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Intent

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Michael McNamara

Intent. All prayer starts with intent.

In the beginning the intent might be a selfish desire to get something or achieve something. The intent might be to satisfy an elder or even a loved one. The intent might be to look good in public amongst peers; the intent might be to show off, as Jesus accused the scribes and the Pharisees of doing.
If one prays enough though, those original intents can begin to melt away. There is another intent that begins to emerge. At first, it is quiet and subtle, buried deep below the surface. It might start with the thought that one should not ask for things in prayer; it might be a desire to pray in solitude even if one has only ever prayed in public; it might come in a moment of seeking prayer apart from the person that has always been present before.

Over time this shift becomes greater. One might feel a need to pray, but is unable to find words; one might feel a necessity for silence; one might find themselves unable to make it through a day without stopping and giving themselves to something larger than themselves, deeper than their own capacity of experience.

Over time, one may begin to deeply understand that the intent of prayer is to simply be present to God.

I have come to appreciate this through the help of contemplatives like Gerald May, Thomas Keating, and Tilden Edwards. And as I have come to appreciate this, I have started to realize that with this intent, nearly all things can become prayer. That an intent to be in the simple presence of God is something that can guide one’s whole being,. One’s life can be intent to be present to God. When a person is intentionally present to God, simply and in still, patient awareness of the freely given Love of God, there exists the capacity to be transformed into the hands and feet of God, to exist as the body of Christ in the world.

One of the hopes of the NEXT Chuch blog this month is to share with the mainline church lessons garnered from contemplative practice. This lesson of intent is powerful. It is simple, yet in it is the capacity to “be reformed.”

What is your intent in worship? What is your intent with mission and outreach? What is your intent with leadership? What is your intent with stewardship? What is your intent as a congregation? The contemplatives offer a simple answer: to be present to God.

And even more than that, what if worship on Sunday morning was an intentional space to practice this intention? To practice it so one can live it out the rest of the week? What if the intent of worship was to practice presence in and awareness of God so that in the rest of one’s life they can more confidently live into this intent? In this scenario worship is not an end in itself; it is a means to God becoming actualized in more places. It is a means to God’s love in one’s community beyond the walls of the church.

Contemplation, then, is not something a person does for themselves; rather, it is something that is done for the community, for the world, because contemplation is the practice of letting God in, and by letting God in, God goes out.

It is with the intent to be present to God and to deepen awareness of God that the Love of God becomes manifest.

What is your intent?


Mike McNamara is a Presbyterian pastor serving Adelphi Presbyterian Church in Adelphi, MD, as well as forming a New Worshipping Community rooted in contemplative practice in Silver Spring, MD. Mike has a beautiful wife and two young boys ages 2 and 4. He has a particularly strong love of rock climbing and good coffee. Catch him at RevMcNamara.com and on instagram: @a_contemplative_life.

An Opportunity to Practice

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rev. Mark Greiner

Please take a moment to notice your breathing.

For a full minute, simply enjoy breathing. What do you notice? Before reading further, what you do notice about your own breaths?

Is the breathing more slow or more fast? Is it deep into your belly or more in your chest? What sounds come with your breathing? Is there any congestion, or are you breathing freely? While noticing your breathing, do any emotions arise? Do the qualities of our breathing shift as we pay attention?

Our physical body speaks all the time, and we can listen.

I’m an acupuncturist as well as a pastor. As an acupuncturist, I help people listen to their own bodies. Our bodies speak, responding to the food we eat, what we drink, how we move, and more. Listening to our bodies helps us become skillful. As we become aware of what give us life, we can cultivate those qualities. Daily, we are our own primary care physicians.

“Mindfulness” is a wonderful set of awareness practices. (For an excellent guide, see Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh.) We can also have more than mind-fulness. We can have bodyfulness – a rich and ongoing awareness of our physical selves.

We are, all at the same time, body AND mind AND spirit.

The Gospel of John proclaims of Jesus: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) What an amazing affirmation of our bodies. Not only did God delight in making creation, God entered creation in Jesus’ flesh!

