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The Idol of Discord

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Christopher Edmonston

“We grieve that we have segregated and broken our communities along worldly constructs of race, class, ideology, and belief.”
– The Sarasota Statement

America, and her churches, have historically been possessed by many idols. They are the usual suspects: racism, money, violence, and power. Different eras have made headway against them, but like all idols, they are hard to kill.

Today we face another idol, a closely related cousin to the usual suspects: the idol of discord.

We love to fight. We have all “teamed up” and while our various teams have theological and ethical merit, our teams encourage competition and conflict. Healthy conflict can breed renewal. Conflict unhinged leads to discord. Too often our disagreements have to deepening conflict. Our teams are becoming tribes (read: David Brooks’ The Retreat to Tribalism) and our tribes are increasingly dividing us into combatants.

It is Jesus who issues the definitive caution to discord run amok. In the Gospel of John, he prays of his church and people, “may they all be one.” In the beatitudes he preaches, “blessed are the peacemakers.” The first question to ask ourselves is about how we are investing our power and using our time. If we are not investing at least equal time and prayer in reaching out to those with whom we don’t usually agree as we have in defining our own tribal identities, then there is no chance for peace. No chance for peace means that any chance for oneness is lost.

I have enjoyed membership in at least five “repairers of the breach” groups within the PC(USA) with participants from multiple tribes who hold differing theological perspectives. I have also been part of leadership cohorts and addressed bipartisan groups of leaders with perspectives all over political spectrum. These groups are always challenging to hold together. There are always painful moments and hard conversations. But when we invested equal time to listening to other valid positions, even when they were hard to process, we discovered unexpected synergy and unlikely friendships.

If there is nothing else to be learned from Jesus in our age of discord, it is that Jesus remained engaged with those with whom he disagreed. He held his positions, but he continually went to dinner in their homes, listened to their shallow protests, and returned to relationship with his most strident opponents (for example John 3 and the Pharisee, Nicodemus).

Of course there is a very big caveat. Just like grace can be cheapened, peace can be cheapened. Injustice, suffering, and intolerance in all their forms must be opposed. The same Lord who calls us to peace also calls us to kingdom-building and directs our witness to justice. Peace where there are still peoples oppressed is no peace at all. Wherever the usual suspects of idolatry still live, they must be countered and confronted with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

In the Sarasota Statement, the authors chose a perfect verb about our segregated and broken church communities: grieve. The authors show incredible wisdom in the selection of this verb as we, in the church, have allowed the worldly idols of race, class, ideology, and belief to divide us into obscurity. Does Jesus want cheap peace? I cannot believe so. But does he grieve when our efforts for discourse and collaboration break down? Does he grieve when we get the parties to the table only to see the parties leave after the meal to return to their owns tribes, freshly devoting their energies to the elimination of the other tribes with whom they disagree? I believe he does.

Difficult people and deep disagreements will always exist. There are righteous fights to win. But if the manner in which we disagree is not worthy of the Lord who has called us to justice, then our efforts to declare the reign of God and be peacemakers at the same time will bear no fruit.

It was Aisha Brooks-Lytle, the newly installed Executive Presbyter in Atlanta, who preached powerfully at the NEXT Church National Gathering in 2016 this call: “Jesus doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations, he starts them.”

Aisha is spot on. It is long, slow, difficult, honest conversation that our church needs. For when we are one in the Spirit, the usual-suspect idols begin to lose their power and dare not divide us or hurt us any more than they already have. There is power in oneness, a power that we have not often tapped these past 35 years. The end of the grief which the statement so elegantly defines begins when we invest more in discourse than we have in discord. Or at the least it can begin when we choose to invest equal amounts of energy in relationship building as we have in defining our tribes.


Christopher Edmonston is the pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC, and a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team.

Gospel Abundance

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Christopher Edmonston

By any worldly measure, ministry has been good to me. Ministry is also a struggle. In nearly two decades of pastoral ministry, I have learned that this vocation is not for the faint of heart. It requires an ever varied and always shifting skill set. Further, its variable nature requires immense amounts of patience. This is a rewarding vocation; it rewards like no other. But it also demands. The pastoral life demands the whole self. When God calls a pastor, God calls every bit of the person.

