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Re-post: Back to the Future: A Sankofa Moment

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on December 27, 2013. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Paul Roberts

17 If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” 18 do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, 19 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the Lord your God brought you out. (Deuteronomy 7:17-19)

13 So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14 After I looked these things over, I stood up and said to the nobles and the officials and the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes. (Nehemiah 4:13-14)

And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran” (Acts 7:2)

These are just a few snapshots in the life of Israel, moments when they are commanded to go forward into new and sometimes dangerous places and circumstances. Each time, the people of God are challenged to first look back, to remember, to be confident not in themselves but in the God who is constantly sending and rescuing and delivering and saving and calling and loving.

sankofaIn the African-American community, we have embraced the concept of SANKOFA, from a West African proverb. SANKOFA teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. SANKOFA is visually represented by a bird that is in forward flight while looking back, with the egg of the future in its mouth.

At Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, our tag line is “called to create what’s next.” But to create what’s next, I believe we do well to first look back, gather all the best in preparation for exploring what’s next. Should theological education today resemble that represented in scripture? Many would question whether that is even reasonable, but, if it should, then it seems that that education must be less about the accumulation of knowledge and more about the formation of a way of life, of being.

Pastoral education should not take place in an isolated academic environment, but in the midst of the world for which the disciple is being prepared. It should, at least in part, take place at a point within which there is a seamless integration of spiritual, intellectual and practical concerns; there should be strong mentoring/partnering relationships with individuals who have not just experience, but are themselves active learners, willing to push against and test the status quo, who themselves embody faith rather than just imbibe knowledge about faith. These mentors should be men and women who can exegete the culture as effectively as they can exegete Scripture and are able to guide the disciple in how to weave both exegeses together.  So, pedagogy should move outside the walls of academe and into the world of the missioning God where people live and work and worship. The interaction between academy, church and community should be always in flux.

Looking back for one more moment, Gregory of Nazianzus (who fled the pastorate four times and was finally forcibly ordained by his congregation) noted that pastoral formation is a life-long endeavor: “Not even extreme old age would be too long a limit to assign.”). Becoming a pastor is the work of a lifetime. Theological education needs to give pastors a better start on becoming a pastor.


Roberts

Paul Timothy Roberts is president-dean of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. You can watch his keynote to the 2013 NEXT Gathering here.

I Believe the Children are Our Future

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!

Editor’s note: This post was updated to include the entirety of the author’s post. We apologize for the error! 

by Kim Lee

I had a newborn. But I figured: never too early to learn. Subsequently, there I was, attending a class for parents on teaching children to drive.

First question: “At what age does a child learn to drive?”

One called out, “Sixteen.”

Another, “no, no, no. Fifteen, that’s when they start taking driver’s education courses.”

Silence.

Photo from Selywn Ave Presbyterian Church Facebook page

After what seemed a rather dramatic pause, our presenter said, “I’d like to suggest that your children are learning to drive from the moment you buckle them into their car seat.”

“Do you slow down for yellow or speed up?” “Do you lock your doors?” “Do you wear your seatbelt?”

As a Christian educator, I think about those wise words and ponder: When does a child learn he or she is a child of God?

I’d like to suggest from the moment we welcome them into the family.

Are we keeping God’s words in our hearts? Do we recite them to our children? Do we talk about them when we’re at home? When we are away? When we lie down? When we rise?

I was a preschool teacher for fourteen years. Over those years, I came to realize that if I really wanted to impact the life of a child, and what teacher worth his or her salt doesn’t?, I had to reach the parents. Let’s be honest, as a teacher I had access to the hearts, minds, souls and bodies of my little learners twelve hours a week, if they were in school every day.

As the Director of Children and Family Ministry, I have access to the hearts, minds, souls, and bodies of my little disciples-in-training, at best, two hours a week, eight hours a month, and fifteen hours over the summer, if a family is EXTREMELY active. That means the church, assigned with the task of “guiding and nurturing by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging the body of Christ to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of the church of Jesus Christ,” has a grand whopping one hundred and eleven hours a year to fulfill its baptismal promise.

