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Pilgrimage is Telling Our Story

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage.

by Ben Kane

Every group has one. They are best described by their actions: the last person on the bus, the one who lingers at each site, the person the leaders must monitor and make sure they get back on the bus. “That Person” best describes this person. I was “That Person” on the NEXT Church Holy Land pilgrimage.

It started before I left Tarboro, when I decided to take a nice camera to capture the trip. Good pictures require time and effort so during the pilgrimage I developed a particular route to get the best pictures. Quickly move to an outside wall, take a wide, circuitous route to scan the entire church and determine where to visit. We only had so much time in each church, requiring us to make decisions. Being in the Holy Land, though, made deciding what to visit immensely more complicated, resulting in my lingering longer at each site. This tactic led me to achieve my title of “That Person” at the Church of All Nations.

Church of All Nations (Ben Kane)

Once inside the church, I found the outside wall when a Catholic Mass in the chancel drew my attention. Everything else went quiet; every other sight ceased to exist. The priest and worshippers lifted their thumbs, touched their foreheads, then their lips, and then their hearts — their movements synced, seemingly guided by a common string. Witnessing this collective movement whisked me back to second grade at St. Bernard’s Academy. There I sat on the side, in the Protestant section of the school’s cathedral while the Catholic students stood in the center aisle practicing the liturgy to receive their First Communion the following Sunday. They would feel God’s presence in the Eucharist and the priest invited them to touch their forehead, lips, and heart. God is always with us, he told us, and we are called to acknowledge God’s presence. I have never been Catholic, but I have borrowed this simple prayer ever since; rarely do you see others praying it, though.

While in my spiritual trance I heard Iyad, our guide’s voice in my ear, “Where’s Ben?” “I’m right here, Iyad,” I said turning around, reminded the earpieces we wore were only one-way communication devices. I stood alone in a sea of tourists. God’s presence surrounded me, but my group did not. After five minutes of fruitless searching, Bob, one of our leaders, entered the garden area outside the church, found me, and like a petulant child, he escorted me back to the group. The group shook their heads, my wife giving me “the eye” and later telling me if I did not stay with the group she would make me wear one of those backpacks with a leash children wear at amusement parks.

On a busy street in Jerusalem I was officially crowned, “That Person.” I tried to explain what happened inside, but the honking buses, sweaty tourists, and a playfully annoyed group left me no time to explain myself; instead, I accepted my title, grabbed a water bottle, bowed to the group, and walked to my seat.

This blog series asks us to finish the sentence, “Pilgrimage is______.” Pilgrimage is telling our story. What we experienced begs to be told. We walked in the footsteps of Christ learning the realities of life for Palestinian, Arab, and Israeli Christians, Muslims, and Jews today. We now know what a refugee camp smells like, how a settlement inflicts particular views and values upon its residents and those outside the walls; our experience forces us to watch the news and read the paper without scales on our eyes. Because of our experiences, we laughed, cried, lamented, celebrated, wondered, and worried. And now we are tasked with the call to reveal what made us laugh, cry, lament, celebrate, wonder, and worry. And our stories will do just that.

My story involves around what occurred in the Church of All Nations. I felt God’s presence and when I think about our experiences, when I look at the pictures we took, and when I answer the simple question, “How was your trip?” I cannot help but talk about all the times I felt God’s presence.

On our final night the group walked the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea in Joppa. Bound by a common experience we knew would soon end, we wanted to linger and hold on to this trip. Pictures were taken, promises to keep in touch were made (imagine the last day of junior high, K.I.T.!), and expectations realized. I told a friend in response to her question, “How was this trip for you?” that after feeling God’s presence among everything I had seen and learned, I have a story to tell.

I did not get to tell the group why I was late leaving the Church of All Nations. Instead, I became “That Guy” on the trip. I wore (and still wear) that title with pride, because given the political, theological, social, and historical complexities of the Holy Land, I firmly believe we needed to laugh occasionally. We also need to make sure “That Guy” was on the bus where my fellow travelers had so many other stories to share.


Ben Kane is the spouse of Lydia, dad of Margot and Phoebe, lover of reading, writing, and running (so he can eat what he wants). He pastors with the good people of Howard Memorial Presbyterian in Tarboro, NC, a town that’s been called the “Crossroads of Western Civilization.”

Not Like Us

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 Elaine Vaden

In the 1980s, the “church growth movement” emphasized the need for churches to focus on their own homogenous group in order to minimize the barriers between the church community and those outside. If the initial church community was composed of Anglo, middle class parishioners, it was believed that keeping the focus on the same kind of people would ensure greater growth. This principle came to be known as the “HUP,” or homogenous unit principle. I bought into this theory — and even taught it as a church growth consultant.

