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We Are the Church, for God’s Sake

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Ken Fuquay

“Talk less about Jesus?”

“SERIOUSLY?”

By three o’clock that Sunday afternoon, I had re-read the text message half a dozen times. Each time, discouragement shrouded me like a well-fitted pall expertly knitted together with strong cords of anger. I knew the words were well-intended, but having them appear on the screen of my phone that particular Sunday shook my faith. After all, just a couple hours earlier, I had delivered what I considered to be one of my finer sermons.

The exegesis of the passage was stellar, and the structure was well-crafted. The delivery, equal parts manuscript and extemporaneous, was empowered by the Holy Spirit. If ever there was a sermon meant for a specific group of people on a specific day and time, I felt that sermon, on that day, was it. Yet, the text message called all of that and more in question. I pulled out my phone and read it again, “Pastor Ken, I enjoy our little community. But if we want to attract more people, we need to be more relevant. And I’m certain, to be more relevant, we should talk less about Jesus.”

Talk less about Jesus?

Are you kidding me?

Talk less about Jesus.

The phrase played on repeat in the core of my being.

Talk less about Jesus?

I was taken aback by the suggestion.

Talk less about Jesus?

The words seared my soul.

Talk less about Jesus?

I wanted to text back in all caps; “BUT WE ARE A CHURCH, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

In my short tenure as an ordained Minister of Word & Sacrament in the PC(USA) and as a bi-vocational planting pastor of a new worshiping community that gathers in one of Charlotte’s most iconic bar and entertainment venues, I have become keenly aware that the church is engaged in a daily skirmish which pits role against relevancy.

The church I pastor knows the battle well.

When the brewery down the street promotes itself as being “mission-driven,” what is the church to do? When the coffee shop around the corner is crowned the neighborhood’s favorite “third space,” what is the church to do? When atheists’ gatherings and AA meetings tout life-transforming engagement, what is the church to do? And when 7 minute TED Talks garner millions of clicks, views, and shares, what is the church to do?

Here is what we did.

We attempted to become a relevant presence in the neighborhood.

Photo from M2M Charlotte Facebook page

Rather than “church,” we’ve opted for the more seeker-friendly less-offensive phrase “new worshiping community.” We selected an eye-popping logo which translates well on mobile devices. We chose a catchy name that tests well in focus groups and represents the entirety of who we feel called to be. We made sure our website contained all the correct buzzwords. We put up an online giving link and will soon have our very own app.

Contextually, we designate two Sundays each month as non-preaching, community-friendly, outreach experiences. First Sunday is “Fellowship Sunday.” (We sit at table, eat brunch, share stories, sing songs, and get to know one another.) Third Sunday is “Park Bench Sunday.” (We invite community voices to share their work and listen for ways God may be calling us to join.) We’ve had open-mic Sunday, comedy improv Sunday, and concert-for-the-community Sunday. We’ve gathered out of doors for worship.

We practice inclusion at every turn. We invite other faiths to share so that we might understand their religion and beliefs. We march in gay pride parades. We partner with other non-profits to increase our efforts exponentially. We serve dinner to the homeless. We canvas the neighborhood on street clean-up patrol. We gather for discipleship training at a local sandwich shop. We give food and water to immigrants passing through out city. We meld coffee time and worship. We eat together every Sunday. We’re pet-friendly. And…we worship in a bar, for God’s sake.

How much more relevant can we get?

Yet, I worry.

I worry that we’ll idolize the bar rather than worshiping the One who calls us to gather there. I worry that we’ll take pride in our renown as “the church that meets in a bar” rather than following the One whose namesake we are. I worry that we’ll boast about our good works more than boasting in the One who gives us breath. I worry that we’ll elevate our inclusion to the point of being exclusive. I worry that we’ll abdicate our role for the sake of being relevant.

Yes, it is necessary to explore every avenue available to determine where God is calling us to be and how God is calling us to live the gospel in context when we get there. So, we discern: Is it church in a bar? Is it church at a skate-park on Saturday morning? Is it church on a Tuesday night with a calypso band? Is it free coffee and doughnuts on the corner? Is it church in a space where gatherers can bring their dogs? Is it cowboy church, Harley church, or late church? All of these, and more, are worth exploring. But in our quest to become a more relevant presence in the world, we must not sacrifice the role of the church.