On the other hand, parents have access to the hearts, minds, souls, and bodies of their children twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for a minimum of eighteen years! I think that is why the writer of Deuteronomy addresses Israel:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statues and the ordinances that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children…
–Deuteronomy 6:4-9

What? What shall we say?

As parents and teachers and pastors, we are not asked to make up answers on the fly. Rather, we are charged to hear God’s Word; to love God with all of our heart, an undivided faithfulness; and with all of our soul, a commitment unto death; and with all of our might, everything we have and are — the totality of the human creature. Throughout the Bible, there is a recognition that it will take the whole of Israel — parents, teachers, preachers, and neighbors — to instruct children into the household of God.

An exasperated mom tells me that every day she fights the same fight: She gathers her eight-year old daughter’s cleats, socks, and shin guards, fixes a water bottle, makes a snack and places everything by the front door so that all her daughter has to do when she gets in from school is pick up her bag, grab her snack and get in the car. And yet, each weekday afternoon her daughter finds some reason or is flustered by some event that prevents her from doing just that, making them late to soccer practice every. single. day. And I wonder: Why do we expend so much time, energy, and money for our children to partake in soccer, basketball, baseball, swimming, tennis and on and on and spend either no time or very little time worshipping God, praying, and studying the Bible with our children?

Where on earth did we get the idea that children are little bodies devoid of souls? We may not sacrifice our children to fire gods anymore, but I fear we are sacrificing them to soccer fields, basketball courts, baseball fields, swimming pools, tennis courts, and the like.

Children are born unto us as curious, searching, longing, spiritual beings. They ask the deepest questions of life: Who am I? Why isn’t life fair? Where am I going? How am I going to get there? Why? Why? Why?

Then we shall say to our children…

What?

What will we say?


Kim Lee serves as part-time Director of Children’s and Family Ministries at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Kim is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. Before arriving at Selwyn, she served as the Director of Spiritual Formation at South Mecklenburg Presbyterian from 2007 to early 2015. Prior to that Kim served as a lead teacher in their Weekday School for fourteen years. Kim is a native Charlottean, having grown up at Covenant Presbyterian Church. She and her husband, Rick, have an adult son. Kim loves stories any way she can get them — books, movies, songs or spoken. She also enjoys frequent walks along the greenway with her golden retrievers, Norton & Tilly.

Eight Things Your Christian Educator Wants You to Know

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 Virginia Callegary

Many churches employ a faith formation leader, Christian educator, or youth leader. Churches that do not have paid staff for education usually have volunteers who help keep the educational ministry of the church running. Whether paid or volunteer, the work of faith formation leader is never easy. Our voices are not magnified by the pulpit, or empowered with a vote. We are leaders in the church and yet we are not the leader of the church. Our job is expansive and vital but often undervalued, under-supported, and misunderstood.

As I was preparing to write this I asked fellow Christian educators to share one thing they would like the lay leadership of their church to know. The following are eight things that those of us involved in the ministry of faith formation want church leaders to know:

1. We can’t do it alone (and we shouldn’t have to).

Faith formation is too important to be left to one person. Clearly it’s not possible for us to be everywhere at once, though we really do try. Our work in the classrooms and youth rooms of the church is vital but our ministry shouldn’t be limited to those spaces. Teaching a class or providing childcare should not consistently keep us from attending worship, meetings, fellowship events, or mission opportunities. We need you to be the other adult in a room full of children, to provide mentorship to youth and young adults, and to share your vision for Christian education in the church.

2. Chances are that most church leaders are already involved in faith formation ministry.

If you volunteer for the church, attend fellowship events, participate in mission opportunities, and/or lift your voice in song and prayer in worship, you are already a part of the ministry of discipleship in your congregation. Why? Because we learn by doing, but that doing doesn’t usually happen alone. What better way to encourage children to follow Christ than to stand with them in worship and teach them by example how to thank and praise God with prayer, music, study, and service?

