Posts

Freaky Specific

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 James Cubie

“You see it, don’t you?” You see it every day if you have a smart phone. Most of us have smart phones, for better or worse. Really, the smart phones have us…. and our kids.

We see too much of the world in real time: Something perfectly awful happens, or something that’s just mildly irritating. Immediately the commentariats go to work, and the kingdom of the whatabouts comes to life.  

Businesswoman using mobile phone at back seat of the car

We’re in deep. How deep? Ever find yourself asking yourself this question: “What was that important thing that happened three days ago? I can’t quite remember, but I know whose account – or page – to go to, to remind me what it was and what I should think about it.”

When we go, we hear the question: “Which side will you take?” You better decide, and fast. Decide on the basis of who you are. Or, if you’re not sure, decide on the basis of who you’d like to be with, or be seen with. Decide “this day whom you will serve.” And “like” what was said. Better yet: Comment on what was said. If you don’t, how will anyone know where you stand? How will anyone know who you really are?

“Well, who are you?” Darn it. That’s another question you can’t quite get to the bottom of, because we might just be a ‘performance,’ all the way down. Or, maybe you’re convinced you have gotten to bottom of it, and have discovered richness, beauty, brokenness, and all that Myers-Briggs-ness. You carry a history that’s full of power or powerlessness, privilege or pain. You know your story, inside and out. You’ve read its signs and cursed the darkness that remains.  

But by now, maybe you’re a little tired of knowing yourself so well: Has your knowledge of yourself has become so specific, you’re beginning to feel a little ‘freaky?’ Freaky like: “Am I thinking about myself too much?”

Who is asking you all these questions? Is it – at the end of the day – you, or me? Or all the people and events that make up your life? Or is it Someone else? I don’t know. But Someone might be in there, and that Someone may be trying to move you to a place you don’t want to go. I get it. I’m not sure I really want to go that place, either.  

How can you tell if it really is that Someone?  These are the kind of questions he asks, in order to get us to that uncomfortable place:

“Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)

“Do you want to go away, as well?” (John 6:67)

“Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11)

“Do you love me?” (John 21:17)

Answer these questions in as specific a way as possible, day by day, in your thoughts, words, and deeds, and you will start to look “freaky” to the people you know and love.  

But if you’re like me, you’re kind of ready for that. You are beginning to hope that, despite overwhelming efforts to drive us apart on the basis of who we are, there are followers of Jesus who want to move from decent and in order, to freaky and specific. Decent and in order is good as far as it goes, but it may have gone as far as it can.

This is the hope that grounds me when principalities and powers do their utmost to drive us apart: There are disciples who know that whatever comes next for God’s people, it must look so different that Jesus will say, “That’s it!” and fellowship with us. If that happens, then we may truly fellowship with one another, and God can do great things through us.  

 We’ve tried the old questions, and we’ve been working from old answers that are part of the world that is passing away. I want new questions, the ones that, if I answer them with other disciples, mean I can be part of the new world – the only one that really matters.  There’s only one place – one Person – I go to for those questions.


James F. Cubie is Associate Pastor for Christian Formation at Leesburg Presbyterian Church (Leesburg, Virginia). You can follow him on Twitter: @JamesFCubie. He blogs at: FoundationAndFire.wordpress.com.

 

Beyond Our Comfortable Sameness

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 Glen Bell

(D) > fP

Embracing our diversity is greater than the force of our privilege.

Genuine openness blows apart our assumptions.  

As a straight, white, male, upper middle-class Presbyterian, I am privileged beyond measure. I am grateful for the patience of others. So many have taught me about their lives, the world and the power of the gospel, far beyond my predictable domain.

  • On a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine with two dozen other pastors, I was surprised by a wretched realization. I listened to the female participants. One painful story after another testified of the discrimination and abuse of women in ministry.
  • On staff of an urban ministries center, I was encountered by the bedrock truth of homelessness. Street life demands and challenges and twists. It is expensive, body and soul. The disrespect and sense of invisibility burn deep.
  • Candor leads in unexpected directions. After the General Assembly voted to divest from three American firms engaged with the Israeli military, I welcomed the opportunity to sit with several local Jewish leaders. One was angry, and shared his perspective with clarity, calm and grace. Another completely agreed with the decision.  