After all, it is our role that makes us relevant. (That sentence is worth reading again.)

What is the role of the church?

The role of the church is the same as it was when the gestation period ended and the church was pushed from the womb into the streets of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.

“And you shall be my witnesses…”

The Greek word is μάρτυρ, which means “one who testifies.” Ah shucks. There’s that word we Presbyterians dislike and try to rationalize away. But the word is unavoidable. We are people of the book; a book filled with stories. And the stories are begging to be told over and over again! So, somebody, testify!

The role of the church is to speak a Word that cannot be heard anywhere else in culture.

The role of the church is to proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ;

The role of the church is to announce the nearness of God’s kingdom, good news to all who are impoverished, sight to all who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and declare the Lord’s favor upon all creation.

The role of the church is to participate in the mission of God on earth.

Please understand, I am all about being the church in the context in which we are planted. I’m all about casting a vision that unites and makes us relevant. But if, in our attempts to be the church, we abdicate the role of the church for the sake of being relevant, then we are simply engaged in a kitschy fad, one that will surely fade, and we become nothing more than the next non-profit organization down the street engaged in fundraising alongside our attempt to offer some modicum of good works.

Take heart! Shepherding a congregation through the process of discerning the balance between role and relevance is a necessary skirmish — one that leaves us bruised but beautified; sometimes disappointed but always hopeful; challenged every day but continually invigorated.

And finally, I’ve realized that throughout our discerning and being and doing, we can never speak too much about Jesus. Never! It is our role, and it is that role that makes us relevant.

After all, WE ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST, FOR GOD’S SAKE!


Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is planting pastor at M2M Charlotte, a 1001 New Worshiping Community. Ken is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary and is the CEO of LIFESPAN, a non-profit that serves more than 1,300 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities across 23 North Carolina counties. He and his husband, Terry, live in the Charlotte area with their mini-doodle named Abby-dail.

Preaching Justice Without the Gospel is Nothing More than Moralism

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Colin Kerr

Children’s Sunday school classes are notorious for bad biblical interpretation. We’ve all bemoaned the well-intentioned volunteer who teaches Bible lessons with an agenda for simply making well-behaved children. Every Bible story has moral lesson to them, usually something to the effect that God wants us to not hit our siblings, be nice to our peers, and share our toys. Nice lessons, but not exactly anything our non-Christian neighbors aren’t teaching their children either. Suffice it to say, Sunday school classes like this really aren’t teaching the Christian faith so much as they’re teaching Christian moralism.

Yet, many of us are only preaching to the adults a more sophisticated moralism. Sermons that preach justice are the adult version of bad children’s Sunday school classes. The scriptures we interpret have a moral lesson to them, usually something to the effect that God wants us to practice non-violent resistance (aka don’t hit our siblings), be radically inclusive (aka be nice to our peers), and work towards economic equality (aka share our toys). Nice lessons, but not exactly anything left-wing activists aren’t blogging about either. This kind of preaching isn’t teaching the Christian faith. No matter how just the cause we think we think the scripture is telling us we must do, this is still an exhortation to moralism.

Ironically, this is really the other side of the conservative moralistic coin that so many of us have outright rejected. We have rightly discerned that a steady diet of sermons extolling virtuous habits and condemning personal vices has not helped those in the pews. Droning on about sexual purity, modesty, temperance, and obeying authorities induces a culture of shame. Telling people to pray harder, read their bible more, and start sinning less becomes tiring. However, progressive moralism simply substitutes a different set of virtues and vices while telling congregants to check their privilege harder, listen to NPR more, and start consuming less. In the end both sides of the moralistic coin – conservative and progressive – are exhausting. Even as we may congratulate ourselves for speaking “prophetically,” our congregations slowly suffer under the weight of the obligations we have placed upon them.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was meant to destroy the moralism so endemic to our attempts of pursuing the divine. In the Bible, we see this in the running rhetorical battles between Jesus and the religious elites, but it is also a point Saint Paul has to make repeatedly in his letters to his burgeoning churches.

The antidote to moralism then is the gospel. The gospel consequently stands in opposition to moralism, even moralism drawn from the Bible and in service to justice.

The gospel does this by showing how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is substitutionary for us. This is often portrayed narrowly by our evangelical friends as a substitution for punishment or debt, where Jesus atones for the sin of humanity. Yet this misses the wider and more historical nature of substitution, and that is a substitution for our own efforts. We are never virtuous enough, whether those are the morals most prized by conservatives or progressives. We are always complicit in some sort of sin, whether those are vices are deeply personal of part of wider systemic injustices. Christ, however, is the new Adam, succeeding in every place where we could possibly fail. The futility of human moralism is substituted for the grace of God.

The gospel then, by way of the cross, heralds God’s victory over what would otherwise be a hopeless situation. This is a victory over my personal sin and our systemic injustices.

The only way our preaching of justice can move beyond sophisticated moralism is by always proclaiming the gospel alongside it, and articulating the substitutionary work of Christ on behalf of individuals, communities, and structures. Rather than being a counterfeit gospel that awkwardly parrots left-wing politics, our calls to the justice must flow from the countercultural implications of the gospel. Internalizing this foundational facet of the gospel allows me then to work for justice not out of a need to feel personally justified or become the agent of political salvation, but rather because I am gratefully responding to the reality I have already been justified before God and saved for the work of reconciliation.

Preaching the gospel at all times becomes both the cure for progressive moralism and the booster shot for our congregations in understanding unique nature of justice in Christian theology.

Once we do this, then can turn to the more difficult task of fixing children’s Sunday School classes.


Colin Kerr is the founding pastor of Parkside Church, a Presbyterian new church development. He previously spent eight years assisting historic congregations with church renewal strategies and planting a new multi-campus college ministry, which grew to become one of the largest Presbyterian college ministries in the nation. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina with his wife and daughter. His new book, Faith Hope Love: The Essentials of Christianity for the Curious, Confused and Skeptical, will be released this fall.

New Questions for a New Paradigm

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Fernando Rodriguez

There are questions that open up possibilities and inch us closer to a better understanding of the community around us, and, ourselves. Then, there are questions that simply mess you all up. Mike Mather’s Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, finding abundant communities in unexpected places has not only pushed me to ask questions, but has changed my paradigm for community and ministry.

I met Mike during the early years of my ministry serving as a church planter in a Latinx community in Indianapolis. His ministry at Broadway United Methodist Church influenced me tremendously early on. Now, as an associate pastor leading mission and outreach efforts of a suburban high steeple church, his book has pushed me to continue wrestling with what it means to see and be a part of an abundant community.

Two of the most foundational questions one can ask as a church planter are “What are the needs of the community?” and “how can the church provide for those needs?” The ultimate purpose is to engage the community and hopefully grow the new church. Based on these questions, we developed programs like tutoring, dental clinics, etc. Many of these programs were successful as they provided for a perceived need the community had while creating opportunities for us to develop relationships with neighbors. However, this engagement was transactional and did not always lead to more people in worship.

The stories shared through the pages of Mather’s book offer different questions. Instead of asking what the needs are in the community (as real and pressing as they may be), the questions should be, “What are the gifts and talents of those in the neighborhood and what does it look like to build community around them?” They focus on what the community has, not on what it lacks.

The first time I considered these questions I was both excited and worried. Excited, because I knew that everyone in the neighborhood I was serving was a child of God, and consequently, was given gifts that build community. I was worried because it changed the paradigm from one that built a church to one that built community. These questions messed me up. They were convicting. They challenged all my pre-conceived notions of church, engagement, and community building.

Even today, as I serve a very different context, the questions persist. My current church is one that seeks to fund efforts such as those in my first ministry. We are constantly discerning what the best way is to invest in ministry outside the walls of the church. We serve as volunteers in local community organizations and have even developed a non-profit that brings music programming to public schools in the neighbor city of Pontiac.

Though the context may be different, Mather’s book reminds me not to stop asking questions that focus on seeing abundance in communities that are often thought to have nothing. The challenge now is to think if/how the programs we are funding are building off of the existing gifts and talents in the neighborhood being served. Although we have had good results with getting people to serve in local community organizations, a next step would be to ask: what has this engagement looked like? How are relationships being formed beyond the “service?”