A staff member at Union Presbyterian Seminary once told me that in her opinion the best pastors were those who had been dragged into pastoral ministry kicking and screaming. That is certainly the case for me. As a younger man I believed that I would be a member of the academy. The long arc of vocational life has stationed me in a different place. And, in spite of my success, many days have been confusing and frustrating when “church” does not meet hopes or expectations.

white memorial abundanceLike every other pastor I know, I long for a church consumed with the pursuit of the abundance of Spirit, community, and ministry. This church would possess dexterity, be pliable, and employ the capacity to shift in ever abundant directions when called and required to do so.

Unfortunately, much of the malaise of mainline communities (structurally, institutionally) seems the result of the opposite. Church structures are often inflexible and reluctant to change something so simple as the carpet (to mention nothing of strategic and adaptive shifts towards abundant ministry and living).

Five years ago I heard Tom Currie, then the Dean at Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte, deliver an address about the life of ministry. His first thesis was that ministry was embarrassing in the post-modern world. The moment he made this statement, my eyes welled with tears. There is an irrationality to ministry that is hard to grapple. There is enduring frustration with the monolithically negative portrayals of church in both the media and in intellectual circles. It is many the pastor (including Bonhoeffer) who has heard either directly or under the breath: “I would have thought someone with your mind and skills would have been a doctor, a lawyer, an entrepreneur.…”

Twelve months ago I met with a group of Christian scholars, pastors, and divinity school administrators. Convened to talk about the next era of congregational life and church growth, we met a pastor named Michael Mather from Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Mather asked us, “what if the church actually acted as if the gospel were true?”

That reminder of God’s abundance — gospel abundance in our midst — has been saving me ever since.

Mather inspired us to think about the gifts we had, and the gifts of our congregations and colleges. “Stop focusing on what cannot be accomplished,” he said. Instead, he offered a rubric of how the inspiration of the gospel, in tandem with the gifts that the Holy Spirit was fostering and cultivating, could be a gateway to new life. In this way, he showed us that faith communities could be, literally, born again.

I was so moved by this simple shift in thinking that the theme of all my fall preaching was abundance. I took on his challenge and preached a sermon for the Presbytery of New Hope completely framed around that centralizing question, “what if the church actually acted as if they gospel were true?”. The sermon was met with resounding “Amens!” For southern Presbyterians, this was a near-miracle.

Before our congregation and with our staff I explored the abundance in Christian theology and the aspiration to abundance of the Christian life. I kept going back to the “leading questions of life.”* Just that “script flip” — from focusing on why we are dying (causes of death) to investing intellectual and theological energies toward life-giving practices — allowed for greater understanding of my own gifts, our congregation’s gifts, and what life we had to offer as an act of kingdom devotion.

This one-day encounter saved my ministry last year. It kept my head above water as I navigated the seas of marriage, of divestment, and of our particular congregational challenges. On the days when the tyranny of the urgent is indeed a tyrant, and negative voices threaten to overwhelm, I choose to focus upon abundance. After all, even on our worst days, Jesus Christ is not particularly interested in our complaints. Instead, he is interested in our gifts.

Given that the gospel is true, our ministries are saved by allowing the abundant grace of the Lord to reset our expectations and to reassess the tasks which are before us. Ultimately ministry is about the gifts and not the frustrations.

* I recommend the book, Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Live Your Life by Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray


EdmonstonChristopher Edmonston is the pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC, and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

 

Scraps of Paper

by Christopher Edmonston

Setting the scene:  opening worship, Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago, first day of NEXT national conference, 2015.  I have been busy tending to details and trying to help our efforts appear smooth and professional (I am on the NEXT national strategy team).  I was running late to worship and I was handed a scrap of paper as I entered.