While the social theory of “like attracts like” may have some results, sadly, the theological implication of the HUP is devoid of the gospel of the kingdom. The gospel of the kingdom breaks down the walls that divide, brings together people who eat meat and those who don’t, unites Gentiles and Jews, male and female, marginalized and privileged, and on and on. The local expression of the Church should reflect the kingdom makeup as much as possible. Only then can the observation made of the early church, “behold how they loved one another” be true.

But how in the world can this happen in this era of polarization, claiming sides on the political fence, keeping out those who are not like us? Can it happen? I have lived much of my working life either in another country or in a city of 12 million with over 80 spoken languages. And I can attest to the richness of life that comes from encountering those who look, eat, dress, worship, and speak differently than I do. And while most of us cannot relocate to a different city or town, none of us are restricted from crossing the cultural divides around us, if we want to demonstrate the liberating nature of Christ’s kingdom in a world that would say “find people like yourself” and grow your church with the same kind of people.

Lest you say “we are good at giving to the poor” or “our church marches for the marginalized,” have you entered into the world of those who are different and allowed them to wash your feet or serve you their unusual food? Have you made yourself vulnerable to those of a different faith or social structure so that you might have the blessing of receiving and learning?

Some years ago, while working in southern Zambia, I complained a bit when for several months, potatoes disappeared from the roadside markets and small stores. The ministerial students in my classes listened and laughed but then one Christmas Eve, three of the students appeared at my door with a 50 lb. sack of potatoes they had carried from their village more than 100 miles away. I was overwhelmed by their love and generosity for their “complaining” professor. As I boiled and roasted and fried potatoes in the months ahead, I realized they had shown me a side of love I had not experienced when I just hung around with folks like me.

Going to the other side, encountering those who look, speak, eat, and maybe even smell different has a way of demonstrating the many shades of love and revealing the kaleidoscope of the kingdom.


Elaine Vaden serves with The Antioch Partners as a theological educator. She joyfully teaches missiology (and sometimes church history) in places like Nepal, India, Mexico and Zambia. The picture was taken with a Nepalese friend after Elaine preached in Kathmandu.

Loving the Earth Boldly as People of Faith

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 abby mohaupt

When I was 5, I spent most of my summer days outside with my sisters. We were mostly barefoot and wild, wandering and playing in the gated confines of our family’s backyard. We had a pool, a swing set, and a sandbox.

A wooded grove, however, grew as the centerpiece of our childhood. The trees, gnarled and spiky, grew together, forming a canopy of leaves. We rooted around in the shade, imagining home and creating stories together.

I fell in love with the earth during the summer days, that love deepening as the leaves changed colors and drifted to the ground.

That love for the earth grew with me as I aged. I learned to respect the power of fire and the strength of waves. I felt awe at the tops of mountains and the rims of canyons.

It grew deeper still when I encountered theologies of ecology. Out of the first creation story in Genesis 1 (and throughout the Bible), we learn that God loves creation desperately and deeply. Throughout Genesis 1, God calls creation good, and in Genesis 2, humanity is made from the topsoil from which all the plants and animals come from and rely upon. Understanding that God’s love extends to all creation helped me see that everything that is alive is part of my family.

And because I love this earth, my heart broke as I learned more about environmental degradation, environmental racism, and climate change.

We humans have created incredible damage, changing the natural greenhouse. In the last century, “the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). This happens because the coal or oil burning process combines carbon with oxygen in the air to make CO2. The effects of this burning emerges in many ways, and strikingly in raised global temperatures.”1 What’s more, climate “exacerbates nearly all existing inequality” as a crisis that “dangerously intersects race and class.”2

This socio-scientific data tells us that we people of faith need to respond to the earth with radical love. We do so with the understanding that our collective “we” power is more powerful than our individual actions. Collectively we respond to climate and environmental injustice, knowing that women, people of color, and people who are poor are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation.

We must respond if we believe in the God who created all things out of love and called it good.

But we must also respond quickly. The National Climate Change Assessment Report released in 2018 noted that we have just 12 years to slow and stop climate change. Our ecosystems, agriculture, atmosphere and more are all degrading quickly with the ongoing complicity of fossil fuel companies and our individual and ecclesial use of and investment in fossil fuels.

Twelve years is not many years at all.

I am no longer that 5 year old girl enamored with the trees of my childhood. Now I am a woman entranced by the whole world.

Still: we must again love the earth in the ways we did when we were children. We must harness our imaginations and create a new story together. This story must be one that loves the leaves and the tree — and also other people. This story must be one that’s willing to take risks and bravely abandon business as usual.