What have I learned from these few instances and so many more? There is always more to discover from our diverse neighbors. Every part of the journey promises the opportunity for new learning. Listening from the heart (and offering an open space and safe place) is critically important – and requires continuing recommitment on my part.

This ongoing commitment is a challenge given to each Presbyterian seminary graduate who is seeking a call from a congregation. As leaders in the PCUSA, we learn one of the important values in our denomination is cultural proficiency. Such proficiency involves understanding “the norms and common behaviors of various peoples, including direct experience working in multiple cultural and cross-cultural settings.”

Some of my friends do not enjoy the privilege I often take for granted. Shiraz Hassan, the president of the local mosque in Sarasota, was born in South Africa and came to United States over twenty-five years ago. Today he urges other participants in the mosque to reach out into the community. “We all live here,” he says. “Whatever you get, you need to give back.” When asked about the all-too-common association of Muslims with terrorists, he responds, “The major thing is that every [Muslim] person living in Sarasota is American. Everything else is secondary. We are not the other.”

Perhaps we cannot discover the gospel today unless we live and love across cultures, renouncing the ease with which we call our neighbors “others,” entreating the wind of the Spirit to fill our sails toward new horizons, building relationships with people and communities beyond our comfortable sameness.  

In response to this growing need, almost a decade ago Louisville Seminary created Doors to Dialogue as a central part of its curriculum. Students are introduced to distinctly different faith communities. They – and we – learn through the crucible of diversity, because we all are immersed in communities with a variety of cultures and beliefs.

Such diversity invites us to grow and develop as disciples of Christ. It calls us to express our faith in ways that demonstrate genuine acceptance and care, even through our own uncertainty and questions.

In his book How Your Congregation Learns, Tim Shapiro points out the church “is often in a situation where it is expected to think and behave in ways it has not yet learned with knowledge it does not yet hold.” This learning cannot happen when we assume that all Presbyterians look, act and see the world like us. They do not.

If our churches are to mature, we must engage different perspectives. Shapiro concludes that in addition to creativity, “the central and most important behavior for congregational development is the congregation’s ability to learn from an outside resource.”

Are we open to the outside to shape us and teach us?

Shiraz Hassan is such a resource for me and First Presbyterian Church. Wally Johnson is becoming that kind of resource as well. He is the new pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church, five miles north of downtown Sarasota. Northminster and Wally are distinct from me and the congregation I serve; he and I think significantly differently on issues important to each of us.

But along with our diversity is one bedrock theological truth that drives us into rich conversation.  We are brothers in Christ. We are Presbyterians together.  

With kindness and conviction, Wally invited me a few weeks ago to preach at his installation service as pastor at Northminster. Through his welcome and hospitality, Wally is graciously teaching me.  

Embracing diversity is a blessing.  

Crossing boundaries transforms us.


Glen Bell is head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

The Lion and the Lamb

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 Whitney Fauntleroy

I hope that our knees get battered and our heads ache from being bowed down in prayer, hoping that we might be the people who bring the Kingdom of God closer to earth. I believe the Kingdom of God values diversity. Those images of welcome feasts and animals lying together are significant enough for me to believe that the toil of diversity is worth it – for the sake of the church, the sake of the world, and the sake of the kingdom. This kingdom imagery surrounds us every time we miss the mark, mess up, and don’t get it. All that mess around the message of the kingdom and the message of diversity in the Scriptures says that we have to toil and work toward a world where earth and heaven get closer to mirroring each other.

The work is indeed messy. The work is awkward. The work is painful. I have been deeply angered and hurt by a denomination that writes so beautifully about diversity yet often clings to its privilege. Listening to people speak about the call process, I have heard of married women who were asked if they would be committed to the ministry while men who were married were not. Friends who identify as LGBT* wrestling with whether they should self-disclose when those who identify as heterosexual don’t have to. People of color being asked how they feel working in a white church. So many of these questions surround our comfort. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable as we strive towards a more diverse church.