3. My job description sometimes feels overwhelming.

The work of a Christian educator is naturally ambiguous. At the end of our long list of duties and responsibilities you can usually find a bullet point that says “perform other duties as assigned.” If we’re doing our job correctly those other duties are usually “assigned by” us when we think of some new ministry we would like to try. Our job involves creativity and innovation, which usually results in a longer to-do list and more responsibilities.

4. Letting go of older programs is a reality and a necessity.

Coming up with new, creative, and innovative ideas takes time and energy. That time and energy has to come from somewhere. We should evaluate the things we put our time and energy into and let go of those that no longer work for the church or are disproportionately burdensome. This process is the key to discovering and embracing what is next for the church.

5. The congregation needs to hear from church leadership how important our ministry is.

Most people in the congregation know very little about what the role of faith formation leader entails. This is because a good amount of what we do is behind-the-scenes: preparation, organization, problem solving, etc. We need you to give us credit for the creative things that come about because of our dedicated ministry to the church. Yeah, we could toot our own horn but that feels unnatural.

6. Continuing education is very important to our ministry.

Continuing education provides time for rest and renewal, for reconnecting with the Spirit and rediscovering our call to educational ministry. Attending a continuing education conference provides even more opportunities for networking, brainstorming, and resource sharing. To make continuing education possible for us we need time off as well as a budget.

7. Yes, we know our office is a mess.

We try hard to work on it, we really do, but as soon as we get rid of one thing we somehow manage to acquire more things. Our offices are full of the many ministries we undertake in our leadership role. Instead of criticizing us, try being understanding, and maybe even offering to help. Please don’t be offended if we say no because, truth be told, we might like our office just the way it is.

8. We have been called to educational ministry.

We feel strongly about the importance of our role in the life and ministry of the church. Our job is challenging and can be thankless but we persevere because God has called us to love and serve the church in this particular way. This is not a step on the path to something else but a passion we have to walk alongside others on our shared spiritual journey.


Virginia Callegary is the Director of Christian Education and unofficial social media guru for First Presbyterian Church of Howard County in Columbia, Maryland. Her messy office helps her come up with new and creative ideas for nurturing the faith of children, youth, and adults. She is on the leadership council of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators and manages the social media presence of the organization.

Sage Training or Saint Training?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Tanner Pickett and Elizabeth Link are curating a series that will reflect experiences of those in the beginnings of their ministry, particularly through the lens of Trent@Montreat. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear reflections from past and future participants, track leaders, and members of the leadership team of Trent@Montreat. We hope these stories will encourage you along your journey – and maybe encourage you to join us next April! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter!

by George Anderson

What’s your pleasure, pastor: sage training or saint training? Before having that Reformed theologian’s knee jerk reaction that rejects the idea of saints – or gives our tradition’s “everyone gets a trophy” spin that we are all made saints by God’s grace – I invite you to consider the question in light of how the Jewish philosopher Maimonides defines sages and saints.

From the Roanoke Times

For Maimonides, a saint (hassid) is not someone who is perfect but someone who is unwavering in her or his defense of a virtue. A sage (hakkam) is someone who understands that politics is the “art of the possible.” The saint will take a stand despite the cost. The sage will consider the costs, is willing to compromise, and can accept losing. The saint leads by taking a stand. The sage leads by holding the middle.

Often, sages are deemed weak and are open to ridicule. I remember a Canadian pastor poking fun at his own country when he reported that the winning submission for a slogan for Canada was: “As Canadian as can be, under the circumstances.” Tweak that a bit, and you have Maimonides’ description of a sage: “As virtuous as can be, under the circumstances.”

