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Holding the Tension

by Angela Williams

Even though I am no longer a college student, I had the great privilege of attending College Conference at Montreat earlier this month on behalf of NEXT in order to host two listening sessions. I thoroughly enjoyed this time of personal and professional renewal that I had experienced as a college student; however, I came to College Conference from a different place than I did previously. For the past four months, I have been thrust into the professional church world. I am so grateful to be a part of the NEXT Church network that is truly on the cutting edge of moving the new church awakening forward. Simultaneously, I am experiencing what it is to work for the church and not simply be an enthusiastic, active member for the first time on my journey.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Recently, NEXT Church director Jessica Tate and I discussed where NEXT fits in Diana Butler Bass’s Arc of Awakening. We came to the conclusion that NEXT is in the thin space at the base of the arc, where we are free to imagine and experiment. NEXT must work with those who find themselves on all points of the arc, whether they are grasping the loss of the old way or already marching forward with new visions in hand.

Personally, I feel as if I have a foot on each side of the arc. I get to imagine the future of the church with NEXT at the same time that I work with incredibly valuable ministries of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church that have been spreading God’s love for over fifty years. In each of these placements, I am working closely alongside other humans and all of their beautiful messiness, some of whom are mourning the church of their childhood, others who cannot wait for the church to catch up with their ideas.

So it was with this mindset that at College Conference, I heard amazing preaching on John 3:16 from NEXT Church strategy team member Carla Pratt Keyes, the story of a football player who left the NFL to follow his calling to become a farmer, creative accounts of witnessing from Nadia Bolz Weber, and tales of transformative mission from leaders across the country. Through the listening sessions, I heard invigorating narratives of presbyteries that energize local congregations to meet the need in their communities. I also listened as some expressed hurt that a denominational program with so much potential fizzled. If I learned anything from these sessions, it is that we are not alone in the struggle to follow the Spirit through times of tension. Any questions I have about my ministries have found a home in others’ hearts, too. That solidarity that we found in an hour of relational conversation energizes me to keep imagining, while holding the tension of the church that was, the church that is, and the church that is to come.


 

Angela WilliamsAngela Williams is currently walking alongside the good folks at NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

Stretching and Straining between Celebration and Agony

By Jodi Craiglow

Diana Butler Bass was just starting to hit pay dirt when Marci’s phone buzzed. She glanced down and swiped the screen, and I saw (and felt) a surge of energy course through her. A mixture of exhilaration and relief washed across her face as she leaned over to me and whispered, “Palisades just approved 14-F by a voice vote.”

Those eight words kicked off one of the most ambivalent nights of my life.

You see, Marci’s one of the co-moderators for the Covenant Network. I used to be on the board of directors for the Presbyterian Lay Committee. In a normal world, we should have at the very least kept one another at arm’s length. Who am I kidding? In a normal world, I would never have even been at the NEXTChurch gathering. But nevertheless, there we were, sitting beside each other – by choice – and, to make matters even more absurd, I was the first one she told when she saw the news.

A few silent-but-electrified minutes passed, and the young woman we’ve lovingly come to know as the “Presbyterian Kanye” heralded the news to the non-Twitterfied public. A spontaneous standing ovation erupted. As if my ambivalence weren’t quite thick enough yet… there I was, sitting on the front pew of Fourth Church’s expansive sanctuary, in direct eyeshot of over six hundred people. The room tilted ever so slightly on its axis as I found my way to my feet. I didn’t quite know what to do with my hands, so I gave Marci a benevolent pat on the arm. As the celebrations died down, we all settled back into our seats and tried as best we could to pay attention to this scholar whose talk was supposed to be the highlight of the conference.

After the presentation, I took CovNet’s, More Light’s, and Parity’s “All Are Welcome” invitation at its word and found my way over to Ditka’s for what ended up being the 14-F ratification party. Brian, CovNet’s Executive Director, gave me a hug and thanked me for coming. Tricia, CovNet’s national organizer, made her way across the crowded room to ask how I was holding up. I texted Nathan, one of More Light’s co-moderators, with words of benediction and received his blessing in response. I checked Facebook, and my News Feed was a schizophrenic mixture of celebration and agony.