Many seek out churches because of comfort. We choose styles of worship because they is familiar to us. We choose to join and be a part of communities where we feel comfortable. I am often one of the faces that makes a church appear diverse (at least optically). I struggle to navigate through human nature to be comfortable. I have not spoken up when I heard micro-aggressive statements or prejudices toward minority or marginalized communities. Why? I don’t want my difference to be the only focus. I don’t want it to be dismissed either, nor do I want to be viewed as an exceptional representative of a community. I’ve been labeled “not really black” and an “Oreo.” For years those comments made me feel uncomfortable. Only recently did I start to understand why. Those comments are attempts to normalize one way of being (typically cisgender, white, heterosexual, educated, and male). The church has to push against a narrative that seeks assimilation and calls it diversity. Marginalized voices are standing up against this idea that we have arrived or achieved when we shed our uniqueness for the sake of uniformity. Normalizing and uniformity is comfortable. It is easy; it doesn’t ask for sacrifice, risk, or toil.

We have to stop sliding into patterns that make us comfortable and allow ourselves to be agitated, to be informed, to do our own personal inventories of prejudices. It will be messy, and there will be mistakes, but we have to trudge through it for the sake of the church, the kingdom, and the world.

I imagine that when the lion and lamb lay together, they did not become a hybrid. Perhaps sometimes the lion had to check herself and not roar or become a predator again. Sometimes the lamb had to go against his tendency to be a part of a flock. Each day, they had to be committed to the work of lying together, of getting to know each other without trying to become one another. Likewise, it is hard work to build a table long enough for everyone to be able to sit and access the banquet feast. Diversity is the work of the kingdom. It requires us to toil, to be uncomfortable, and to persist. We have been called to this work in the scripture, and as our world and nation change rapidly, the urgency of diversity seems to have risen to our consciousness. Thank God! The time is now to do the messy work of proclaiming the kingdom message, a message of diversity to a world that always needs to hear it.


Whitney Fauntleroy is associate pastor for youth and young adults at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia. She also serves on the NEXT Church advisory team.

Unity Found at the Lord’s Table

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 Douglas Brouwer

I’m no longer sure what got into me, but at the ripe old age of 59, after serving mostly white and mostly suburban congregations over the course of more than 30 years of ministry, I accepted the call to become pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich (Switzerland).

On my first Sunday at my new church, I looked out at one of the most racially and ethnically diverse congregations in the world. On any given Sunday, more than two dozen nationalities are present in worship at my church, every skin tone God ever imagined. There are also more language groups than I have dared to count.

Gladly – at least for me – we have agreed to worship and do all of our church business in English.

I have had four years now to reflect on my experience, and I can report this much: If the church in North America is ever going to become more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, it has a great deal of work to do.

Studies show that there are shockingly few multicultural congregations in the U.S. and that most church members are fine with that. In fact, most Christians in the U.S. will say when surveyed that they are “doing enough” to become more diverse. And the more evangelical the church, it seems, the less interest there is in becoming diverse.

Frankly, I sense very little urgency about any of this, even though Jesus’ message seems clear that we are to “make disciples of all nations,” not just the people who look and act (and vote?) like us.

I knew on my first Sunday at the International Protestant Church that I had a story to tell, and my story was published in July with the title How to Become a Multicultural Church (Eerdmans). Among other things, I decided that North American Christians will have to rethink leadership, language learning, attitudes toward worship style, and a great deal more.

Because space is limited here, let me mention two further issues – one discouraging, the other full of hope.

By far the largest obstacle to getting along here in Zürich is our theological diversity. When I served Presbyterian churches in the U.S. there was diversity too, of course, but at least we had a Book of Confessions and a theological tradition to fall back on.

Even though the church I serve today stands in the shadow of the Grossmünster, where the 16th century Reformer Ulrich Zwingli once preached, there is no Reformed tradition to guide us. Our people come from all over the globe, and they bring with them a staggering diversity of theological positions and opinions. And when people are scared, maybe you’ve noticed, they tend to hold on even more tightly to those positions and opinions.

So, every day is a challenge, and to be honest I occasionally despair that we will ever find more common ground than “Jesus is Lord” and “the Bible is God’s Word to us,” though maybe in the end that’s enough.