Questions abound when exploring how to live into community in a way that celebrates true God-given abundance. The questions that Mather’s book raise for us are one’s that not only affect the church, but also socio-economics, health, education, etc. These questions are bigger than us. However, our calling is to ask them and “follow the story” that comes from them.


Fernando Rodríguez currently serves as Pastor for Missional Renewal and Stewardship at Kirk in the Hills in Michigan and has also pastored churches in Indiana and Delaware. He enjoys laughing with his wife and two children and screaming at the television without regard during FC Barcelona futbol matches.

Cultivated Ministry: A New Approach

by Jessica Tate

A few years ago, NEXT Church convened some creative, talented leaders to talk together about the ways in which the church is collaboratively starting and supporting new ministries. In the room were leaders from large, established congregations, leaders from small upstart ministry ventures, and everything in between. There was energy in the conversation as we heard about ministries in places and with people often overlooked in mainline protestant circles. But the conversation got heated quickly when it turned toward resources, sustainability, fundraising, and accountability.

One talented leader of an exciting and creative new ministry likened it to The Hunger Games. “You come up with a good — even proven — ministry,” she said, “and everyone is excited about it. When you ask for help in paying for it, there are three larger churches and a couple of grant programs to go to and these creative ministries end up fighting each other to our own death to get any resources.”

A little while later, the pastor of a large congregation with a multi-million dollar budget said, “What I hear you asking for is a blank check and we simply can’t give that to you. In a season where we have many resources, but are facing budget cuts of our own and laying off staff, we have to justify every dollar we spend.”

Another leader chimed in, “Our presbytery has money to fund new ventures but we expect them to be growing numerically and financially sustainable within five years.” “What if we’re working in a community that is financially incapable of being self-sustaining?” was the immediate reply.

What became clear in the conversation is that there is much creativity and leadership in the present-day margins of the church. At the same time, the resources needed to fertilize that growth often rest in the established, traditional communities of faith and in denominational structures. Many of these traditional communities of faith are interested — even eager — to invest in the emergence of new faith communities that may look and feel radically different from their own. Yet these partnerships can become stymied because there exists no agreed upon metrics for measuring faithfulness and success.

Traditional metrics — such as membership counts, financial totals, and worship attendance — have proved inadequate for measuring the effectiveness of traditional communities of faith, much less emergent ones, but other metrics have not risen in their place. Thus, we revert to what we know, perpetuating a status quo that serves neither partner in the new church development process and hinders the leadership development and experimental learning the church needs now in abundance, if we are to make the move into new, thriving models of church life.

Over the course of the last eighteen months, with support from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School and the Texas Presbyterian Foundation, we have convened a talented group of leaders to tackle this issue within the life of the church. What results is Cultivated Ministry: Bearing Fruit through Theology, Accountability, Learning, and Storytelling. Cultivated Ministry is a culture and process of ministry that does not rest on traditional metrics nor does it abdicate accountability altogether. It is a commitment to four interlocking means of assessment, evaluation, and (re)design aimed at nurturing thoughtful expressions of God’s mission in the world.

This month, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall!

And a huge thanks to the talented team of people who have worked on this project:

Designers and Writers

Shawna Bowman, Pastor & Artist, Friendship Presbyterian Church
Chineta Goodjoin, Pastor, New Hope Presbyterian Church
Becca Messman, Pastor, Trinity Presbyterian Church
Frank Spencer, President, Board of Pensions, PC(USA)
Casey Thompson, Pastor, Wayne Presbyterian Church
John Vest, Professor of Evangelism, Union Presbyterian Seminary
Jen James, Cultivated Ministry Project Facilitator

Consultants

Andrew Foster Connors, Pastor, Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church
Christopher Edmonston, Pastor, White Memorial Presbyterian Church
Billy Honor, Pastor, The Pulse Church
Charlie Lee, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church
Carla Pratt Keyes, Pastor, Ginter Park Presbyterian Church
Jessica Tate, Director, NEXT Church
Landon Whitsitt, Executive and Stated Clerk, Synod of Mid-America
Rick Young, President, Texas Presbyterian Foundation


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