Here is the surprising thing about Maimonides: while he says that there are times for both saints to take their stands and sages to hold the middle, most of the time faith communities need sages over saints. The reason is simple: The Jewish (and Christian) community is best served, under normal circumstances, by empathy, patience, compromise, mediation, and balance; all with a spirit of humility and generosity. Jonathan Sacks defended Maimonides’ preference by saying, “The saint may be closer to God, while the sage is closer to doing what God wants us to do, namely bring [God’s] presence into the shared spaces of our collective life.” [1]

In some ways, I see my outstanding seminary education as being largely “saint training.” At seminary, I was given a vision of the Gospel and what the church can be. The more pragmatic aspects of leading a church were considered in the classroom but the emphasis was on the elegant beauty of the Gospel and what the church is called to be in bearing it witness. It was “saint training,” and I’m grateful. If I ever lose a longing for what the church ought to be beyond what it is, someone needs to let me know that it is time for me to retire.

Yet I have come to value and appreciate what Maimonides says about sages. Maimonides says that the lingering traits of God are not of the saint (demanding unblemished sacrifices) but of the sage: “compassion and grace, patience and forgiveness, and the other ‘attributes of mercy.’” [2]

NEXT Church, in seeking to equip leaders for the church of the future, wants to be a support for the sage as well as the saint. In support of “sage training,” NEXT Church is one of the sponsors of the Trent@Montreat 2018 conference. This conference is designed to inspire with its worship, but also equip and support pastors with its tracks that focus on day to day ministry. It is designed to help pastors who want to lead over the long haul and so want to;

  • deal with staff without being consumed by staff issues,
  • or deal with conflict in a way that calms rather than inflames,
  • or encourage generosity both to support missions,
  • and pay the church’s bills,
  • or preach sermons worth listening to Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.

For those who risk disappointing a holy God through the compromises that come of loving and leading God’s imperfect people, this conference does more than support them. It celebrates their ministries as reflecting, in their own way, the image of a gracious God.

If you want to know more about Trent@Montreat, visit the conference website or find the Trent@Montreat 2018 Facebook page.


George C. Anderson is the seventh senior pastor in the history of Second Presbyterian Church (Roanoke, VA). He began preaching at Second on February 22, 1998. Previously, he had been the Senior Minister at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS, and an Associate Minister at First Presbyterian Church in Kingsport, TN. He is a graduate of St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, NC, and Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. George and his wife, Millie, have three daughters: Paige, Rachel, and Virginia. George is one of the creators and conveners of the Trent Symposium and is among the leadership for the Trent@Montreat conference in 2018.

[1] Sacks draw my attention to Maimonides’ definitions of saint and sage in his book, To Heal a Fractured World; The Ethics of Responsibility. This quote is on p. 247.

[2] Sacks, p. 246.

The Blessing that Changed My Life and My Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarang Kang and Lynn Turnage are curating a blog series on faith formation. We’ll hear from various people who are involved in faith formation personally, professionally, and perseveringly. How has your faith been formed? How has your faith formed you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Karen Ware Jackson

“God loves you, and so do I,” my son lisps as he kisses my forehead. I return the blessing, listening as the ritual of love echoes from sister to brother, from father to son. And I know it is true. Deep in my bones, in the darkest recesses of my soul, I know it is true: We are loved by God and by one another. Every night, my heart simply bursts with the love and grace and truth. But it wasn’t always this way.

As a family with two young children and two pastors serving two different churches, our home life is harried. You would think a family led by clergy would have faith formation covered, but the sad truth is church schedules and the challenges of professional faith leadership can wreak havoc on a home. We usually managed a bedtime prayer and a rousing rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” but it wasn’t enough. So, encouraged by the work of Rich Melheim and Faith Inkubators, we embraced the Faith 5:

  • SHARE your highs and lows
  • READ a Bible verse or story
  • TALK about how the Bible reading might relate to your highs and lows
  • PRAY for one another’s highs and lows
  • BLESS one another

In our house, we usually share our “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” at dinner and read a bedtime story from the Bible. Sometimes we talk about what we read and we almost always pray, but we never ever miss the blessing. It’s the sacred moment when our love for one another connects seamlessly with our love for God.