I honestly thought nothing of the scrap.  The worship leadership team is creative and I was sure they would have something in store for my scrap of paper.  That was my only passing thought as hundreds of other details occupied my mind.  I was more concerned that first time attendees to our conference found a seat where they can see and hear than I was about the piece of paper in my hand.

Worship began.  I finally looked down.  My scrap was a torn piece of the Heidelburg Catechism (yes that one).

I remember:  “What is your only hope in life and death?  That I belong, body and soul not to myself but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ … who has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil.”

The words bring me comfort as they connect me to those who have held this faith, practiced this tradition, and taken such statements to heart.  I was in Fourth Presbyterian, one of the great places of ministry in our church, and I was holding the words of a trusted confession.  What was not to love?

I felt very theological, scrap in hand, and all seemed like it was in order.  And for the record, it was decent, too.

Suddenly, I was dislocated as the worship leader stood on the chancel platform and told us the scraps of paper were torn pages of church order, theology, confession, and hymnody.  Sometimes, she said, such things have excluded us and held us back.  Take a pen and write on your scrap, she said, write on your scrap something that is holding you back, holding you back from your calling to be the church, the next church, that God is longing for us to become.

I wrote nothing.

The confessions hadn’t held me back.  Not that I could tell.

I looked over towards a friend, a man who has given his life, decade upon decade to the study and preservation of the confessions.  Were we telling him that we were advocating the tearing apart of confessional theology?

Another acquaintance worked on the new hymnal. I heard that his scrap was a page from it. What did he feel?  Did he feel as though his work was rejected?

Does being born into something new — and the church is being reborn from within — always require declaring death for what has been?

wall 2

Credit: Fourth Presbyterian Church

bird

Credit: Fourth Presbyterian Church

The scraps would be used to build a fence, which by the end of the conference, the creative worship team would transform into a phoenix (which is an ancient symbol of resurrection).  It turned out really well, and (as I am the least artistic person who has ever been conceived) in ways I never imagined. The scraps were more repurposed than they were rejected.

But I go back to the moment I was startled.  I didn’t want NEXT to tear up the confessions (I still don’t).  I want NEXT to help reinterpret them.

Could it be that this is what the worship leaders were suggesting with the scraps in the first place?

After all, the confessions work for me and people who look like me. They had never been used to tell me “no” or deny me any privilege.

Maybe if they had I would want to repurpose them too.

Editor’s note: For another perspective on liturgical art at the National Gathering, check out this reflection from YAV Emily Powers!


 

EdmonstonChristopher Edmonston is the pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Challenge and Opportunity of Timely Adaptations

This month, we’re sharing reflections from a group of pastors from the US and the Church of Scotland who recently met to talk about being the faithful church in a culture that is becoming more diverse and more secularized. We invite you to offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 

 

By Christopher Edmonston

I sat on the third pew and listened as Scott, the inspiring pastor of Saint Matthew’s, a Church of Scotland congregation, told us story after story of what ministry is like there.

St. Matthew's

Take a look at this picture. The place, the sanctuary, the space is huge.

St. Matthew's Front View

And far too often it is empty. Pews and balconies once brimming with gospel proclamation and ministry remain silent too much of the time. They are silent in spite of the fact that the Pastor is an inspiring, dynamic, and amazing disciple of Jesus Christ. He is a faithful risk taker. I found myself marveling at his energy and integrity. I found myself listening to the invigorating work that he is doing. I found myself thinking: that is the kind of ministry I want to be doing! He is the kind of pastor I want to be!

For years I have said, in meetings public and private, that the future of the church depended largely on leadership.   Here before me was the kind of dynamic and wonderful leader that I have long admired.

Even more challenging was this realization: every pastor we met from the Church of Scotland was theologically engaging, intellectually astute, and pastorally alive. They were each of them willing to be creative for the gospel. Compared to the churches I have served, some of the Church of Scotland congregations were years ahead of us in innovating new ways of being church.

And yet too often the church in Scotland struggles to find an audience for the beautiful message of the gospel in its cities and neighborhoods. Scott talked about feeling lost sometimes. He gave witness to the ecclesiastical depression that comes with empty pews, programs, and worship.