If God loves the world, we need love to it extravagantly if we are going to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To be church, whether now or next, we must boldly act with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength…and with our wallets too. What we love, study, advocate for, worship, and invest in are marks of what and in whom we believe.

Nothing less than our whole selves will do.

1 “A Blanket Around the Earth,” Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet, last modified December 11, 2018, https://climate.nasa.gov/causes
2 James B. Martin-Shramm. Climate Justice: Ethics, Energy, and Public Policy. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 12. A synthesis of that ground-breaking report is available here: Larry Bernstiein et al., “Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Plenary XXVII, November 12-17, 2007, https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/syr/ar4_syr.pdf, 128.


abby mohaupt is Senior Advisor for Education and Training at GreenFaith, Director at the Green Seminary Initiative, Adjunct Professor at McCormick Theological Seminary and Moderator at Fossil Free PCUSA.

A New Vision of the Old, Old Story

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 Jonathan Coppedge-Henley

On Maundy Thursday, I sat in the chapel of a seminary with about nine other people to remember Jesus’ last night before he was killed. The ten of us represented things that past generations of church might not have envisioned. I, a straight United Methodist pastor, shared leadership with a gay Presbyterian pastor. Our group was diverse in age, gender identity, denominational histories, and ethnicity, paying no mind to the old discriminations of too much of church life in America. We needed this service to demonstrate that we all belong to God. My friend made that real for me in a way that made me feel like we were part of something beyond just us.

The old “triumphal” version of Christianity was nowhere to be found as we tried to embody Jesus’ commandment to his disciples: love one another. Instead of getting a liturgy from a publishing house, I put the liturgy together myself, combining high doses of introspection and accountability with the Gospel readings and the Communion and foot/hand washing rituals. The guitar player from my friend’s congregation played music he had written, music that set the tone for something intimate and real, nothing packaged, nothing made for sale. We were small and decidedly not worried about attendance numbers or finances. I think we saw a new vision of the old, old story of Jesus.

In the late 1990s at the first parish I served, the postmaster in that town told me that she always asked new residents which denomination they claimed so that she could both give them directions to the church and also — get this! — send their contact information to the pastor of the “church of their choice.” That violation of privacy actually seemed normal to her! To her, churches still had a vague belief that newborns were the “future of the church,” that churches held a foundational part of the community, and that new folks were just out looking for a church to attend.

Denominations trusted these time-tested theories, so they built their new churches in high development suburbs having only slightly adapted to new cultural circumstances, believing that church was like cereal to people — everyone bought it so the only question was which one. Because those emerging generations had lots of questions, we created “seeker sensitive” worship services intended to address those questions by still funneling people towards the “right” answers. Church leadership learned to measure success by the numbers: attendance, contributions, staff size, square footage, number of programs, and the number of those who participated in programs.

By those standards, the Maundy Thursday service my friends and I put together would have been considered a failure, partly because it would have been desperately confusing to know which church got to claim the attendance numbers, and partly because in my misguided denomination my partner in leadership would not be allowed to fully respond to how grace has called him as a husband or as a minister.

Perhaps denominational fiefdoms, standardization of doctrine, segregation of worshipping communities, and the straightness, whiteness, and maleness of mainline Protestantism served some purpose (God only knows what). But while God has always been up to something new, the institutional American church has generally shown little capacity to do anything more than repackage the product — a product that in practice has often had little to do with Jesus the deliverer and more to do with Jesus the logo.

We are now learning that what we were doing, particularly in terms of our funding model, isn’t sustainable. We find ourselves staring at a different situation with less certain paths. This new frontier has the potential to reform the ways in which the people of Jesus practice what he taught, but it is clearly scary to many in the pews and many in the institutional offices. Hopefully the loss of our privileged stature in society will remind us to repent of how we’ve let go of our essential mission to love God, love everybody, and teach others to do the same. Jesus still speaks to people. People still need the love, accountability, honesty, and grace that Jesus expects and that Jesus people are called to offer. The difference is that people are now emboldened to admit that they don’t find those things in the institutional church any more. This is a chance for the church to recalibrate and let go of some idols.

For us the question now is what we should have been asking all along: what is God doing and how can we be part of it? From simply talking to people, you realize pretty quickly that many folks didn’t wait for the permission or vision of the church before setting out to meet the real needs of the world: caring for the poor and the migrants, actively combating racist systems, caring for the environment, searching for solutions to everything from homelessness to the re-segregation of schools to the cruelty of gentrification to the economic injustices that define too many workplaces. Many who don’t attend church long ago embraced that same-sex couples deserve the human dignity of a marriage ceremony. God didn’t wait on the church to get things done. In fact, I’ve come to believe that many of my non-church friends are better doers of the Word than the people who read it every Sunday morning.

