in Chicago, we asked Tony to share his experiences, and what’s on his mind as his congregation prepares to host next year.

What Tony offers is more than a reflection or article; it’s much deeper than a recap. It is a meditation. It is best read slowly, letting the questions address you. Consider it an exercise in lectio divina. Which phrases resonate with you? How would you respond to them? Which remain unanswered?

Lingering Questions

By Tony Sundermeier (with Introduction by MaryAnn Mckibben Dana)

What do we observe when we observe what is trending in the church? In other words, what is being presented by us or to us as the avant-garde? What is the core-content that defines the kind of innovation, imagination, emerging leadership (and so on) that we assume to be correctly identified as that which is next?

Were not our hearts burning within us when we heard about social entrepreneurship; positive deviance; new monasticism; non-traditional worshipping communities; global mission partnerships; networks and cohorts; technique-driven innovation; living missionally; edgy liturgies; theology in a bar; etc. etc.? Were not our hearts burning with rage when we were told this thing or that thing is next, when we plainly see it as a recapitulation of exclusive and marginalizing, tired and irrelevant ideas/practices/systems of the yesterday church?

Who decides what is next? Do you? Do I? Does a strategic planning team? Does an advisory board? Might your next church be my never church? Might my never church be the church you have been praying for your whole life? Who decides?

Is this the great challenge the NEXT Church movement now faces? Or is this no challenge at all but a “coming of age” for the movement? Are we surprised by the multifaceted and complex responses to NEXT; what it has done and what it has left undone? Have we been caught off guard by some of the dissonance and dissatisfaction birthed in Chicago, and expressed via social media, or might this be a healthy byproduct of a network of leaders that prefers dissent to silence or resignation? Is this not simply a healthy consequence of a network of leaders that prefers to hear both “Yes” and “No” because it prefers plurality to particularity?

Is it not true that one of the great strengths of the NEXT Church movement is its commitment to both the dissenting voice as well as the obliging voice? Is this NEXT Church’s unique contribution and challenge to cultures that often want to wear jerseys and choose sides instead of choosing each other?

Will NEXT Church compromise because dissent is hard to hear? Will NEXT compromise because particularity is so much easier to manage? Or will the only prevailing particularity, next to our commitment to a Christo-centric existence, be a nuanced desire to foster plurality and diversity of all kinds? Will NEXT widen the circle to include more voices even if those voices present a contest to our prevailing perceptions about what next truly means?

Who decides what’s next? Might it be those that are willing to let their yes be yes and their no be no? Might it be those that dissent or affirm and still leave chairs open for one another at the table? Might it be you and me and the other and those that have yet to make their voices heard? Might it be us…all of us?


Tony Sundermeier is on the NEXT Church Advisory Team and serves as senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, host of the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering.