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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.

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.

Leadership Potential Left on the Margins

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Mathew Eardley

I sit at a lot of tables. And wear a lot of hats. Don’t you? They keep me busy. And it keeps me isolated. What I mean by “isolated” is that when I’m busy, I find it easier to do things myself, or ask those that are already deeply invested alongside me to do ‘it.’ This is unfortunate, though, because it leaves a lot of potential leadership in the margins.

This truth I live causes me to reflect on two important questions that every leader and leadership body should be asking.

  • Who has been included in leadership?
  • Whose voices, perspectives, and insight are not being heard?

In our current world of nominating committees, diverse representation, and overbooked schedules, it is easy to default to the status quo for what leadership is and who is involved. It is a trap that congregational leadership can easily fall into: that leadership starts and ends with church officers. In reality, leaders are constantly being formed around me – and you – each and every day by example, whether it be in the church, home, classroom, workplace, or anywhere (and everywhere) else. That leadership potential is often lost by neglect. How can we take seriously the task of forming new and broader leadership within our congregations?

I submit to you that one area where there is lost opportunity is “Intergenerational Leadership”. It seems to be an ethereal, confusing, and somewhat overwhelming topic. How to do it? Who’s qualified? Who’s not? What can people do? What should they do? What is the organization’s or community’s needs?

I am fortunate (privileged, even) to have been invited into leadership positions since I was young. It wasn’t always invitational, however. There were times when I had to elbow my way into the room or around the table. Other times, I was rejected for an opportunity I thought I was perfectly suited for me. And this is still the case. Why do I tell you this? I say this because I don’t think I am alone. Engaging many people in leadership, no matter the identifier or demographic, is a challenge for most people, organizations, and communities. In the words to come, I don’t claim to have ‘the answer’ or ‘the way’ but I instead hope to suggest to you where I have felt most invited and how we might choose to think about and engage others in our respect roles, organizations, and communities.

My philosophy to address this is simple; first, understand the needs and opportunities for leadership and engagement and, to follow that with, observation and invitation.

Understand the Needs

Each of our communities have needs to be filled. They are everywhere, from an under-filled committee, open session seat, volunteers in children or youth ministry, etc. You could probably list at least five off the top of your head. Take a mental note of these, know them, think about them, reflect on what would strengthen or add to each of them. Put simply, be aware of the need. Really, it’s that simple.

Observe

Look closely at those around you being attentive to their gifts, skills, and abilities. They may not be perfect or completely refined (who’s are?), but simply inherent and evident. And I don’t mean to say that you only observe those you like or those that seem to fit a stereotype, it means to be aware and attentive of everyone, no matter their age, demographic, or other identifier. Ask yourself, “Who do I see that could do this?” As I have reflected on that question I have become more aware of the dept and breath of the gifts and talents present in our community. As an aside, I think it is important to call these out and celebrate them as often as possible. It is empowering to be affirmed.

Invite

I imagine you know where this is heading. If we are keenly aware of the needs which are present and have made note of the gifts, talents, and abilities we observe in others it becomes easy to begin inviting a diverse and capable group of people to consider engaging in the capacity that fits them best. This could mean inviting them into a particular role or laying a few options on the table. The danger is to type-cast and assume. Too often I hear stories of people only being invited into roles that match their profession. That isn’t fair. Maybe that is where they want to serve, but this is the challenge of the previous two bullets. Are we taking the easy route of only asking “teachers” to teach the VBS or LOGOS bible class? Or are we only inviting the musicians to be on the Worship Arts committee? The invitation can be daunting, but done well and in an invitational way it can be empowering, rewarding, and transformational (ironic, right?).

It sounds so simple but can be challenging. I am not good at this. I continue to wrestle and try to practice this. Living into this philosophy isn’t designed for one person – the pastor – to do alone. It takes the entire community, particularly those in leadership (all leadership, not just committee chairs or seated officers), to do this. Think of the power that comes from a session (let alone an entire congregation) noticing, lifting up, and celebrating a community’s gifts, talents, and abilities. Add to that the personal invitation into leadership and I think something special can happen. I suggest that, when done right, we get away from labels (youth elder, female deacon, etc.) and are flexible and empowering of everyone in the community. I hope you will join me in understanding our respective community’s needs, observing those around you, and extending the invitation to leadership.