People need what we’ve always needed: spiritual and physical safety and nourishment; we’ve always needed places to belong. That Maundy Thursday service sure felt close to what God is doing, close to the kingdom Jesus dreamed about. We know he likes to challenge our assumptions about what it means to follow him — a service led by a gay pastor and a straight pastor, a Presbyterian and a United Methodist, might challenge some assumptions. But what I know is that the willingness to belong to one another in that one hour helped us belong to Jesus in ways previously unimagined. God did and is doing a brand new thing.


Having grown up in the North Carolina mountains, Jonathan Coppedge-Henley has a deep appreciation for folks whose voices are ignored, under represented, or misunderstood. He has been a United Methodist pastor for 23 years in urban, suburban, and rural churches, He has been a church planter and has served historic congregations. He has some extraordinary worship experiences and tripped all over himself in some others. He has held numerous leadership positions in the United Methodist Church, particularly in campus ministry, but he also has an extensive background in community development. For five years he was the host of the Road Signs radio show on the alternative rock station in Charlotte in which he highlighted alternative rock songs as ways to make sense of life. He is a clergy coach to residents in ordained ministry and he writes weekly columns for the Morganton News Herald. As his current side gig, he is preparing to launch Neighborhood Table, a non-profit coffee shop, pub, and co-working space that will host community-building story-telling, artist collaboration, conversation, and peacemaking. Jonathan and his wife Elizabeth, also a United Methodist pastor, have two wonderfully sarcastic children, Owen and Lora, and vicious watch dog, their Berne-doodle, Homer.

Church Matters — When It Mobilizes

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 Rev. Stephen Roach Knight

Does church even matter anymore? That was one of the questions posed to me when I was invited to write for this blog, and the one that most resonated with me. Of course, my answer to that question is “Yes,” but perhaps not for the reason you might expect (or, if you know me, then, well, you probably would).

I believe church matters, perhaps more than ever, as a center for organizing in local communities. A few years ago, we invited Liz Butler from the Movement Strategy Center and Friends of the Earth to come and speak at the Transform Network national conference in Washington, D.C., and as an activist, she said it better than I had heard anyone say it before (which is why we posted it on the Transform Network website for posterity): “Community is the first step of collective action. Faith communities play a vital role.”

There is an incredible amount of movement work that needs to be done in order to effect positive change in our communities, in our country, and in our world — and it won’t be accomplished without the vital participation of churches as centers for personal and societal transformation.

In the Moral Movement work that I’m a part of through Repairers of the Breach and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, the participation of clergy and moral leaders at the center has been intentional and necessary. Many faith leaders are awakening to the responsibility to no longer be chaplains to empire but to be “prophets of the resistance” (as Michael-Ray Matthews says) or “moral prophets to the nation” (as Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II puts it).

Yes, the local church is to be a house of prayer and worship, but it must also be a place of action and mobilization. The era of the country club church, the membership club for insiders, is over (if it was ever sanctified at all to begin with).

Churches with buildings in neighborhoods and city centers can and must open their doors not just so that people can come in on Sunday mornings but so that people can go out the six other days of the week to be salt and light and wounded healers. And clergy are being called to not just preach truth, love, and justice from the pulpit on Sunday mornings but to proclaim truth, love, and justice in the public square — at press conferences and vigils and rallies to address and confront injustice.

Church work and social justice work are both extremely difficult and life-long commitments. Both require strength that comes from a deep inner well of faith and spirituality. That is why, at Transform Network, we have chosen to put such a strong emphasis on what my wife Holly Roach Knight calls “contemplative resistance.” The idea being that we must develop practices of contemplative spirituality that will feed us and guide us daily as we seek to be about God’s work of love and justice in the world. Without those practices, we will flame out and burn those around us with our toxic Christianity or, in my case, masculinity. Centering prayer and other practices are daily opportunities to pull out the poison of white supremacy and patriarchy.

There’s really no excuse today. The question you might’ve asked in years past, “But how do we do it? How do we get engaged?” is no longer a difficult question to answer. There are so many tools and resources available today that speak to faith and social justice, and campaigns (like the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival) to get involved with in order to engage. But if you are still uncertain and need help discerning where you and your church might best be engaged in the good fight of God’s justice in your community, I hope you’ll reach out to us at Transform Network. We’re available to spend 30 minutes on the phone with you for a free justice church coaching call to get to know you and offer whatever support we can to help you take the next steps to faithful presence and authentic engagement where you are, with the people you are walking with. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.

You’re not in this alone. In order to change everything, it will take everyone — and every church. Because church still matters!