My mind was drawn back to Diana’s diagram of the “Arc of Awakening.” I’ve known for a while that God is calling me to a place of holding hands with people on both sides of that semicircle – but what I didn’t realize is how much (or often) it would force me to stretch and strain. I gathered in the middle of the room to pray with the remaining partygoers, and a few tears escaped my closed eyelids. Landon found me, gave me a hug, and the last shreds of my composure dissolved. I wept, right there in the middle of the room, in front of God and everybody. I cried for the confusion I felt – for wanting to mourn with some of the people I loved and rejoice with some of the other people I loved. I cried for the insecurity that comes when you realize that labels aren’t really working anymore. I cried for the long and heartbreakingly rocky road that inevitably lies ahead. And Landon stood there with me and allowed me do it, knowing full well that I hold a different view than he does on some pretty hot-button issues right now – but also knowing that our kinship as siblings in Christ runs deeper than any disagreement we could ever have.

So, what does the NEXT church look like for me? It looks like a place where we love each other enough to disagree well. It looks like a place where we trust Jesus enough to let him put us in situations where we’d never think we’d find ourselves. And it looks like a place where it’s good for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity – especially when that unity doesn’t mean uniformity.


Jodi Craiglow Jodi Craiglow is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church in Libertyville, IL. She is a PhD student in Educational Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and serves as an adjunct professor at Trinity International University and Trinity Graduate School.

 

Bridging the Thin Places

By Leslie King

It was an amazing 2015 conference at NEXT Church. As always, front line ministries were “the experts” kindling our imaginations and hope for the church. All gathered were honoring the past while answering God’s persuasive call into the future with curiosity and discovery. What other conference allows you to come home and “brain dump” seven pages of pragmatic notes for your own ministry? It was wonderful.

On Tuesday evening of the conference, we panned up from all the particular ministries we had been considering to sit at the feet of Diana Butler Bass. Her current work is around the awakening that she believes is happening in the church. In order to explore the process of awakening, in her work, she appropriates Otto Scharmer’s Theory U project for the church. So Theory U has a wonderful simplicity. The shape of the letter U allows one to understand the personal or corporate shift from a crisis in understanding (an experience at the top left of the U shape) as a movement through the lower and deeper places of personal or corporate awareness (cradle of the U shape) toward a new understanding and transformation (upward toward top right of the U shape). In her presentation, Bass described the bottom of the U as the “thinnest” place where access to a new vision is most available to us. However, this promising thin place is also the most fragile place. Diana Butler Bass encouraged participants in NEXT to understand themselves as a bridge for the Body of Christ, crossing over the thin places toward new visions that were not just personal but corporate.

At some point in her speech, perhaps before she described her appropriation, there was from the balcony a voice that called out and interrupted Diana. With apology but abundant joy, a young woman announced to the room that Amendment 14-F had received enough Presbytery votes to officially pass. The amendment, proposing a redefinition of marriage, would become part of our Book of Order. Her call from on high pulled an unstoppable groundswell from below. Cheering people were on their feet with a spontaneous joy. I was not surprised by the passing of the amendment, but I was surprised by the reaction in the room.

NEXT Church has, over its five year existence, carefully attended to its identity. Its self-description is careful and complex. While so many other groups were organizing around issues, NEXT church organized around relationship and ministry. In its own words, NEXT is “…a movement seeking to change the culture of connection in the PCUSA.” And yet, it was clear on Tuesday evening that we had a shared and strong majority opinion on amendment 14-F. We had a joy and a response that, even in its sacredness to us, might strain the relational, diverse, collaborative, and agile future for which we are striving. We know that in a room of 600 people, some were on their feet but not buoyed in spirit.