Mathew Eardley works at Jitasa, a company in Boise, Idaho that provide accounting services to non-profit agencies. He is a graduate of Whitworth University and a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Boise. Mathew has served on committees at every level of PC(USA) including recently completing service as a member of the Way Forward Commission of the General Assembly.

The Dream of Our Future

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Shirley Dudley

I am a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a life-long Presbyterian, and a minister’s wife, confirmed over 70 years ago. I have attended many conferences through the years, especially the ones with the Presbyterian women, but this was my first time at the NEXT Church National Gathering. What struck me throughout the conference was its INCLUSIVITY. Everyone was at the table in every aspect of this conference – top leadership, worship leadership, worship space arrangements, workshop participation and leadership, worship music, entertainment, etc. Also, people were not afraid to laugh at themselves and they did not take themselves too seriously.

The next thing that grabbed me was the INNOVATION. It was like we were living in “the dream of our future” at this gathering. I am not only talking about the big things but the little things, too, like the cardboard box altars where people could leave mementos and congregate. I did not know that there were so many ways to get people out of their comfort zones in a church-related situation. My husband was a professor of Church and Community in several seminaries and I know he would have been stimulated, as I was, with Dr. Leong’s discussion of race and place. I am in a multi-cultural downtown church with people who come from everywhere else but the downtown. It is freeing for us to have to mingle and worship together, but it requires a time commitment that we are sometimes not willing to give in order to make a dent in the crises of our city. So even if we are not bound by our individual places, we are bound by our “place” in a troubled city.

Since I returned home, I was asked to share my experiences from the conference with my session and offer some concrete ideas for our future. I described all of the above, the worship theme, the main speakers, the energizing testimonials from Baltimore, workshops, and some of the fun things that happened to me personally as I reconnected with old friends. Then they asked me for concrete ideas for our church. Here are a few of those:

We are a small church that could definitely benefit by intergenerational opportunities. There are moments when we could share in small groups with each other in the worship service itself. We have many small tasks that could be spread around and the children could be more included in decorating our sanctuary, even finding pictures for the pastors to use on Sunday morning in our screen.

We don’t have to be so serious all the time. This conference seemed to give permission to “lighten up.”

We work diligently with hunger problems, but digging deeper in our local community for partners in ministry would work well for us – especially as the city of Hartford is becoming a place of change and more young people.

I was also moved by the Florida groups that were supporting the students affected by the massacre. We too can take part in the efforts to win more gun control.

We also have DACA leadership in our church and they need support.

And on and on… Yes, with the help of God, we will try to do our own “rising” in a wilderness church with inspiration from a life-giving conference.


Shirley Dudley an 85 year-old mother of 5, grandmother of 9, and was married to a Presbyterian minister and faculty member of McCormick Theological Seminary (and Hartford Seminary), Carl Dudley (now deceased). She served as first full-time registrar and assistant dean at McCormick Theological Seminary, 1976 -1993. Shirley presently lives in an Active Life Care Senior Center in Bloomfield, CT, and attends a downtown Hartford Presbyterian Church.

Sustenance to Bloom

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Eliana Maxim

In a busy season of ministry, the opportunity to attend the NEXT Church National Gathering popped up on my calendar quite unexpectedly. I remembered the enthusiasm with which I had registered back in early winter, but now with to-do lists multiplying magically, I wasn’t sure I would find the time or “head space” to engage.

I am so glad I did.

The theme of “The Desert in Bloom” appropriately described what many of the pastoral leaders with whom I work have been experiencing. The realities of ministry can certainly make one feel as if you are in extended wilderness time. And that you are doing it alone.

In order to bloom in said desert would require sustenance, at least for this pastor. A desert in bloom means hope above all else.