Rev. Steve Roach Knight currently serves as Director of Communications for Repairers of the Breach, the nonprofit social justice organization founded and led by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. Steve has previously served as National Faith Organizer, mobilizing people of faith to the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, among other projects he has worked on for Bishop Barber. Steve is a commissioned minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and has formerly served as full-time consultant to the denomination’s church planting and church revitalization arm, Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation. Steve is a co-founder and current board member of Transform Network.

Diversity Is What’s Next

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 Phanta Lansden

I grew up with azaleas lining the walkway of my parents’ home and always enjoyed the beauty and radiance they offered. One spring, I decided to exchange the green boxwoods in front of my own house for beautiful azaleas. I planted seven fuchsia azaleas along my walkway. The garden associate at the Lowes Home Improvement store assured me they would bloom the following season. The following spring, nothing spectacular happened. I had one bloom on seven plants.

I examined the azaleas and discovered that, not only had the weeds choked the life out of the them, but I failed to prepare the soil. I pulled a few weeds and threw in some garden soil, but something went wrong. The azaleas were dying, save for one. I pulled up the dying plants and discarded them.

Not to be outdone, the following season, I purchased more azaleas. I tried desperately to match colors. This time around, my efforts were purposeful and thoughtful. I prepared the soil much better. I fertilized them properly and I put down black tarp to eliminate the weeds. I rejoiced when the plants grew beautifully and got bigger and more radiant with each passing season.

The one fuchsia-colored azalea that survived that first endeavor does not match the larger powder pink azaleas from the second planting. But, nonetheless, the fuchsia one pops with color and radiance alongside the powder pink ones and they all sit proudly along the walkway in front of my dining room window. Each spring, the blossoms are countless and the flower bed is filled with brushes of soft pink and fuchsia petals. All the azaleas are from the same family of flowers, but unique in the beauty that each brings and gives to our living space. One color is no better than the other, one cannot be compared to the other; both are glorious!

Like the beauty of the azalea, the radiance of its petals, the graciousness of its presence and the brightening power of its existence, this we are in God’s eyes in the world. We are unique without comparison and fearfully and wonderfully made.

The Psalmist sings in 139 verses 13-15,

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.”

God took time to nurture, craft and create our inmost being. We are who God created us to be and no one of us compares to another. There is no cloning or replication. Everyone is created with uniqueness, value, and worth. Each of us brings something beautiful to the world as we radiate with the gifts God gave us. We brighten a room, lift someone’s spirit, and become an image of love and joy.

Unfortunately, church has become a place where this is least recognized. Our churches have become like country clubs with their particular socio-economic, political, racial, and ideological grouping. Uniqueness and beauty is not valued and diversity is not put on the table. Some of God’s beautiful children are not met with warm receptions when they enter the doors of certain churches. The rate of “nones” is rising in culture, while church membership and attendance is decreasing. It is partly because we, as the church, are not accepting of all people.

Exclusion diminishes the witness of the church. Exclusion darkens the beacon of love as the foundation of our faith. I hope we will take a deep look at the weeds growing within our churches, notice how they are choking the life out of our witness. May we eradicate racism, bigotry, and hatred of any kind and cultivate a loving community of inclusivity and diversity so all people thrive and produce a bountiful harvest. Diversity is what’s next for the church.


Phanta Lansden is a fierce fighter of life who found her voice in the shadows. She is associate pastor of C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. You can find her at www.phantalansden.com.

Permission to Dissent

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 Nathan Rouse

My story is little different than many others, but maybe not that different from yours. It starts in the pews of a church and ends… well, I suppose in the ways that matter most it hasn’t ended, but for this part at least it ends outside those walls in the wilderness. But the wilderness is where life is, where true Goodness and holy light may be discovered. And the place you had always thought to be identity reveals, upon sober reflection and the benefit of hindsight, its own decayed innards.

My story is a story of walking away — no, limping away — from religion and a subsequent stumbling, staggering, into Hope; and maybe these are the wrong verbs. Maybe it’s more of a ‘dying to’ religion or, if I’m being perfectly honest (and really it’s just you and me here so why not be honest) it was more a ‘being crushed by’ religion, a crushing which itself resulted, thankfully, in a subsequent ‘being born into’ Hope. Yes, being crushed and then being born. Those feel right.

See if you can chart this path with me, as odds are good you’ve borne witness to it, if not actually lived it yourself: idealistic young adult of faith hitches his (or her) fortunes to a community he loves and in which he feels loved, welcomed, even known, insofar as we can comprehend known-ness. Even when teaching that runs counter to instinct is posited, the love of the community and the belief in its perceived core integrity rivals the impulse to dissent. Until that one day, that day it all sours, that night it all withers; power abused, ostracism enacted, silence condoned, community lost, faith dimmed.