It was a serendipitous example of a thin place. It was not controllable. I would not have wanted to stifle it. Yet, as I was standing, I was thinking of the all the Presbyteries who were still going to sit down and engage the privilege of considering, debating and voting on the amendment. Would they be compelled in their work to determine what was NEXT for our church? Or had the arrival of the simple majority suggested that their privilege had come too late and that the work was complete? Rev. Brian Ellison had just reminded us in his sermon that morning, even after the passing of an amendment, the work of the church was far from complete.

The moment, as I look back on it, is ripe for NEXT church and its consideration of culture, theology and practice of ministry. I have imagined how I might have liked the moment to happen. No matter the scenario I construct, I am convinced that none of them would have honored the transparency and authenticity of NEXT Church. I have decided the moment was a gift, a challenging and ripe gift, ready to inform and nourish the work of NEXT church on the other side of 14-F. With God’s help may we bridge the thin places, and cross over into the ascension of all that is NEXT for Christ’s church and all the people—in all our diversities—that will comprise it.


leslie kingLeslie King is a Teaching Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Waco, TX and is a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team. 

 

2015 National Gathering

March 16th-18th, 2015 || Chicago, IL

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Community, Curdled Milk, and Pancakes

By Marranda Major

YAVs join together for a community meal. Photo credit: Amy Beth Willis

YAVs join together for a community meal. Photo credit: Amy Beth Willis

Intentional Community. It’s one of the core components of the Young Adult Volunteer program, and by far the most challenging aspect and the most rewarding. The five Washington, DC YAVs (and one Lilly Fellow) share a 3 bedroom/2 bathroom row-house in Brightwood Park; but intentional community means more than just cohabitating the same space.

For us, intentional community means:

  • Weekly community meals that meet everyone’s dietary needs (and rejoicing together in the discovery that vegan gluten-free chocolate chip pancakes are delicious!)
  • Choosing a new spiritual discipline to practice each week as a community (and taking advantage of the city’s diversity to explore our new home and meet people at Taizé services, Buddhist meditation, and yoga classes.)
  • When someone’s glass of milk gets left on the counter overnight, we must have a house meeting to talk about our feelings.

In fact, we spend a lot of time talking about how we feel. And oftentimes, those conversations make me feel like I’d rather rip out my hair than continue to share feelings with the group.

All of the feelings and processing of feelings began on our third day when we began creating our community life covenant. We settled into a shady patch of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden to begin hashing out house rules. With all six parties deeply invested in the community we would create, it was a very serious and deliberate discussion.

We shared our beliefs about what our household should look like:

  • We believe our home should be a space in which all of our community members would feel safe.
  • We believe that living in community means that burdens—like chores—are shared.
  • We believe that everyone should feel welcomed, valued, and a sense of belonging within our community.

We then created rules for our behavior that we felt would support that kind of environment:

  • A chore chart that rotates responsibility for keeping our house clean
  • An agreement to keep shared stories confidential and to respect one another’s need for privacy
  • Policies for dealing with conflict, guests, and alcohol

We hoped that by sharing these beliefs and committing to behave in this way, we would create a sense of belonging.


 

In Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass explains that for the past few generations, Western Christianity has relied a progression of first believing, then behaving, and ultimately belonging:

  1. First you find a tradition whose doctrines and creeds align with your individual beliefs.
  2. Next, you reshape your lifestyle to match that tradition’s prescribed pattern of behavior.
  3. And finally, you gain membership—a sense of belonging—to that community.

The author claims that this process no longer works for contemporary society where people crave belonging above almost everything else, and are more likely to connect their unique set of beliefs with spirituality than religion.

As it turns out, this progression of believe-behave-belong has also failed us in creating a sense of belonging within our intentional community:

  • Believing that our home should be welcoming is not the same as agreeing that a standard of cleanliness is what makes the space welcoming.
  • An abandoned glass of milk infringes on those rules governing behavior and the promise that each community member will clean up after herself.
  • The consequent argument about who will clean up the curdled remains creates so much hostility that the forgetful milk-drinker would not dare own up to abandoning the glass, let alone want to belong to a community that gets so heated over a simple mistake.