My first interaction in Baltimore was attending the Sunday evening People of Color get-together. This group met again at the conclusion of the gathering. And in both of those meetings, I found the space where we could speak frankly about the ways the church has moved towards greater inclusion and equity, and how much further is has to go.

I was challenged by Rev. Jonathan Walton’s keynote talk on pastors being suspicious of praise and the church’s complacent comfort in a safe Jesus. “Maybe it’s easier for us to worship a supernatural savior than to accept the challenge of a moral prophet.” And I took comfort in Rev. John Schmidt’s vulnerability as he shared his wilderness testimony as a Biblically conservative pastor guiding his congregation to stay in the PCUSA and remain engaged missionally where God is calling them, which includes ministry to people living with HIV/AIDS.

I was nurtured by impromptu coffees, lunches or happy hours with old friends and people yet to become friends that provided informal opportunities to check in, celebrate, grieve, and dream together, regardless of where we came from or what our ministry contexts might be.

At a time when many are wandering the desert, wringing their hands in despair over the church we are no longer, the NEXT Church National Gathering provided space and energy to rejoice at the new things God is doing. We acknowledge the demise of what we were, but rejoice at what is yet to be. Is it scary? Anxiety producing? Of course! But we navigate this new terrain together and most importantly with the assurance of God’s presence among us and God’s sovereignty.

As a member of the Way Forward Commission, a body created by the 222nd General Assembly to review and make recommendations on the structure of the denomination for this next season of ministry, I have intentionally sought out the blooms of the church we can be. I caught glimpses of it at the National Gathering.

And as a member of the Seattle Presbytery, I am beyond excited to know NEXT Church will be coming to our neck of the woods in 2019. I look forward to the inspiration and continued sustenance I am confident will be offered. And I look forward to seeing you there! Praise be to God!


Eliana Maxim is the Associate Executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of Seattle. Born in Barranquilla, Colombia, Eliana also serve as the vice-moderator of the PCUSA’s National Hispanic/Latinx Caucus. You can usually find Eliana hanging with her husband Alex, daughters Sacha and Gabi, and spoiled-rotten Boxer Lola the Dog.

A Reflection of Our God

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In February, Laura Cheifetz curated a series on leadership development. We have one more to add to the series! These blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons. What does leadership development look like in your own context? What could it be? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Omayra Gonzalez Mendez

I’m Puerto Rican, I’m a woman, and I have an accent. Does that describe who I am? Of course, the truth is I’m much more, but I must admit that representing those categories has opened many doors. Yes, there were times when I felt I checked all the boxes when different people were needed: woman, young, and Hispanic; I was a perfect package. Sometimes, I questioned if I really had the skills or was just invited to meet the quota. It may seem odd or illogical, but with the desire of the church to have different faces in leadership spaces, it was a blessing.

However, when I was about 18 years old, I met great women of color leaders while serving in Racial Ethnic Young Women Together (REYWT). One of these women, Marnie del Carmen, reminded me that wherever I went I had to make a difference. She preached to me, “Do not erase your accent, do not erase who you are. Share with others about your childhood. Your voice will make a difference. Other people will somehow identify with you and your story.”

Photo from Montreat flickr page

I remember the first time I led an energizer at a Montreat youth conference, perhaps in 2006, and a young Dominican girl approached me. She was excited because my accent reminded her of her mother’s family. I felt that even in the middle of North Carolina with all these people, it was wonderful that there was someone like her, someone to identify with, someone who understood what it is like to have an accent.

I’m more than my ethnicity. I realized that I am also the sister of a woman with disabilities. So, I’m Puerto Rican, I’m a woman, I have an accent, and I grew up in a family with a kid with disability.

Having a relative with a disability gives you another perspective on life. You learn not to complain about everything. You learn the power to believe in yourself. And you especially learn that the world is not made for people who are different or have special needs. Sometimes, not even the church.

For years I have worked in several capacities within the church, but my most prominent roles are in recreation. And as I wrote a few years ago for another publication: “Recreation is more than ‘time to play.’ It is about creating community. I try to lead games that invite people to work together, help people understand the need to be part of the greater body of Christ. Everyone has a purpose. Sometimes people don’t stop to think of the theological part of what they are doing — and that’s okay — but I know that God works in every single moment of the day. Energizers may not be the traditional way of doing worship or teaching the Bible, but is a way and sometimes that’s all that we need — a way to start doing things.”

This summer, while directing recreation in Montreat, my co-leader (Betsy Apple Eldridge) and I set out to plan the events with people who have mobility problems or motor skill challenges in mind.

At the end of the first week, we received a letter from the mother of a young man in a wheelchair thanking us for thinking about him, and finding ways to make him part of the body of Christ through recreation. We do not do things to be recognized, but that letter filled our hearts.

It was a confirmation that in everything we do, small or great act, is a reflection of our God.

The church has much to offer. The church can be that space that creates leaders who are aware of who they are, how they have grown up, and the blessings they can be for other people. We are the face of the church, in all our difference, and it is a gift!


Omayra L. Gonzalez Mendez is a news producer, movie lover, and super passionate about the church. From media reports, pictures and videos, she takes every free minute to work in different organizations of the Presbyterian Church, both locally and internationally. As an elder in the Presbyterian Church in Hato Rey, she works with the youth society and finance ministries. She understand that all parts of the church are equally important, so she can take a summer to sit and follow the committees of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, and fly the next day to lead recreation in a youth event. All matters of the church, processes and creation, fascinate her.

Road Signs and Tough Topics

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Last fall, after much cajoling from my children, we spent an afternoon at Cox Farms for their fall festival, a beloved institution here in Northern Virginia. I say “cajole,” because after many annual pilgrimages when my children were younger, I was ready for some new autumn traditions for our teen and tweens. But they are adamant about going. For them, it’s a connection to childhood and a pleasant place to be together as a family. (I suspect the giant cylindrical bags of fresh crisp kettle corn can’t hurt.)

Thanks in part to my connection with NEXT Church and our emphasis on inclusion and diversity, I like to look around the places I go to see how racially and culturally diverse they are. Who is here? Who is conspicuously not here, and why might that be? That day last October, I noticed way more people of color at Cox Farms than I ever had before. I couldn’t be sure whether the demographics of the clientele had actually changed, or whether I was seeing with new eyes groups of people who were always there… but the difference was striking.

It was only later that I found out about Cox Farms’s tradition of feisty signage. It began many years ago with two rainbow flags flying over the hay-bale tunnel. Then, a Black Lives Matter sign in the window of the family home, followed some time later with a message on their marquee expressing love for their immigrant neighbors. Again, I’m not privy to Cox Farms’s statistics on clientele. But it stands to reason that in a culture in which whiteness is considered the default, historically marginalized populations won’t simply assume they are welcome somewhere unless they are explicitly welcomed. I couldn’t help but think of the church: what topics we take up together, what remains unspoken, and how we express our welcome. If we’re not specific and heartfelt in our language, if we rely on generic words like “all” and “everyone,” our message will not get through. It’s too easy for “everyone” to be followed by an implicit “…who looks like me,” especially when the community and its leadership are homogenous already.

This month’s focus for the NEXT Church blog will be on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used.

There are many themes woven into the statement — the nature of Christ’s kindom; the need for the church to be a vehicle of change — but a major theme is our call to dismantle forces of oppression, notably systemic racism. And guess what? Cox Farms took on that one too, with a sign a couple of months ago that said “Resist White Supremacy.” It didn’t take long for some folks to respond with angry letters and calls for a boycott. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of comments and messages on the business’s Facebook page were positive (and I vowed never again to push back on my kids’ nostalgic desire for hayrides and fresh-pressed apple cider).

The Cox family was baffled by the negative response. As an article in the Washington Post put it, “Who, other than a white supremacist, would be offended by a message condemning white supremacy? [The family] also understood, though, that this is America in 2018, a time of such fierce division that even voicing opposition to the ugliest beliefs could be twisted or taken out of context.”

I am not so coy as to pretend there isn’t political resonance in words like “Black Lives Matter,” “resist,” and “white supremacy.” That doesn’t mean that the church should avoid them, but should lean into them even more. The church is a unique institution, ideally suited to talk about these matters in a deeper way, in communities that pledge to be with and for another not because we agree, but because we are united in Jesus Christ. If tough topics make us recoil, it’s probably because we’re feeling implicated, and that’s never a comfortable feeling. But our bristling may also be a sign that we haven’t talked about them enough. We need to push into that discomfort; otherwise we will never change and grow. The Sarasota Statement provides language — and the study guide, a framework — that allows for such faithful proclamation and exploration. Onward.


MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, free-range pastor, speaker, and leadership coach living in Virginia. She is author of the forthcoming God, Improv, and the Art of Living, and 2012’s Sabbath in the Suburbs. She is a former chair of NEXT Church’s strategy team, and was recognized by the Presbyterian Writers Guild with the 2015-2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award.

A Reminder of Divine Love

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Justin is co-leading a workshop during the 2018 National Gathering called “Songs for the Journey.” It will take place during workshop block 2 on Tuesday. Learn more and register

by Justin Ritchie

Love is my favorite theme from the Advent season. Well, that’s true this year anyway. For me it seems each year at Advent, hope, joy, peace, or love seem to rise to the surface for different reasons. With everything happening in the world around us, this year I find that my heart is longing for love to return in places it seems to have been forgotten and to be born in hearts that seem to be missing it.

We are creating our own corner of Advent love in our home again this year. My parents are traveling from Augusta, GA, to be with my husband and I and a few of our close friends to celebrate Christmas day. Our tradition since I was a child is to wake up on Christmas morning, eat breakfast, and then read the Christmas story from Luke. We still do that every year. In recent years, I’ve looked at our little Christmas gathering consisting of my family of birth and our chosen family, different skin tones and widely differing belief systems and faith traditions. We are gay and straight, Yankees and Southerners, conservative and liberal. Each year we find a way to be together on that morning. We listen to the Christmas story. We exchange presents. We eat. We drink. We laugh. We reminisce. We LOVE.

The other night I watched the Pentatonix Christmas special on television. They are one of my favorite groups and their Christmas albums are already on permanent rotation in our home. Near the end of the program and just before they sang a beautiful arrangement of “Imagine,” one of the group members talked about how Christmas was the time of year we could put our differences aside and come together. It is a lovely, and true, sentiment. Why do we only expect that to happen during the holidays? I think that this seasonal feeling of goodwill to our fellow humans could be something that we practice all year long. What if we used that “Christmas feeling” as a model for how to interact with the people in our lives every day of the year? How different our world would right now?

I grew up in evangelical circles and we did not celebrate or acknowledge the Advent season. I have come to cherish and deeply appreciate this period of longing and expectation. For me, Christmas and the story of Jesus’ birth boil down to this: Divine Love was born in the form of a human baby. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love for all of God’s children. This Advent I am indeed longing and anticipating. My heart needs a reminder of Divine Love. Our world needs a reminder of Divine Love. One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Marianne Williamson, puts it this way, “Miracles occur naturally as expressions of love. The real miracle is the love that inspires them. In this sense, everything that comes from love is a miracle.”

May your heart be filled with love and miracles this Advent and in the year to come.


Justin Ritchie is the music director at Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, MD – a multi-cultural More Light Presbyterian Church. By day he is a contractor for the federal government as a web developer. He lives with his husband Jason, Phoebe the French Bulldog, and Bruce the Pug just outside D.C. In addition to his ministry at Oaklands, Justin is the band director at Temple Rodef Shalom in Fairfax, VA. He is also an active cabaret performer in Washington, DC and New York and was recently seen in productions of “The Secret Garden” and “The Full Monty” in Annapolis, MD.