These simple, powerful steps transformed our family life, and we didn’t even need to buy a curriculum! Suddenly, all the things we were already doing – sharing, reading, talking, praying and even the “good night kiss” – became part of our family faith formation.

Soon I began to wonder: if this works so well in our home, what about in our church?

At Faith Presbyterian, we’ve been welcoming people of all ages into worship for a few years. We created a PrayGround at the front of our sanctuary to give families the space to move and engage in our traditional setting. We have a lot of fun during the service and love the joy and life the kids bring! But worshipping alongside children is not quite the same as worshipping with children.

We have the kids and the adults in the space, now how do we bring them together? How do we help them tell their stories and pray for one another? How do we foster relationships and build cross-generational community? How do we become the Body of Christ?

Inspired by my experience of Faith 5 at home, I decided to experiment with it in worship. After all, share, read, talk, pray, and bless are authentic and traditional service movements. If these practices could bring us together in the home, why not in the sanctuary?

In order to reduce anxiety and keep everyone open to new experiences, we kept the basic flow of the service, but before we began the prayer of confession, I encouraged folks to form small groups around the sanctuary or use Faith 5 as a personal spiritual practice in the tradition of the examen. I closed the PrayGround and guided anxious but willing kids and elders to share and interpret the Word together. It was beautiful! We practiced Faith 5 Worship every Sunday in October and we will return to it at least once a quarter, but one movement remains every week:

We form a circle around the sanctuary, literally knit together in a single body. As we gaze upon the faces of the family of God – young and old, black and white, refugee and native-born, long-time members and first-time visitors – we hear the charge, “… that the love of Christ that dwells within you can reach out and touch others through you.” Then we turn to one another, crouch down or reach up, grasp hands, touch foreheads, kiss cheeks, and know the truth: “God loves you, and so do I.”


Karen Ware Jackson leads cross-generational worship at Faith Presbyterian Church, a small but mighty congregation in Greensboro, NC. As the mother of two young children who worship front and center, she knows firsthand the joys and challenges of parenting a child while leading a congregation. She blogs about engaging all ages in worship at  www.karenwarejackson.com and tweets at  @karenwarejack.

Adult Education Topics/Curriculum

Our May 2017 Church Leaders Roundtable focused on adult faith formation. Some of the conversation centered around education topics and curriculum. Here are the resources roundtable participants shared.

While there are many excellent resources available for children’s curriculum, it can be difficult to find resources for adult education. Here are some options of curriculum or class ideas vouched for by Presbyterian congregations:

Curricula

  • Disciple Bible Curriculum – an intensive study requiring daily work by class members.
  • Feasting on the Word – follows the Revised Common Lectionary.
  • The Wired Word – Simple article about a current event that can be sent out by email. It includes scripture as a lens from which to read the article and questions for conversation.

Topics/Ideas

  • Try flipping the script: rather having topics on theology or scripture, frame classes around questions people are wrestling with in life and bringing wisdom from tradition and scripture to that topic.
    • One way this has been done is having big boxes in the narthex where congregation members can put in their questions that pastors will tackle over the length of the class. Examples of questions could be:
      • Inclusive language: why call God father not mother
      • We believe Jesus is way, truth, life. What does that mean for other religions?
      • Why different bible translations? Why are the words different?
      • Preparing people to talk about death and dying.
  • Spirituality of Conflict from the Corrymeela community in Ireland can be used for a Sunday School class. It is lectionary based, but you must be willing to read the lectionary through the lens of conflict. It’s also free!
  • Faith & Film series – select films that could be explored through a theological lens. Invite people to watch the film during the week and then have a class discussion on Sunday.