The place I’d known intimately had abandoned even the artifice of faithfulness to loss and revealed its ugly commitment to power and control and personality-worship.

Thank God for therapy.

Then, of course, in the middle of my own intimate faith doldrums, the presidential election of 2016 happened and the angst and grief I felt at the church locally ballooned and magnified, exponentially scaled up, into a wellspring of angst and grief at the church nationally.

This all sounds poetic, perhaps, but at the root of these experiences, at the heart of this forced questioning over these past 5 years, I keep being led back to a most basic line of thought: if adherence to the traditional forms of church and its mores can still result in catastrophe, then why bother? When pastors and presidents are guilty as hell of heinous wrongdoing; when leaders of faith and of civic life metaphorically and literally abuse those in their care; where, then, are we left to turn?

With unveiled faces and with tear-reddened eyes, I have come to think, to maybe believe that we turn — impossible as it may be — to the Suffering Servant; perhaps, ultimately, into the Suffering Servant. The face we had before the world was made is that of humility, lowliness, meekness. We are taught self-aggrandizement. We are modeled ego-stroking, even (and especially) by those in pulpits. Thus, only in the rubble of our old identities can we finally forsake the security of the puffed-up self; can we finally abandon the rigid language of religion and embrace the untamed and untamable spirit of Christ, adopting the posture of loss as the only example worth emulating. We’ve grown drunk following Christ, letting him do all our dying for us, forgetting that the end-goal of any following is embodying.

God help us, we’re so pathetic at embodying.

Reject the Cross as purely and solely substitution, and embrace the Cross as our own will to loss. Resistance only matters if we know what we’re resisting for, if we comprehend what our resistance has to offer instead. Merely holding back the hordes of corruption and decay is not enough. Resistance is painting a picture with our lives, by the aggregation of all our mutual loss into a redemptive counterforce; the very essence of light in darkness.

We dissent in practical ways, like holding our tongue long enough for our words to transmute our anger into tenderness; like truly attempting to conduct a life of love towards others, all others; like recognizing our own limited perspective and embracing the discomfort that comes in broadening it.

We dissent in our religious life by interrogating our biases; by insisting on accountability for our leaders; by fully and completely rejecting the notion of a national identity as a theological one; by recognizing that our own theology has an adverb; by seeing the true dignity of every life at all stages; by full and unfettered inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons and minorities in the life of faith, abandoning the extreme exegetical gymnastics required to keep others from Christ’s great feast; by dignifying the agency of all in our midst, especially our mothers and sisters and daughters.

Once the church I loved had expelled me into the wilderness, I ceased striving against what I’d come to know is true: Christ’s kingdom and its gates are offensively inclusive and insultingly wide, and I would no longer be party to bodies, religious or otherwise, that worked to keep others from the Feast of Plenty, the Great Table of Christ’s Welcome.

Forced exclusion from a church congregation pushed me deeper into the suffering servant’s state, and imbued within me a permission to dissent; from the imperially entwined American church leadership that trades its sisters’ safety for power, its parishioners’ presence for pleasure, others’ children for perceived security, and its witness for an empty electorate.

There do remain good churches doing good work. But Christ’s kingdom isn’t bound by four walls and a steeple, no, it is unwalled and elevated, raised high and visible, it is untamed and untamable in the hands and feet of those embodying His prophetic witness to speak truth to power and to issue forth a Kingdom of goodness, where mercy and justice flow like a river.

The church was never a place, but a people. We fashion this Kingdom where we are so those who don’t know the way Home can more easily recognize it and find themselves amidst it. In the life to come for sure, but the life to come begins with the life at hand.

Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand. So, too, dissent, for the Kingdom is in your hands.


Nathan Rouse is a husband, a father, a pet-owner, and a fool for hope. He can be found on Twitter at @thenathanrouse, and also co-hosts a podcast called The Fear of God, discussing horror movies and faith, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Lost and Found

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 Karen Jones

The day I found my brother was the last day I formally went to church.

He was living in a discarded truck behind a car repair shop, isolated from the hearing world because of his deafness and from the seeing world because of his plight. He read the paper daily, front to back, and could tell you anything you’d want to know about current events. When I went to see him, just after 9/11, there was a small American flag perched in the side window of the dilapidated truck. Why was I surprised?

I came every week, bringing food and reserving a night for him in a nearby hotel. The time we spent together became church in the truest sense.

I cried.

I hallelujahed.

I shouted supplications and obscenities.

I did what I could.

And then, after our Sunday visits, I drove home, passing the manicured medians on a different side of town, passing the church I had attended for years but couldn’t return to. There was just no way to clean my brother up enough to go there.

Sometimes living is messy. And churches don’t do messy.