Diversity, Acceptance, and the Need for Reconciliation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Jason Brian Santos

For as long as I can remember, the topic of diversity within community has never been a serious point of conversation in my home. Coming from a bi-racial family, navigating the challenges of diversity was a fact of life. Growing up, our holiday dinners and birthday celebrations were always an interesting blend of Filipino culture and Pennsylvania Dutch-influenced Americana. While the food was amazing, our feasts were always accompanied by a myriad of obvious cultural differences and unspoken customs. Inevitably, at times tensions arose; sometimes we figured it out and sometimes we didn’t. Consequently, for most of my life, I just assumed real diversity always came with challenges.

Though I would still maintain that viewpoint today, I had an experience in 2005 that changed my thinking about what happens when a bunch of diverse people come together in Christian community. I was working on an independent study course for my M.Div on the topic of young adult spirituality and the Taizé community. My project included a research trip to Taizé, the small village located in the Burgundy region of France, which is home to over 110 brothers – not to mention over 100,000 spiritual seekers who make pilgrimages to the community every year.

For this vastly diverse group of pilgrims, Taizé has become their “spiritual home.” It doesn’t matter where they are from, what language they speak, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, how much money they make or what religious tradition they’re from – in Taizé, everyone is welcomed and accepted for who they are. Each pilgrim is shown genuine hospitality, a 1,500 year-old hallmark of western monasticism.

In Taizé, all pilgrims pray together three times a day in the Church of Reconciliation using sung prayers written in dozens of languages. They study Scripture in diverse groups, which guarantees an assortment of different perspectives on the passage. They work alongside one another preparing food, distributing meals, and cleaning up. They clean bathrooms together and pick up trash alongside one another. Every pilgrim is expected to participate in the communal practices established by the community: the brothers understand that it is in their very participation that these young adults experience genuine acceptance, which in time opens a path towards reconciliation with one another.

These pilgrims aren’t just tolerating diversity in Taizé for the sake of political correctness; they authentically celebrate it as part of what makes the community feel like a living example of God’s Kingdom on earth. In fact, in my research on why young adults make pilgrimages to Taizé, one of the key themes that surfaced was the “feeling of acceptance.” At the core of this feeling, pilgrims experience a tangible sense of reconciliation. This should come as no surprise, considering that reconciliation has been the doctrine undergirding the Taizé Community since its humble beginnings in 1940.

For the late Brother Roger, the founder and first prior of Taizé, reconciliation is at the heart of the Gospel. Whether it was offering Jewish refugees sanctuary or caring for German prisoners after the war, the brothers have always sought to be a sign of reconciliation. Even more, as more young Europeans began making pilgrimages to Taizé in the 50s and 60s, the brothers realized they needed to adapt their sacred French liturgies in order to truly welcome the pilgrims into their daily prayers. Latin soon became the primary language used in their sung chants, because it functioned as a universal language belonging to no particular country, nation, or people. Over the course of the next decade, chants in other languages were integrated into Taizé’s prayer book, and the prayers as we now know them gradually emerged. Still today, the sung prayers of the community function as a sign of acceptance and reconciliation.

Come to think of it, it’s rather ironic that these pilgrims find such acceptance in one of the most diverse environments they will likely experience in their lives. Maybe the central reason why is because they are never asked to put aside who they are, as if diversity is a hindrance to reconciliation; instead, through the rhythm of Taizé’s communal practices, the pilgrims are invited to take their gaze off of their own particularities and focus it on what draws them together and unites them – their identity in Christ Jesus. It’s through Christ that we bear witness to the magnitude of God’s reconciliation with all of creation and in Christ, that we are accepted and claimed as children of God.


Jason Brian Santos is the Mission Coordinator for Christian Formation (Christian education, children, youth, college, young adult, camps and conference ministries) at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. He also serves as the National Director of UKirk Collegiate Ministries. He is an ordained teaching elder in the PCUSA and holds a Ph.D. in practical theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of A Community Called Taizé (IVP, 2008) and Sustaining the Pilgrimage (IVP Academic, forthcoming). He currently resides in Louisville, KY with his wife, Shannon and his two sons, Judah and Silas (aka Tutu). In his spare time, he plays and designs board games.