Growing up where I did, however, I always assumed that the highest and best form of unity would be theological unity. During my first months here I thought we should write a statement of faith, and that would be enough to bring us together.

I now have a different perspective. Our unity, I have discovered, is not in a statement of faith, but it is found at the table, the Lord’s Table. In old age, much to my surprise, I have become much more sacramental. It is at the Table where we look our best, where we find common ground, and where real unity seems to lie.

The sacrament – I think this is the key – is not something we do, but something God’s offers to us. In the meal we respond to an invitation and find ourselves changed in Christ’s presence. I haven’t worked all of this out yet, but my sense is that the table is where all “tribes, nations, and tongues” will finally become one. May God hasten that day.


Douglas J. Brouwer is pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich who previously served churches in Illinois, Michigan, and Florida. Doug received his undergraduate training from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has graduate degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.

Diversity, Hospitality, and the Face of Poverty

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 John Wilkinson

The Reverend William Briggs died this July at the age of 86. Bill Briggs was a Presbyterian minister born in Pennsylvania, whose distinguished ministry was lived out in Ohio. Among other things, Bill served with my dad as the minister for community outreach at Central Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio, a medium-sized, county seat congregation.

Bill Briggs was the first exposure I really had as a kid to a vision of the church’s mission beyond its walls. In this case, his ministry was extensively with the Appalachian poor who dwelled throughout southeastern Ohio. Bill Briggs worked hard at an important task, dismantling the boundaries and blurring the lines between those with means and those without in that very economically diverse community. He remains a kind of iconic role model for me.

Our Confession of 1967 states that: “The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is in different to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.” (9.46 c., Inclusive Language Version)

Read that paragraph over several times. Though 50 years old, it could have been written this very day, with its political and cultural analysis and its theological clarity. That phrase in particular, “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance,” convicts us, does it not?

There is no doubt in my mind that among the important discussions about equity and justice, the church is called to have a sustained conversation and hatch a rigorous action plan to combat “enslaving poverty.” Our political and economic worlds ignore it. The church is not sure where to begin, let alone what to do. This is a confession – it is not as if I have a clear plan as well. I simply know the gospel mandate and the demands of our confession and ordination vows.

In Rochester, New York, we discuss the “crushing concentration of poverty” that has educational implications and racist underpinnings. Black and Hispanic people in our community, and particularly children, fare worse than white people in nearly every measure of quality of life. Even with blue ribbon panels and significant public money going to the effort, the needle moves barely, if at all. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. Do we believe that? And if so, what are we doing about it?

But in a blog series about diversity, the question takes on even deeper meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation.” That was true racially. It certainly remains true economically, and perhaps even more so.

Along with every other form of diversity, what would it look like for the church to pursue economic diversity? What would it look like for rich and poor to co-exist in the life of a congregation, so that those surface differences would remain just that?

It’s a difficult challenge. Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, where I am privileged to serve, seeks to address the despairing impact of poverty through housing and hunger ministry, through educational ministry in public schools, through direct service and efforts to change the economic status quo. Yet as important as those programs and efforts are, they rarely take the next step of engaging the poor in the journey itself.

Our presbytery recently closed a congregation called Calvary-St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. We are attempting to resurrect mission and ministry in its former building. What I loved about Calvary-St. Andrew’s was that it was one of the few congregations I’ve ever experienced where there was no distinction in participation and membership between those with financial means and those without. No distinction. That caused people to recalibrate expectations all over the place. And such recalibration was very good.

What would it look like for more of us – congregations in rural settings, in suburban and urban ones as well – to embrace the vision of seeking true economic diversity? Can we imagine and envision it? Can we move beyond whatever barriers that we’ve constructed within our own spirits and within our own congregations?

Paul wrote in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What if we simply extended that metaphor to say “there is no longer rich or poor…”

Bill Briggs modelled that vision for me long ago, and then lived that vision in his ministry. I am grateful for that witness. May we “raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living.” And having done that, may our congregations and communities reflect the true diversity and full hospitality that God dreams for us all.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

Sabor y Sazón

Editor’s note: We have Danny and all of the people who have been and will be impacted by Hurricane Irma in our prayers. We encourage all interested in supporting hurricane relief to contribute to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which continues to support relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Matthew.

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 Daniel Morales

I’m somewhat of a rarity here in Miami – I’m a native! My parents fled Cuba June 25th, 1971, and took up residence in Miami mainly because like so many other Cubans at the time, they felt their migration would be a short-lived one. In those days, Miami was not the glitz and glamour it is known for today. In those days, it wasn’t even referred to as the banana republic, a term some white folks sarcastically use today. As a matter of fact, Miami was actually pretty white back then. My father shared stories of the few occasions in the early days when renting a home for the family was a challenge, either because they were Cubans, or because he had too many kids; four to be exact. I sealed the deal a few years later.  

All throughout my childhood and adolescence I never really thought much about what it meant to be multi-cultural. Quite frankly, I never really gave much thought to diversity either, perhaps because I was so accustomed to being in the mixture of both a homogenous and diverse culture (stay with me for a bit, that will make sense shortly). The little Free Will Baptist church in which I grew up was its own homogenous community of Cuban immigrants in the middle of this growing pot of ajiaco or sancocho that Miami was slowly becoming. (Ajiaco and/or sancocho is a traditional soup/stew from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and various other Latin American countries.)

Beginning with the 70s and most especially in the 80s and 90s, Miami was notorious for being Cuban town. As a matter of fact, my early elementary school years were at a private school right in the middle of Calle 8 in Little Havana. And while it is true that for a while my people made up a large percentage of the Hispanic immigrants of Miami, I have to tell you, I was always surrounded by diversity and it was the most perfectly normal thing in the world to me. My classmates were Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Colombian. They were Black, they were White, and truth be told, we made nothing of it; rather we lived and we did what kids do.

Diversity was not something I was completely in tune with – that is, until I became more immersed in my theological studies. Truthfully, I didn’t learn to embrace my own cultural diversity in light of the broader composite of the United States until I left my bubble of Miami and found my way up to Chicago, where I was no longer a part of the dominant culture.

McCormick Theological Seminary was crucial to my understanding of both the complexities and richness of my diversity. That understanding meant that I saw God not through the lens of the scholarship that has dominated theological studies for centuries; instead I came to understand God through the lens and experience of the people of the largest island of the Caribbean. And with that understanding also came greater appreciation for the sazón (seasoning) with which my culture and the various cultures of the Caribbean bring depth to the redeeming grace of Christ.  

El sabor y sazón de mi gente (the flavor and seasoning of my people) adds a certain flare and spice to the body of Christ, and to the broader body of the Presbyterian Church USA. Some would argue our rhythms accentuate the rich and bold ways in which Christ moves in our midst. And that is precisely where the beauty of diversity lies, because though we are all one in Christ, each one of us – each culture, race, and ethnicity – bring to life the unforced rhythms of grace.

For us Caribbean folks, Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 3:28 would read something like, In God’s family we are all one; there is no Cuban or Puerto Rican or Dominican. We are all equal. In the Caribbean we all dance to the same sweet rhythms of salsa — be it from Marc Anthony, Celia Cruz, or Jonny Ventura. (Well sadly, except me, I can’t dance!)


Daniel Morales is the director of university ministries at Riviera Presbyterian Church in Miami, FL. He also serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

A Commitment Borne of the Gospel

by Jessica Tate

NEXT Church is committed to diversity within our network and church — diversity of theology, race, age, geography, gender identification, stage, role, ability, church size, wealth, political views — all of it. We are committed to creating community amidst that diversity, even when that proves difficult.

We are committed to creating such community in diversity because our theology instructs us to do so. The apostle Paul teaches us that the Body of Christ is, by nature, diverse. Jesus’s way in the world seems to suggest diversity too. Clarence Jordan notes Jesus’ choice of inviting both Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Publican to be his disciples was, by all common measures, a terrible idea. How in the world can those two be in the same room? And yet, when the two of them walk down the street, both followers of Jesus, people could see that something different was afoot among the followers of Jesus.