Of any faith tradition, ours especially is about the flesh, about being embodied. Embodied faith flowers beautifully in both an outer journey and an inner journey.

All the time Jesus cared about people’s concrete, physical needs: being hungry or thirsty or needing a safe haven or healing. Following Jesus means embodying care in very tangible ways. The outer journey is about cultivating and safeguarding others’ well-being.

The inner journey cultivates and safeguards our own well-being. Jesus embraced the whole of his own humanity in body, mind, and spirit. So can we. We are minds, and more than minds. We are enfleshed temples of the Holy Spirit.

The inner and outer journeys are one in prayer. Jesus modelled regularly withdrawing to pray. As our own life in God deepens, we can become aware of more and more. Investing time in solitude increases our intimacy with ourselves, with God, and our capacity for intimacy with other people.

So we return to the simplest prayer of all: our breath. It’s said that the names root names of God are breathing itself. Jesus related to God as Abba (“daddy”). Breathing through the mouth, “Ab” is like the sound if an inhalation. “Ba” is an exhalation.

Let us breathe, and know God.


Pastor Mark Greiner focuses on healing and spirituality. Along with 25 years serving Presbyterian congregations, he sees patients as an acupuncture intern at the Maryland University of Integrative Health in Laurel, MD. His wife works with the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, and they have a daughter in college.

Pilgrimage is Not What I Expected

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 Rev. Allison Wehrung

As a handful of our group walked through the streets of Bethlehem after dinner one night, the wash of street lights and glow of neon signs dimly lit our way, while the city came alive with Muslim neighbors breaking their Ramadan fast. Families did their shopping, car horns blared, and street vendors advertised their wares. Into my head wandered words I’ve heard probably every December of my life: “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…”

Shepherds’ Field in Bethlehem, Palestine (Allison Wehrung)

I was struck by just how different these moments felt from deep and dreamless sleep. Not to mention that in the distance loomed the harsh concrete slabs of The Wall, snaking through the soft hills where Jesus was born. During our time in Bethlehem we visited the site said to be where the angels appeared to the shepherds and announced Jesus’ birth. As we stood at the entrance to a cave that would have protected the flocks from nighttime predators, closed-off boardwalks criss-crossed our view and Israeli settlements sprawled on the ridge lines.

A few days later we were walking again, this time through the Old City of Jerusalem. We arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and, as we went inside, there wasn’t much option but to follow the slow, consistent flow of shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic winding through the dim interior of the complex. Nudged along by the people behind us, we followed a narrow staircase up, past the place where some say Jesus was crucified, back down to where Helena is said to have found the “true cross,” wound around and eventually emerged back into the main space that included the tomb where Jesus might have been buried and resurrected. The line to see the tomb’s interior wrapped around the room and was longer than our timeframe allowed. The building felt so complicated and crowded that I remember wondering how long it would take me to find my way out if I was separated from our group.

Pilgrimage is not what I expected. Anticipating our trip, I was amazed at the number of familiar biblical names on the itinerary. But honestly, the act of setting foot on many of the holy sites we visited just wasn’t as moving as I thought it would be. The ornate churches built around these places began to feel almost intrusive. The institutional regulation limiting access — sometimes literally dividing a building in half — seemed to grate against what I know of an arms-wide-open God. I had no doubt that these places were powerful, but, at the same time, I wondered if we humans were getting a little too close to putting God in a box.

Prayers and offerings left by pilgrims at the Wedding Church at Cana (Kafr Kanna, Israel). Notice the column laying horizontally, repurposed from Byzantine ruins to become part of a later wall. (Allison Wehrung)

And yet, for hundreds of years, pilgrims have found their way to these sacred places. Despite the dissonance I felt during some of our holy site stops, I was struck by remnants representing the people who had come before us. Many of the structures we saw are relatively modern, but are built on top of older sanctuaries that were built on top of still older ones, located where they are because before that they were synagogues or other sacred ground. Destroyed and rebuilt, again and again, each time using the rubble of what was as the foundation for what would come to be. Across time and tradition, God had met people there. Even in the midst of humanity’s brokenness, God continues to meet people there. I found myself particularly captivated by the small paper prayers folded into cracks and crevices — tangible signs left behind by believers who could have been desperate or joyful or anything in between.