We want people to fold their lives, just so, and tuck them neatly in the top dresser drawer. We want order, cleanliness, 30 minute sermons, and lunch by noon.

Homelessness isn’t just about shelter or location, or finances or bad decisions. It isn’t just about addiction or mental health. It is the disheveled heap of humanity that crumples at the door.

Our door.

And what do we do?

We cry.

We hallelujah.

We shout out supplications and obscenities, because we are human, too. And then we do what we can.


Karen Jones has worked in Charlotte’s Early Childhood Community for over 30 years, promoting creativity and cooperative collaboration through literacy and the arts. She is formally the Executive Director for a non-profit agency, serving children and families of multi-ethnic communities in Charlotte NC. Currently she enjoys being a regular participant of M2MCHARLOTTE!

Worship in Diverse Cross-Cultural Church

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 Gad Mpoyo

Since the 2016 election season, the topic of immigration has moved to the forefront of the national political debate as well as in the church. The changing demographic of the United States due to waves of migration is not longer an abstract phenomenon. The once majority culture is now becoming the minority culture.

As a pastor of Shalom International Ministry, a cross-cultural PC(USA) New Worshipping Community located in Clarkston, Georgia, a city once called by the New York Times “the most diverse square mile in the country,” I see this change in demographics and culture on a daily basis. For example, at Clarkston High School, students speak more than 77 languages; in my own context, 25 languages are spoken, and Shalom has members from 17 countries.

Photo from Shalom International Ministry Facebook page

People migrate for various reasons. For some, migration is driven by the search for better education. For others, migration provides oppressed peoples an opportunity to imagine a new future. As people migrate, they carry with them two forms of luggage. One is visible (i.e. suitcase or backpack), and the other is invisible. Inside this invisible luggage one will find culture, cuisine, language, fear, past trauma, and dreams, and interwoven throughout is their faith expressed in worship.

Clarkston is a microcosm of what America will look like in the coming years. This sounds like a very optimistic vision of a great future filled with unity in diversity, a future where everyone lives together in harmony. But it is worth pointing out that this new reality of diversity in culture and demographics poses new challenges not only in the political realm but also in our communities and churches.

When it comes to addressing issues of inclusiveness, power sharing, and justice, two questions arise in the church:

  • How can the church be church while offering worship that is authentic, contextual and just? By authentic, I mean true to our Judeo-Christian tradition; contextual, so that it reflects the reality of the people; and just, as it affirms the dignity and value of other human beings.
  • How can the worship and corporate life of our congregations be meaningful and inviting to people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, such as refugees or immigrants?

To address these questions, which are generated by the new reality of diversity in our communities and pews, and to live faithfully into our calling as the priesthood of all believers, there is a need for a paradigm shift in the way the majority culture relates to the minority cultures when it comes to worship.

A few years ago, I was approached by a Presbyterian minister whose church invested a lot of time and energy in welcoming and helping refugee families from Africa, including Congo. Her church responded to many needs of those refugee families, from buying furniture and kitchen utensils to tutoring the children, taking them to the social security office and medical appointments, orienting them to the new culture, and teaching the parents English, just to name a few. However, the minister and her congregation felt disappointed and could not understand why these families, though Christians, would neither attend the worship service nor participate in church activities. They would come to worship once or twice and then never came back. Since I come from the Democratic Republic of Congo and I work with refugee communities, this minister genuinely ask me to help her understand why there was lack of engagement from those refugee families.

On the one hand, I can empathize with this congregation. I can see the extent to which they invested resources in helping those families. On the other hand, the church’s encounters with the families seemed transactional rather than relational. They seemed to be driven by an expectation of some kind of return for their investment. Furthermore, there was a lack of understanding of the culture and notion of worship from the perspective of those refugee families.

Before jumping to conclusions and blaming the refugee families for not participating in worship, one needs to consider these questions: What is our worship planning process? Who is at the table? How did they get there? Who from our community is missing? Why are they missing? What power and cultural dynamics need to be reconsidered in order to reconceive worship planning in our own contexts as more than merely diverse but actually more just and equal?

As we reflect on these questions, I extend an invitation to each of us to take a deep breath, open our minds, eyes, and spirits, and put on the shoes of those refugee families – the ones who stopped attending services that were conducted in a language that was foreign to them; the ones who sat in pews attempting to follow a liturgy they could not understand. Who would want to continue coming to a service that does not speak to their own reality? As Jehu Hanciles once said, “Christ cannot be ‘the way’ if he does not know where you are coming from. Christ cannot be truth if he does not speak to your questions. Christ cannot be life if he does not know the circumstances you inhabit.” Is it not true that we, too, in our own contexts question why people do not come to church? I wonder if we are not falling into the same trap as it was in the case of my minister friend’s congregation.