The Belhar Confession clearly calls us toward diversity in community stating,

We believe that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain. (10.3)

But this is not just a nice idea from a relatively new confession. The Apostles’ Creed calls us to belief in the holy catholic church and the communion of saints. The Westminster Confession states, “All saints being united to Jesus Christ their head….and being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as to conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.” (6.146)

We are committed to a community of diversity for practical reasons, too. There is strength and energy in a broad coalition of people and congregations, and with that comes possibility for change. Wisdom comes when different points of view challenge one another, strengthen weaknesses, help us take the logs out of our own eyes, and smooth out rough edges. Diversity requires us to practice the fruit of the spirit, to have integrity with our stated beliefs.

A community of diversity sounds beautiful in theory. In practice, it is hard. The NEXT Church leadership teams have had many challenging conversations about who makes decisions for our organization, who we want to give platform to speak at our conferences and on our blog — and what those decisions communicate about our commitment to diversity. We’ve certainly made our share of mistakes and we are coming to understand just how difficult it is when people (rightly) perceive things differently. We’ve had to confront one another (in love) about those mistakes and help raise consciousness about perceptions and realities behind those perceptions. Inevitably, it’s more complicated than I could have imagined at the outset. It can make you want to throw up your hands in defeat and drill down into like-mindedness for the sake of prevention of harm or for a sense of righteousness. But we don’t.

We don’t, because we believe that diversity in community is a challenge that is borne of the gospel.

Though almost all of our congregations could be more diverse, we experience some type of diversity in most of our churches. Here’s what I mean. Congregations are one of the only intergenerational communities in public life today. They are a place where people of different professions and backgrounds come together. Congregations are places where people of different political views gather together by choice. Occasionally, congregations are places where people of different races or different economic status or different cultures intermingle. Holding that diversity together is challenging.

We see the challenge of holding community together in diversity writ large in the United States right now. There is heightened anxiety everywhere — fear, anger, assuming the worst about one another. And, too often, those characteristics are taken to the extreme in forms of hatred and violence that cause real harm when unchecked. As individuals and collectively, we must condemn hatred and violence, and I pray our faith compels to us be equally critical of the more mundane fear, anger, and assumption of the worst in others that creeps into our lives on a daily basis — and to be particularly quick to confess those tendencies in ourselves.

Our anxiety and reactivity is fracturing us. I spoke to a young woman recently who hasn’t been able to talk to her parents since the 2016 election. Spend any time on Twitter or reading comments on articles and you see just how quickly people are resorting to name-calling, overgeneralizing, and acting defensively. We are seeing heightened reactivity in our congregations as well. Sermons are (or are perceived to be) unfairly political. Emails are sent in ALL CAPS. There is increased pressure for leaders to make public statements for or against and backlash when we don’t and often if we do. Different generations write each other off as out of touch and lacking in commitment. We are mimicking the culture in our polarization from one another.

And yet, we are called to find ways of living amidst diversity. At a NEXT Church regional gathering a few years ago, Diana Butler Bass suggested that the quandary at the heart of much of the current debate in religious denominations today is the question of community. How big is the table we, as Presbyterians, can set? Who gets to set it? And, what will the conversation around the table be? At the core, do we belong to one another or are we just a collection of individuals?

The NEXT Church blog this month will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. These stories told will reflect the difficulties and the beauty, the investment and the resilience. 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. And we will pray for that day to come on earth as it is in heaven.


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

Sustained Radical Racial Reconciliation

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

Today, NEXT Church executive team co-chairs Shavon Starling-Louis and Lori Raible close the month’s reflections with a conversation.

SHAVON: Can NEXT Church be a place of sustained radical racial reconciliation?

Societally and denominationally there are many places in which the thought of racial reconciliation is celebrated. But it is often relegated to the incremental “not too much, not too fast” fashion. It often can feel that communities of leadership (read: committees) are created in the paint-by-numbers vein (i.e. “ we need to find __ black people… __ Latin American… __Native American… __ Asian Americans so we won’t be all white”).

Unfortunately, what is desired to be a place of diversity often quickly becomes a place of tokenism in which a people’s diverse phenotypical presence is valued but the gifts of their culture, individual life, and experiences are not.