It’s a lot of fuss over a single dish to be cleaned, but it’s just one example of how quickly community can sour.

Diana Butler Bass calls for a “Great Reversal” to begin the process of growing in faith with relational community (belonging), then develop intentional practice (behaving), and ultimately lead to experiential belief (believing).

And so, the DC YAVs are working on belonging. It’s a struggle.

And it’s humbling: If the six of us chose to dedicate this year to living in intentional community and are struggling to make it work, what does that mean for our larger faith communities where folks may be less committed to making these communal relationships work? What does God see in us as we squabble and struggle to love the neighbor who looks and acts and believes like us, let alone the neighbors who are different?

It’s a reminder that we are flawed humans. We are imperfect in our ability to love. Sometimes we make mistakes. But we care for one another, and we care about each other’s feelings. We even care enough to clean up someone else’s curdled milk with minimal gagging.

The Washington DC YAVs are still learning how to be in community, but we take the deliciousness of vegan gluten-free chocolate chip pancakes as a sign that there is hope for us all to be nourished and enriched by belonging to one another.


Marranda Major

Marranda is a second-year Young Adult Volunteer working with NEXT Church. Born and raised in Charleston, WV, Marranda graduated from Wellesley College in May 2013 with degrees in Music and Peace and Justice Studies. After serving in Northern Ireland last year, Marranda is excited to explore DC and welcomes any gluten-free vegan recipe suggestions to share with her housemates!

Change is Death

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

 

By Robert Austell

For three days in lovely Kirkcaldy, Scotland, 12 PCUSA pastors and 12 Church of Scotland pastors met with authors and practical theologians, Diana Butler Bass and Douglas Gay, to talk, think, and share about changes in church and culture. Three days is a lot of content, especially with two theologians and 24 pastors, but here is my biggest takeaway…

Change is Death

We talked about whether what we are seeing in Scotland and U.S. culture is “secularization” or “transformation,” but I think we agreed it was change. We talked about the process of groups undergoing change and I recognized much of the stages of grief, not unlike what one might experience as one approaches death, not least of which is the realization that “this is the end of _____ as we’ve known it” (or more short-sighted, just “this is the end of ____.”)

St. Andrew's Cathedral

The ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, one of the key sites where John Knox preached to incite the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. Thanks to a friend for sharing this unique photo vantage point with me – it is taken from the 3rd floor men’s room of the St. Andrews Ph.D. building overlooking the cathedral ruins.

We also talked about what was on the other side of institutional/structural death, including whether to call that “new life, revival, awakening, or transformation.” And we recognized that, like it or not, we and our churches and our neighbors and communities are facing the change.

We talked about institutional failure and innovation out of community; we talked about letting go, carrying (some things) with, and letting come… all parts of the journey, not TO death, but THROUGH death. We also touched on the extreme resistance to that reality of death (of something).

Today I’d like to highlight one observation I had in response to this thought-provoking content. Tomorrow I will share three examples from life in the Presbyterian Church (USA) that illustrate three different approaches to the reality that change is death.

OBSERVATION(s)

Even as we think in the mist of crisis about institutions failing, new visions being envisioned and lived out in fresh expressions of community, and a transformation on the other side of the change-which-is-death, I believe there are underlying questions we must ask ourselves. And perhaps these are the “bits of tradition we carry with us” that Diana Butler Bass mentioned, though I don’t think “bits of tradition” quite gets at the root importance of these questions. 

As those created, loved, redeemed, called, and sent by God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit…

  1. Who are we?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. What are we doing and why?
  4. To whom is our allegiance?

I am drawn to questions like those because institutions are just place-holders, structures that have for a time sustained us in asking and answering questions like those.

New visions, if they are anything more than clever human novelties, are fresh understandings of old, old questions.

And communal innovation and transformation (whether of church or culture) is new life at work answering those kinds of questions, eventually in search of new place-holders and structures to sustain the asking, answering, and living out of questions like those.