As she and I continued the conversation, I expressed the need to understand worship from the African and, more specifically, the Congolese worldview. Worship among Congolese communities extends beyond the two or three hours that people gather. Worship is a way of life. This concept of worship is rooted in the African worldview, which states that there is little or no separation between the sacred and the secular. Based on this African worldview, to live is to worship, to worship is to live. Then, I expressed to her that if her congregation wants to be diverse, the leadership team would need to start inviting “the other” to the table in the planning process. Just as Christ welcome us all, no matter whether we come from the North, South, East, or West, so shall the table in our planning process be open to all. This is an act of justice.

I do not know how the conversation went between that congregation and those families, but this is a typical example that reminds us how the change in our demographics and culture affects our way of worship and pushes us to rethink the church’s call to be a priesthood of all believers. By welcoming everyone to the table, even the planning table, we see glimpses of the heavenly feast we will enjoy one day. In doing so, we are fulfilling God’s call to “make disciples of all nations.”

Resources
Elaine. Padilla; Peter C. Phan, contemporary Issues of Migration and Theology (New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2013)

Woosung Calvin Choi, Preaching to Multiethnic Congregation: Positive marginality as a homiletical paradigm (New York: Peter Lang; 2015)


Gad Mpoyo is a founding pastor of Shalom International Ministry, a 1001 New Worshipping Community located in Clarkston GA. Shalom serves primarily immigrants and refugees from more than seven countries. He comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. His interest is on migration and how it is affecting the church.

The Town that Sold Sand

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 Erika Funk

There once was a town in Texas that made sand. Really great sand. Right there in the middle of Texas, the best sand used for fracking. Fracking? Yep. Turns out good sand is essential for the process and when fracking started to take off, so did the small town of Brady, population 6,000, which had been making great sand since the ‘50s. As fracking grew, Brady eventually had seven sand plants. The whole town bustled with people who worked for the sand company. This was sand town! Until West Texas figured out how to mine the same kind of sand cheaper and closer to the fracking projects.

The town’s economy began to spiral. Now many people are out of work and have moved away. The last sand plant closed the end of May. Even folks with high paying jobs are leaving, there’s no work for them here without the plants. What is Brady without sand mines?

Sadly, this tale all too common in many U.S. towns today. The economy has shifted, globally, nationally and locally and there’s not much we can do about it.

In other towns, distant and different from Central Texas, something similar is happening in an industry we might call “church.” The atheist church began over 12 years ago in England and has grown at the pace of Starbucks locations. Atheist churches are popping up in the US and are spreading just as fast. With names like Sunday Assembly and Oasis, the Atheist church is exactly what it sounds like. People gather together on Sunday for music, community, an inspiring word, and information on where and how to serve others. Churches like this are clear to say they are anti-supernatural. It is a no myth zone, in their words. But yes, they use the word “church” in their names.

I went to hear the founders of the Atheist Church movement in England speak once at a conference and I will admit what they described sounded like fun. They sing, they laugh, they care about each other, and they have snacks! In fact, the leader is also a stand-up comedian! She was warm and funny. Their church is a simpler, easier form of the same thing I grew up with, easier to access and without all the cost. Like less expensive and more accessible sand.

This is the truth of what organized religions face today. What we offer can now be found closer to home (even online) and with less risk, less complications. We’ve done this to ourselves, church people, and I hope there’s not too much debate about that. The church has lost her voice, her passionate and articulate voice for things that really matter. The messages heard from the church beyond the sanctuary walls are typically mean, judgmental, coded, and “siloed.” As a whole, the church is not seen to have a voice for the suffering, the marginalized, the disengaged or even people who are living full lives and dedicated to issues they really care about. We sing, we give motivational talks, we create great fellowship events, so what’s missing?

While we were trying out new Sunday School times and praise music someone else came along and found a better way to connect people and share good news. And masses of people are flocking to it. The good news for us and humanity is that people still long for community, fun, and meaning beyond one’s individual life and goals. We should accept that we are no longer the experts at community and meaning and instead need to ask “what would be missing from the world if there was no church?” That’s a hard question to answer but worth contemplating. I do not believe the church is dying. It is changing and transforming and we are living in an exciting time of re-examination. The church will not die until God releases us from that purpose.

So how will we answer the question: What’s missing from the world that faith communities can uniquely offer? What’s missing that the church knows how to help people find?


Erika Funk is the Director of CROSS Missions at Myers Park Presbyterian Church. She is celebrating her 25th year of ordination in the PCUSA by returning to youth ministry. Her love of youth knows no end – she’s also mom to a 18 year old and a 13 year old. She likes whiskey but mostly drinks coffee.