“Spirit in the Dark” Examines the Boundaries of Religious Life

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Derrick McQueen

The book that is providing theological perspective and inspiration for me these days is Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics by Josef Sorett. It is a work that examines the African-American cultural movements and their artistic offspring. From the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920’s through the Black Arts movement, Dr. Sorett examines the pervasive effect religion plays on these commonly seen as secular literary visions. This work is exciting because it puts religion in conversation with the secular and in doing so allows the church/religion to erase the divide between what is inside and what is outside of the church walls, or the boundaries of religious life.

Spirit in the Dark does not attempt to answer the question, “How does the church make itself relevant in the secular world?” It lays claim to the ways in which the division between the sacred and the secular is an artificial one. In fact, it sees the religious as an integral ingredient in the African-American literary tradition.

Church book study group leaders will find this book extremely helpful in training the eyes and ears to the religious undercurrents in the secular literary tradition. As Dr. Sorett’s work deals with the African-American experience, the culminating lessons are also applicable or at least adaptable for many different communities. It is just that in Spirit in the Dark, Sorett’s impressive research makes clear that the African-American experience is one that able to be clearly defined and claimed as such in this rich tapestry of literary tradition and can serve as a model to other communities.

Specifically, it frees the preacher up to understand that the literary resource of the African-American literary tradition is ripe for bringing in texts to be in conversation with the Bible and the community. It also provides a way for preachers and pastors to parse culture without giving in to the demand to “do something new to fill the pews” by watering down the theological foundations upon which their churches and communities are built. This is an important book and readers will definitely find their own jewels within.


Rev. Derrick McQueen, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Director for The Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University. He is also serving as pastor to St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem, N.Y., and is an adjunct professor of Worship and Preaching at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Derrick has been actively involved in work for LGBTQ inclusion in churches and society, facilitating dialogues and serving on the boards of such organizations as Presbyterian Welcome, That All May Freely Serve, More Light Presbyterians and Auburn Seminary. Recently he served as the Moderator of the Presbytery of New York City.

A Challenge to the Church

We continue to reap the harvest of the 2015 National Gathering and hope you continue to be inspired by creative ministry, challenging ideas, and deepened relationships. NEXT leaders are continuing to process places of tension in the gathering so that we may learn and grow from them. Today, Rebecca Messman’s blog piece offers some reflection on the last presentation of the gathering, offered by George Srour, a ruling elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. There were strong feelings expressed at the time of the presentation and some difficult conversations in the wake of the conversation. What Becca does in this piece is take a step back from the intensity of the moment and respond to various constituencies with thoughtfulness and grace.

 

The church is getting lapped by secular organizations doing the work church started. And they’re doing it better.”

In that one statement, George Srour, one of the Forbes Top 30 under 30 for Social Entrepreneurship, said what most of us know to be true though we don’t know what to do about it. When Srour was in college, he learned that 900,000 children in Uganda had no school at all to attend. In response, over the last ten years, he has started a non-profit, Building Tomorrow, and built schools for 6,700 children, with more schools under construction. Those are impressive numbers. Srour grew up at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, the host church for the very first NEXT church conference. I felt certain that Srour would get a good hearing, even generate some pride, from those of us at this year’s NEXT conference.

The intense response he received, however, focused more on his appearance as potentially someone with a “white savior complex,” despite the fact that he is Lebanese-American, or conceivably someone dealing in “toxic charity,” despite his emphasis on local leadership, long-term partnership, and the use of donated land.

Srour was gracious in responding to our questions without a whiff of defensiveness, but I wonder if we have genuinely considered his challenge to the church, the Presbyterian Church that he, and we, love.