Or so it seems to me. Our stimulating discussion of the transformation process and even historic realities like the Great Awakenings leaned toward the WHAT, WHEN and the HOW… good points, important points. But we must also take notice of the WHY (and the One the biblical witness recognizes as the WHO behind the WHY).

Said another way

Of course change is death. Everything we make and touch is dying, encased in the only structures and shells we humans know to construct to house what is from God. But we should also not be surprised to find God at work, bringing life from death and hope from ashes. That’s the good and hopeful Word to which we cling in faith.


Robert Austell is the pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. He blogs regularly at Lighthouse/Searchlight Church.

Dinnaefaschyersel! (Part II)

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

By Lori Raible

 

One of my closest childhood friends was diagnosed with a brain tumor. We knew the news was bad, but couldn’t believe what we heard: A glioblastoma, in the most ‘elegant’ part of her brain. Tentacles. Twists. Turns. Inoperable. Unstoppable. Inevitable.

The most elegant part of her brain.

 

Now its one thing to preach the ‘Good News of the Gospel,’ and another thing all together to live it.

It takes a lot of faith and courage to stare death in the face.

 

‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘Those are just numbers, you are not a statistic.’

‘An experimental trial may work’

‘We’ll pray for a miracle.’

‘You’ll beat it.’

‘The doctor’s not that smart.’

‘The doctor’s wrong.’

‘The doctor’s a jerk.’

Denial. Anger. Fear. Disbelief. Blame.

 

It didn’t matter how many doctors she saw, how many trials, surgeries, pills, needles, green smoothies, massages, scans, or shunts she endured.

 

A diagnosis is a prediction based on facts, but is it a death sentence? Sometimes.

Leaning into the truth allows space for God to do some Holy Spirit stuff. As pastors, a diagnosis allows us to assess, adjust, and go to the place where we are needed the most, even in the face of death.

 

Even The Scot’s good-humored rhetoric could not withstand the mounding evidence of decline Diana Butler Bass presented to our group.

 

“Dennesfaschseryel, don’t worry, it will all work out…”

 

Will it? Tentacles. Twists. Turns…

 

I was grieved by Diana’s slides, and grateful to her for sharing them with honesty, hope, and compassion. From there she led us to a different conversation of great hope for what lies ahead for Christ’s Church. It takes a lot of faith and courage to lean into the work of incarnation.[1] It’s uncomfortable, dangerous, and risky.

 

Ever have a baby?

Ever watch your wife have a baby?

Ever see a woman having a baby on TV?

Amazing, but it’s a scary mess.

 

 

The place we are needed the most is not found in history. Memories are important places to visit, but Jesus isn’t there.

The place we are needed the most is generally not inside the walls where we feel safe. The comfortable constructs of our tired habits, boundaries, egos, and insecurities won’t have room for Jesus to do ‘His Thing.’

 

The future of the church is outside the bounds, ‘on the fringe.’[2] Always has been.

Out there, we reach beyond what we thought was possible.

Out there, we find each other because we are forced to ease our grip, for the sake of embracing one another through the change: for the sake of being the Church.

There in the embrace, is that moment when we throw our arms out, and our heads back, to breath, to laugh, and to give thanks for the whole ridiculous truth of the Gospel.

 

It’s one thing to preach the Good News of the Gospel and it’s another thing all together to live it.

 

It’s time for us to GET OUT THERE, and BE the Church! Not in the face of death, but in light of a God who refuses to let death have the last word.

 

Our final night in Scotland was marked by a Scottish ceilidh (mandatory square dance, plaid, drums, accordion, lots of laughing.) We spun until our bellies hurt and our legs ached. Old, young, and in-between, were joyful and convinced by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, things may be changing, but it really is going to be just fine.

Dinnaefaschyersel!


 

[1] Diana Butler Bass presented new thoughts and work regarding incarnation.

[2] Diana Butler Bass discussing the way transformation occurs.