My hope is that NEXT Church can be something different. NEXT Church has core values grounded in relationship and authenticity. So, yes we have a hope of 50% + of people of color in our leadership teams, but it only makes sense to me because I know it comes out of a hope for drastic systemic change in who is at the leadership tables.

And while this goal may seem to minimize the intersectionality of diversity, I think we wanted some goal to hold us racially accountable for the leadership relationships we cultivate.

At its core, NEXT Church believes that in real relationship, significant transformational changes in how we live life together are possible.

I have watched us be stretched, struggle, and be blessed by our way: being community which is grounded in real experiences of life together. In both joy and hurt, we are made more faithful and more just.

It’s not that we get it right but that we lean in when it’s hardest that excites me about NEXT Church. I have noticed that when I expose my heart to the other, I experience the grace and challenge of my identity in Christian community and I sense others do too.

I think that in our work together we see that being the kind of community that is open to hear the impact of racism on our life together and then prayerfully discern how to respond in our actions towards healing is a treasure and a sign of the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit. And I sense this is true because we are committed to being vulnerable with each other. We have a level of trust because of our desire for real relationship.

And what seems to be a Holy Spirit gift of unbelievable proportion is that this is a common thread of those engaging NEXT Church at every level. And while I know we are all in different places in how we articulate the role of racism in being a sinful barrier to faithful relationship with the other, when I connect with new friends through NEXT Church, I get this overwhelming sense that this person has the intent to build up – and not tear down – the body Christ and the global community at large.

I discern that in our racialized and polarizing times our type of commitment to relationship at NEXT Church is radical work. It is radical because by being in real relationship, we are naturally cultivating organized, faithful, theologically grounded work for the healing of the person-to-person and systemic impacts of racism.

So Lori, what do you think?

LORI: Your thoughts, Shavon, make me question what it really means to belong at NEXT Church.

NEXT Church believes God is always calling the Church into the future. Cultivating leaders and congregations by equipping and connecting them to one another will strengthen the relational fabric of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and promote God’s transformation of our communities for the common good.

Belonging is easy to talk about, but hard to do. So hard in fact, it’s biblical. Which of course as people “in the people business,” we all know but hate to admit.  The 2017 National Gathering hosted about 600 leaders. For 220 of them, it was their first time at a NEXT Church Gathering. Every year we host an orientation conversation about NEXT Church. This year I remember mentioning that NEXT Church hopes to express the Kingdom of God to the world in an honest way that reflects the creativity and diversity of that Kingdom. Easy to say. Hard to do. As Shavon mentions, it requires deep trust, a willingness to give one another the benefit of the doubt, and an openness to listening. The National Gathering sets the tone for this work, with an expectation that we must then act in the world in a way that is congruent with what we proclaim together about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

During orientation we also mentioned that our National Gathering is designed as a bountiful feast, not a prix fixe 5-course meal. Were there parts of the Gathering that did not resonate with me personally? YEP. Am I grateful for the good people that gave of their time and gifts in leadership? YEP. Was I challenged and inspired? Absolutely.

Some folks have a hard time believing it, but NEXT Church has a seat at the table for every leader in our denomination. We are not a club. We do not take sides. We try desperately not to be exclusionary. The tables throughout our gathering space in Kansas City reflected these claims. If you will sit at the table and engage, then you are encouraged to speak up and share your gifts for the greater good of our denomination. The workshops were meant to reflect this claim.

And yet serious questions about belonging were raised during the National Gathering: Can I trust NEXT Church will welcome my unique perspective for what it is? Can I trust that NEXT Church will not be yet another organization unwilling to recognize the marginalization of women, LGBTQ leaders, and leaders who do not identify as white? How is NEXT Church reconciling institutional habits of exclusion and racism and avoiding the appropriation of cultural expressions of faith? How can I trust NEXT Church honestly values my conservative understanding of theology? Do they really care about what I have to say as a part time or non-traditional pastor? A traditional large steeple pastor? A seminarian? A leader in the last years of ministry? An educator? A ruling elder?