I came to realize that, at least for me, the power in our visits to holy sites wasn’t about the buildings at all, beautiful as they are, or sometimes even about the ground beneath them. This part of our pilgrimage reminded me that, despite the particulars of how we each live out our faith, we are part of something far bigger than ourselves. Being a person is messy and Christianity definitely isn’t perfect either. But maybe the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” fit after all: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight…”


Rev. Allison Wehrung lives in Oxford, MS where she is the Presbytery of St. Andrew’s Associate Executive Presbyter for Campus Ministry and the Campus Minister at UKirk Ole Miss. She is a maker and lover of recycled art, handwritten letters, coffee, and her favorite Southern vegetable (macaroni and cheese).

Pilgrimage is Facing Fear

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 Churchfrom 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 Facebookand Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Frank Spencer

As I approached the checkpoint for the first time, I could feel my anxiety rising. The uniformed guard said, “Passport.” Not as a question, not as an invitation, but rather as a requirement for me to pass unharmed. It is hard to tamp down the fear as one approaches an armed representative of a government which is not one’s own, in a place where all the rules are not transparent nor equally enforced. As I moved beyond the checkpoint, I could feel my anxiety ebb. The moment of fear had given way to encounters with new acquaintances that would prove full of good will. I would pass through Checkpoint Charlie between East and West Berlin five more times before the wall fell in 1989.

Photo: Greg Klimovitz

The wall that divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem and surrounding areas looks strikingly like that earlier wall that had so terrified me. It is twenty-five feet of vertical concrete topped with razor wire. Every so often, a watchtower looms with armed guards protected from view, but not from seeing. On the Bethlehem side are intricate, amusing, and sometimes profane graffiti paintings. The west side of the Berlin Wall was likewise adorned.

The Israeli checkpoints have the same feel as their Cold War antecedents: young military guards with automatic weapons. As you approach, you hope they are busy or bored and not feeling aggressive or confrontational. The latter is always a risk as research shows that simply the presence of weapons significantly increases aggressive cognition, hostile appraisals, and aggressive behavior.[i]

The Israeli settlements in the West Bank also have checkpoints. They were not as I had pictured them. Somehow my mind had constructed an image of single story homes on small lots with communal agricultural space. Perhaps I had melded the idea of kibbutz and settlement. In contrast to that bucolic misrepresentation, they are extremely dense, urban populations up to 60,000 people with schools, businesses, and public spaces. They can function as suburbs with commuters driving to work in larger cities. Like Bethlehem, they have fortified perimeters made mostly of fencing with barbed wire. Any entry requires scrutiny at the military checkpoints. Unlike Bethlehem, they are not trying to keep the population in, but to keep a perceived threat out.

The common element on both sides of these barriers is fear.

In Jaffa, the seaside suburb of Tel Aviv, there exists a striking contrast to the West Bank. We American Christians strolled the promenade with a mass of humanity that clearly included Arab Muslims; Arab Christians; and Liberal, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews. No one seemed threatened or fearful. A wedding reception was beginning in one of the local establishments. Couples strolled the beach in the fading light. There were no checkpoints to navigate, no fences to separate, and no weapons to brandish.
Israel/Palestine is a complicated place with profound geo-political implications. After having spent only a week meeting people and encountering many contrasting ideas and perspectives, I would not presume to offer any solution to the current political problem. But it is a political problem. Leaders on each side demonize the other and ascribe the worst intent, often inciting violence from their constituents.

What I can say is this, walls and fences guarded by armed soldiers have never created peace. At times, it may create the illusion of security for one side, but that security is a falsehood. Walls and fences cannot keep out resentment of those on the side of less power any more than they can keep in the fears of the ones supposedly protected. The narratives about the enemy on the other side of the barrier grow and are expanded with each generation that lives unnaturally divided.