 

Lori Archer Raible is an associate pastor at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. A graduate from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, Lori is passionate about connecting people to one another through faith and community. Married to Rob, they have two children Joe (8) and Maeve (7). Currently her vocational work includes work with the NEXT community and the TRENT National Conference, which is being created in support of pastors in their first 7 years of ministry. Most of her free time is spent running both literally as a spiritual discipline and metaphorically to and from carpool lines. Deep within her is a writer vying for those precious minutes. 

Dinnaefaschyersel? (Part I)

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

By Lori Raible

Scotland’s national identity is so deeply rooted in the history of the Reformation, that it is nearly impossible to untangle the two. Except for the fact, most folks in Scotland already have.

Within ONE generation, a profound emptying of the pews has crippled the Church of Scotland’s ability to maintain its cultural, societal, and spiritual significance. With 37% of her citizens claiming no religion at all, church membership has declined from 1.3 million in 1957 to just 400,000 today. Not to mention, claiming membership doesn’t always equate to going to church. Attendance numbers in Scotland are said to be around 3%.

Secularization. Decline. Mass Exodus. Call it what you will, but it’s a grim diagnosis. As townspeople bustle passed the bowing stone kirks with their stretched steeples, folks wonder ‘if the future has a church at all?[1]

The truth is this: The Church of Scotland as they had known it, is done.

And another truth: Our US churches face the same diagnosis.

The Holy-rollers, Evangelicals, Catholics, Mainliners, the Mega-Jesus-and-me churches… all of them. In the U.S. 20% claim no religious affiliation.[2] The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has lost 20% of its members over the past decade, and 100,000 last year alone.

Some will say,                     ‘No kidding, I’m exhausted from the dying.’

Others will say,                  ‘Not us, we have an endowment.’

A few will say,                     ‘Not my church, I’m like Jesus. I’ll fix it!’

And a few more,                 ‘Yep, stinks for you, I’ll be retired by then.’

Many will shove our fingers in our ears and shout, ‘LALALALALA’… lest we hear the truth. Many more out of fear, will polarize and politicize the Church … lest we face the messy work of transformation.

Oh wait, we are already doing that.

The Church just ISN’T going to look the way it has in the past.

 

So, twelve US pastors hopped the pond, and gathered with twelve pastors from the Church of Scotland to face the truth together, with an ounce of hope, and a pound of honesty.

The Scots are authentic, unpretentious, hardworking, and tenacious. All this, softened with the warmth of radical hospitality and good old-fashioned humor. The first Sunday of our visit, I teetered within the tall wooden pulpit of The Wellesley Church of Methil Parish, where Rev. Gillian Paterson, assured me they could handle the thick twang of my southern accent.

‘Dinnaefaschyersel,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry, WHAT?’

‘Din-a-fash-yer-sel,’

‘And also with You?’ I asked.

“Dinnaefaschyersel, Don’t get yourself all worked up, it will be okay,’ Gillian assured me with a laugh. Friend for life.

Low on jobs, the social issues impacting the good people of Methil take their toll, but they are the real deal. Tired of dwelling on a long-term diagnosis, Wellesley Church is humble and bold enough to step into the future with God’s purpose at heart.

As the product of two congregations who were forced to yoke, Wellesley has something new growing from the fertile ground of what used to be.[3] With hospitality that can only come from a well-seasoned bunch, gaggles of children from the community are showing up on Wednesday evenings, and young families are peeking into worship on Sundays. With bold leadership, intentional planning, and faith, they hope to build a functional community space to support their rebirth.

Besides meetings, programming, teaching, and preaching, Gillian is trusted to provide extensive pastoral care to a community with the complex needs that accompany a very depressed economy. Within her parish (the physical geography surrounding her church), she officiated 73 funerals, countless weddings, and served as a chaplain within the public schools last year alone.

Yes, she is tired.

No, she is not weary.

 

But, Dinnaefaschyersel?