 

What happened to the church in Scotland?

Not being from there, the best I can offer is an educated guess. But here it goes:

The towns were changing, the culture was changing, attitudes about the relationship between church and spirituality were changing and the church was not adapting alongside the larger shifts. On Sundays people were going to soccer (across the pond – football) games, rugby matches, yoga classes – finding in these events and activities ritualized practices, community interactions, and authentic meaning. They were doing all these things and more, and going to church less and less or not going to church at all.

The statistics are sobering. Presented by Doug Gay from the University of Glasgow, we learned that during the two decades of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the Church of Scotland lost thousands of members. They saw it happening, and yet, they were paralyzed — paralyzed by the pain they felt as their faith communities dwindled. Big churches became empty churches. Downward trends became downward spirals. Budgets collapsed. It was a negative exodus.

Scott arrived at St. Matthew’s six years ago in the middle of that storm. The church has added 62 members since he arrived, which makes St. Matthew’s among the faster growing communities in the Church of Scotland.

 

This story may seem far off, across an ocean. But it is very close.

At White Memorial, where I serve, our Clerk of Session writes to the congregation annually. This year, our Clerk, Laura, wrote about her sadness in sharing our congregation’s booming baptismal records with a church who had only one baptism in 2013. That church, the church of one baptism, is not across an ocean. It is here in North Carolina, in the Bible belt.

It is my experience that whenever things go wrong, people frequently start looking for causes. They start looking for something to blame in order to cut the source of decline from their midst (think: I am going to cut carbs out of my diet; or, we are going to stop wearing robes in worship).

But what if there is no one thing, or even no one, to blame?

 

I remember a church I once visited in New York. It was a Czechoslovakian Reformed Church, and for generations they worshipped using Slavic languages. As the neighborhood evolved and there were fewer and fewer Slavic speakers, fewer people came to church.   Keep in mind that their core membership still spoke in mother tongues. To change the language whole-heartedly would have been pastorally unacceptable and unkind.

But that pastoral reality did not stop the world from changing around the church. By the time I arrived in 2010, there were a dozen or so members in a church that once held hundreds.

 

I thought about the church with one baptism and the Czechoslovakian Reformed Church as I sat in St. Matthew’s.

As we look around, there is ample evidence of the church’s end if we deny ourselves a commitment to being adaptable to the changes in our midst. But it doesn’t have to be so. Nowhere in the great commission (Matthew 28) does Jesus suggest that the disciples are never to change or adapt. Indeed, by the Apostle’s reckoning, everything is adaptable in order to spread the gospel’s good news (1 Corinthians 9). In Scotland, I became convinced we are living, even in our strongholds of church (like Raleigh, NC), in an age of adaptation.

My new friend Scott is hopeful and passionate about his ministry. His is a faith in God to do all things – a faith tempered by trial and error and the realization that the status quo will neither save the church nor share the gospel in his context. In his hopefulness he has become an adaptable pastor in an adapting and adaptable church.

 

Am I?

Are we?

 


Christopher Edmonston and Amelia - DEP

Christopher Edmonston began ministry at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in September of 2011. His primary responsibilities are preaching, teaching, pastoral care, membership development, staff development, and long term planning. Christopher has moderated Presbytery Committees, serves on the Montreat Retreat Association Board, and serves as the President of the Board of the Presbyterian Outlook. He is a contributor to the forthcoming Feasting on the Gospels and is on the national strategy team for NEXT Church, a renewal movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA). He was recently recognized as a William Friday Fellow (2011-13). Christopher is a graduate of Davidson College, Union Presbyterian Seminary (Master of Divinity), and Columbia Theological Seminary (Doctor of Ministry).

He is married to Colleen Camaione-Edmonston, who is a 7th grade grammar and literature teacher at St. Timothy’s School here in Raleigh. They have three children, Patrick, Gabriel, and Amelia, ranging from sixth grade to first grade, all three of whom attend St. Timothy’s as well.