It makes sense that some are skeptical of the claim that there is a seat for everyone at NEXT Church, especially when personal experiences may inform a necessary level of self protection. But there is a seat. To be clear, we do not always agree, we do not always get it right, and we do not claim to be experts at the work of radical belonging. But together, we are trying. The National Gathering in Kansas City was a celebration of unity, not sameness. We commit to having the hard conversations, taking risks, and holding ourselves accountable. We also practice the art of giving one another the benefit of the doubt with grace and trust.

Most days I am simply trying to remain faithful to the people I serve. Between sermons, teaching, hospital visits, budgets, meetings, and parenting, I get tired. Bone tired. In the midst of a tenuous American culture, sometimes I doubt my ability to proclaim the Gospel with integrity and boldness. It gets isolating. So yeah, I need community. I need colleagues and friends to keep me honest and focused, but NEXT Church is about more than friendships.  If we are interested in collecting our voices and harnessing the power of Christ’s Church for God’s Kingdom, then our gathering space cannot be an echo chamber. What would it look like for the PCUSA to express the Kingdom of Heaven to the world in an authentic way that embraces and celebrates our diversity?

Seriously. Think about that for a minute.

We cannot afford to waste time bickering or managing our losses when there is a surplus of committed, diverse, and creative leaders, each worthy of investment. Also, we must not wait for support structures and institutions to catch up. Christ is alive in the world, NOW. While in humility, we claim the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ when we missed the mark. With all hope, you were inspired, challenged, engaged, and nourished by those you found in your midst. Having learned and grown together, we will step boldly into the future again next year with commitment, passion, and a renewed sense of faith.


Shavon Starling-Louis is pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Providence, RI. Lori Raible is co-pastor of Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Both are co-chairs of the NEXT Church executive team.

Accepting the Invitation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Glen Bell

During January, six servant leaders gathered in Sarasota, Florida, to begin to write a statement of faith. Katie Baker, Chris Currie, Brandon Frick, Bertram Johnson, Cindy Rigby, and Layton Williams came together to explore and proclaim what our Christian faith demands to in this moment of national difficult and discord. Jessica Tate, Robert Hay, and I hosted the gathering.

Did we all know one another? No.

Were we similar theologically, politically, personally? No.

Was travel easy? No.

Was the goal a bit daunting? Yes.

The process was filled with the yin and yang of dynamic discussion, replete with push and tug. There was a moment or two when some of us suspected we may not be able to finish. But it turned out to be a joyful, transformative experience of God-given connection with one another.

We have become convinced that stating our faith is NOT a task only for carefully-selected groups, empowered by a General Assembly. We believe that Presbyterians and Christians both within and across congregations are called to gather to discern and state God’s call for us.

We must proclaim our faith, not only in the familiar words we have received, but in our word  for our time.

There is something special about the Sarasota Statement – and also nothing special about it at all. It represents the heartfelt poetry and prose of six faithful servants, determined to answer God’s call. But most importantly perhaps, it points beyond itself, inviting and challenging all of us to do the same, in our place, in our time, right here and now.

Will we accept the invitation? A gathering of youth or adults in a congregation might study the Presbyterian confessions and then craft their own statement of faith. Three neighboring congregations could come together one evening to name and confess the most pertinent parts of our Christian tradition.

May God give us the strength and determination to reflect on our faith and to name and claim it anew!


Glen Bell is head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

2017 National Gathering Keynote: Soong-Chan Rah

Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL, presents a keynote at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering entitled: “The Changing Face of the Church.”


Soong-Chan Rah is Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL and the author of The Next EvangelicalismMany ColorsProphetic Lament; co-author of Forgive Us; and Return to Justice.

Soong-Chan is formerly the founding Senior Pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church (CCFC), a multi-ethnic church living out the values of racial reconciliation and social justice in the urban context. He currently serves on the board of World Vision and Evangelicals 4 Justice. He has previously served on the board of Sojourners and the Christian Community Development Association.

Soong-Chan received his B.A. from Columbia University; his M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; his Th.M. from Harvard University; his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and his Th.D. from Duke University.

Soong-Chan and his wife Sue and their two children, Annah and Elijah live in Chicago.