 

Rooted by the sanctity of worship and fellowship within communities we visited, our group began navigating the trajectory of western religion with American writer and theologian, Diana Butler Bass, and Rev. Doug Gay from The University of Glasgow.

By mid-week, The Scots shared several other peculiar words. Ignoring a theme that seemed to develop, I kept a list:

Dither:                   Acting confused or unsure.

Bizzim:                   A cheeky girl.

Bletherer:               A chatty person

Hadyerwiish:        Hush it.

I simply could not contain my enthusiasm for our new Scottish friends, the camaraderie of my American colleagues, and of course the important conversation we had been invited into on behalf of The Church.

However, on the second day, Diana Butler Bass, shared a couple of compelling and haunting slides. Numbers projecting our demise. Graphs mapping the polarization of religion. Charts proving just how stupid we can be when we take a good thing for granted, and refuse to budge.

 

 

Then there was a photo of a goat.

…with sharp arrows hanging all over it.

No more blethering. We just stared quietly.

 

It was one thing to visit the realities of Gillian’s Parrish. I could even conceptualize the impact this ‘decline’ has had on our American Christianity at large. But no way was I ready to acknowledge the implications these cultural shifts were having within the intimacy of my own ministry.

How American of me.

I cried.

 

I cried because I love our denomination for all it does well. Presbyterianism is grounded in the Gospel as expressed by Word and Sacrament. The integrity of our creeds comes to life through creativity expressed in community and mission. The roots are deep.

I cried for Wellesley church, because now in I love them, and I want them to flourish in a new life they had not imagined.

I cried for the members of my church in Charlotte who know little of these worries.

I cried for my colleagues in ministry who are brave enough to help congregations die well.

I cried because instead of paying attention to what is happening to all of us, we are busy fighting, dividing, ignoring, and clenching to whatever we can with hierarchy and antiquated models of power and exclusivity.

I cried because I have children who love the Church, and know of God’s love through their baptisms of belonging.

I cried because what we practice as pastors is often sacred beyond a chart or statistic. Who am I really… without the Church?

 

Dinnaefaschyersel?


 

[1] Rev. Doug Gay. Book info.

[2] Pew Research Center. www.perforum.org, October 9, 2012.

[3] Butler Bass, Diana. In conversation re: letting go and letting come.

 

 

Lori Archer Raible is an associate pastor at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. A graduate from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, Lori is passionate about connecting people to one another through faith and community. Married to Rob, they have two children Joe (8) and Maeve (7). Currently her vocational work includes work with the NEXT community and the TRENT National Conference, which is being created in support of pastors in their first 7 years of ministry. Most of her free time is spent running both literally as a spiritual discipline and metaphorically to and from carpool lines. Deep within her is a writer vying for those precious minutes. 

Growth on the Edges

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

By Eileen Miller, Church of Scotland

This year, for the first time ever, the apple tree in the corner of our garden produced apples! As someone who does not have ‘green fingers’ and is a bit of a novice in all things horticultural, I was so surprised that a tree which I had planted 5 years ago was producing fruit at all, never mind, producing a bumper crop of apples.

eileenThe truth is that I had little expectation about its fruitfulness possibly because in the previous four years there had been no sign at all of an apple. Meanwhile, the surprise was compounded by the fact that my attention was focussed on a harvest coming from a different part of our garden. In the spring, I had planted two small tomato plants and a pepper plant in a small greenhouse structure on our patio. I had been carefully watering, feeding and attending to these plants on a daily basis and even when we went on holiday, a kind neighbour took over watering them. My family and I were delighted to observe the rapid growth of the two tomato plants although the pepper plant did not flourish. We watched as the yellow flowers made way for small green tomatoes and delighted as they grew bigger and started to redden. Fruit was growing in our garden for the first time, tomatoes from plants that were carefully planted and attended to.