Perhaps what Christianity has to offer to the peace process is this: we believe in a God whose reconciling action with humankind was to accept complete vulnerability and “move into the neighborhood.”[ii]

When people build relationships through personal engagement, hate and fear tend to dissipate. Our commonality as children of God is more profound than our superficial differences. Engaging the faces of our fear is perhaps the only way to face that fear.

[i] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1088868317725419
[ii]Eugene Peterson, The Message.


Rev. Frank Spencer is the President of the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He has served as an elder and deacon and taught Sunday school to adults and children. He was Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Montreat Conference Center and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. His home church is Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, where he was ordained by the Presbytery of Charlotte. You can learn more about Frank on the Board of Pensions website.

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.

Facing Criticism and Questions

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 Sean Chow

In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.” I’d like to take a bit of liberty and translate the last part of that verse this way: “In ministry, you will face questioning and be criticized, but take heart! I’m not afraid of the questions and I have overcome the criticism.”

Face it: in ministry there will be criticism. We will be criticized. Especially when we’re at the forefront of what God is doing “next” in the church. Realizing that does not, however, make accepting criticism or having people question our ministry, motives and work.

More than 20 years ago, when I first started ministry, I had a question that still haunts me. “When are you going to get a real job?” That question, from a family member, stunned me. Was my work and effort and ministry as a youth pastor not worthy of being considered a “real job?” Thankfully, the question forced me to consider what I was doing at the time and even today, the question is cause for reflection.

For 6 years, I served a church on the East Coast. The congregation decided it was interested in being more involved in the community. At least, they said they wanted to be more involved in the community. The church hired an “evangelism coach” to help the pastoral staff and congregation understand what it would take to be truly outwardly focused. But, like most churches, what they really wanted was for the community to come into their doors, and they wanted them to enter on their terms.

As the leadership team began to chart a new course and unveil it to the congregation, tension began to rise. Pointed questions began to filter in. Questions such as:

“When are these new people you are working with going to sit next to me in church?”
“We are paying your salary; you should be spending more time with us instead of them.”
“When are they going to be contributing members to this church?”

I had a deep love for the congregation and through the years we had walked through the complexity of life together. But their criticism of the ministry God had called us to became a real challenge for me. I did not know how to deal with criticism from people that I respected, people I loved and people with whom I had forged great relationships. Yet, in the midst of the struggle, I knew that we were part of something greater—something far beyond ourselves and the four walls of that “church.” The endless criticism and constant questioning wore me down. It caused me to question if God had actually called me to that place and that ministry. I internalized the criticism and it changed me. It caused me to go down dark holes of despair and I found myself being passive aggressive. I became someone I did not want to be.

Recently, I was watching Brene Brown’s Netflix special and she raised up a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that gets to the heart of the matter:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I look back and reflect on those 6 years of ministry with a clearer understanding. Today, I wonder if those who offered critiques of my ministry had an adequate understanding of what we were doing. I wonder if I could I have helped them have eyes to see and hears to hear. Perhaps I failed to make space for them in the arena.

As we engage in ministry, as we discern what’s next for the church and as we walk into that vision, we will be criticized and there will be questions. Here’s my wisdom on the matter after 20 years in ministry. Be confident in who God has called you to be and steadfast in the work before you. Don’t fear the questions or the criticism and do not let those who criticize chip away at who you are. Rather, invite them into the arena; make space for them to walk alongside you and invite them into the thick of the discerning process.

Dare greatly as we participate in God’s mission on earth to journey into what is “next” for the church. And remember the words of the one we follow, “In this world as you answer God’s call on your life, you will face questioning and be criticized, but take heart! I’m not afraid of the questions and I have overcome the criticism.”


Rev. Sean Chow lives with his family in the San Francisco area and is the Western region associate for 1001 New Worshiping Communities.

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.

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.