At the same time, and growing unnoticed, were apples on the tree in the corner at the edge of my garden. The tree was producing fruit, without any effort on my part, other than a severe pruning last winter. This was a reminder to me that it is God who causes the harvest to grow (Isaiah 55: 10-11) especially when I am tempted to think it is my own efforts that causes growth and flourishing, both horticulturally speaking and spiritually speaking! Sometimes the growth can happen in unexpected places and at unexpected times. Even in our churches, we can find growth and flourishing happening in surprising places and at unexpected times.

A few weeks ago, I was part of the Scotland Connection gathering in Kirkcaldy, Scotland where 12 pastors from the PC(USA) and 12 from the Church of Scotland met to share experience and to envision what the Church may look like in the future. The focus of the conference was the book by Diana Butler Bass’ entitled “Christianity after Religion: the end of the church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening”. The conference was led by Diana and Doug Gay, a Church of Scotland minister and lecturer at Glasgow University. We were asking where the growth and flourishing is in the Church at a time when statistics about the decline in church membership in the Church of Scotland makes bleak reading. The number of members in the Church of Scotland has halved in the last 30 years and the Presbyterian Church in the USA is beginning to experience decline, albeit not to the same extent as in Scotland.

photo credit: jkc916 via photopin cc

photo credit: jkc916 via photopin cc

As a Probationary Minister preparing to be inducted and ordained within the Church of Scotland, I have been looking around asking ‘where are the fruits of growth in the Church?’ and ‘where are the communities of faith that are flourishing?’ During this past year, I have been surprised by growth in unusual places in the Church. Growth on the edges, in unexpected places and with unexpected people.

An example would be Messy Church events where families who come along on a Sunday afternoon with their children for an afternoon of messy crafts around a Bible story theme, which also includes a short time of worship and a meal together. Many of these families are not members of the church but in this setting, there is a growing sense of community.

And then there is the meal every Wednesday night in the church hall, organised and prepared by another small group of people, for people in the local community who are dealing with issues connected to homelessness. Many have issues with drugs or alcohol.   Growth on the edge, in unexpected places, as the church extends hospitality in the name of Christ and relationships develop.

Also, there is the group of adults of all ages and all abilities who meet monthly for a special worship service which offers creative worship suitable for those with learning disabilities. This also includes making crafts, creative and visual illustrations of Bible stories, drama, music and, of course, sharing food together is also an important part of this community. Growth on the edges, on a Thursday night rather than a Sunday, although some of this group also come to church on Sunday.

Another group of volunteers welcomes between 50 – 70 mainly retired people from the community together for a few hours to share tea/coffee and cakes and chat and sometimes there is some musical entertainment. Many of those who come to this afternoon tea have been invited by people in the church and many are those who have lost their connection to the church for one reason or another and through this, people have renewed their connection with each other and the church. Potential for growth on the edges, as those who have lost a connection with the church find a way back in albeit for a social afternoon.

It seems to me that the growth and flourishing I have been witnessing is coming from projects and groups that offer a place to develop relationships and make connections; either renewing old relationships or making new ones. The groups I mention are meeting in the settings of Kennoway, Windygates and Balgonie: St Kenneth’s but there will be a diverse variety of other communities or potential communities ready to form in different contexts, in other churches everywhere! It struck me that the thing that all of the projects I mentioned have in common is food! Hospitality and enjoying a meal together were key features of early church’s ministry and mission and I suspect they provide a key to mission in our own contexts.

Many of those who come will not be reflected in membership statistics as they may not have joined the church. The groups often take place at times other than on a Sunday morning and therefore the participation of many in the life of the church is not reflected in statistics of membership or attendance. Therefore, statistics alone cannot provide an accurate reflection of the health, growth and flourishing of the Church. Let’s look for the growth on the edges, discerning where God is causing his Word to grow, remembering God is a God of surprises who is committed to building his church (Matthew 16:18) and who causes growth and flourishing in unexpected places by His grace and mercy.

Eileen Miller has worked in the fields of community education and counselling for many years and is a senior accredited counsellor with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Her growing edge has been following a call into ministry and, after 5 years of training, she is about to be ordained and inducted into a church within the Church of Scotland.