  • Make it real, he said. Non-profit organizations do a better job in communicating concrete goals. He made it real. $1.81 is what it would cost to build a school in Uganda, if all 5,500 students at William and Mary contributed. The ALS ice bucket challenge made it real, and we poured ice water on our heads and donated $100. Heifer international makes it real, and we buy a goat for a hungry family for Christmas. Churches know this! Last Thanksgiving, when I asked the congregation for $18 to purchase a turkey for the community banquet, saying that we needed 20 turkeys total to feed 300 people, we received 20 checks. And what blew me away, 15 of those checks were from individuals purchasing all 20 turkeys at once. Whether it’s the shoe drive or the angel tree, ministries that make it real work in most any setting. Why, then, are our congregational goals come October so tepid, so fuzzy, by comparison?
  • Be bold, he said. “Would you be you without a school?” Srour posed that agitating question to college kids, and set an enormous, but real, goal. 900,000 students in Uganda do not have a school. He didn’t say, “Millions worldwide.” That would have been true, but demoralizing. He didn’t say, “these 28 children.” That would have been manageable and impressive for a college student, but less inspiring. Churches know this! We have demographic data and statistics at our fingertips, but we don’t necessarily use it to set our goals. We may set goals that are catchy and even aggressive, but we don’t always stick with those goals long enough to realize them, which makes our big goals less trustworthy the next time around. Sometimes our goals are so small they are not goals at all, they are more about survival and status quo, less about our faith and more an expression of our fear. They start to sound like my marathon goal: “Start off slow, and ease up.” “Not dead, not dead last.”
  • God sends many teachers and many teammates. We should learn from non-profits. Jesus drafted fishermen to be his disciples, because they knew how to move where the fish were, without being tied to the land like farmers, or proud of the product like carpenters. Jesus pulled in tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars and blind people, perhaps because they weren’t too concerned with popularity or perfection in the hard work of discipleship. The harvest is plentiful, Jesus said, but the workers… they’re few! I am starting to think that there are more laborers in the field with the church than ever before—caring for the sick, binding up the brokenhearted, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked—non-profits, government organizations, community groups, school groups, other churches—and we have much to learn from each other.

 

I’ll never forget when I was in the car with my dad as a teenager, and I heard a song on the radio, maybe by Belinda Carlisle or Sinead O’Connor, and I quipped, “Uggh… This song is so cheesy, I could write one better than this.” And he quipped back, “Yes, but have you?”

It’s easy to pose a fiery question at a conference and muse on how we’d do it better or differently. But we need to be prepared for the question, “Yes, but have you?”

 


Rebecca Messman is a pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia. In a previous life she was in the corporate leadership track of Home Depot.

 

Officer Training for the NEXT Church

by Tom Are, Jr.

They said “yes,” which is no small thing. They had been asked to serve as Elders in my congregation… a three year commitment. It would mean a lot of meetings, more than a few conversations, a growing “to-do list” and perhaps some debate. They would be asked to provide leadership for the church in a time when it is hard to discern the best direction to move. So, they would need training: Officer Training.

Officer training needn't be like this.

Officer training needn’t be like this.

They had ordination questions to answer about Confessions and doctrine and would make commitments to do nothing less that work for the reconciliation of the world! That’s a pretty big job.

When I began teaching Officer Training over twenty years ago, I was pretty clear regarding the purpose. They needed to know about these Confessions they would promise to be guided by. They needed to be able to articulate a doctrine of scriptural authority and confess scripture as holy revelation. They needed to know about synods and commissions and that serving in “governing bodies” meant they would go to Presbytery.

It is a lot to learn; a lot to know. And to my pleasant surprise, because these were the types that would say “yes” to being an elder, they kept coming to officer training and telling me how “interesting” the classes were.

Mission accomplished, right?

Nope.

I blew it, to tell you the truth.

Where did I get the impression that being a disciple of Jesus was primarily a matter of knowing the right information? Oh, I know, we don’t say it that way. We say it’s important to have good theology. Or believe in essential doctrine. Some might even say it’s a matter of knowing the truth.

I like knowing the truth, when it can be known. My shelves are filled with theology, both the formal and informal kinds. Doctrine matters to me. But, when Jesus was asked what’s the most important thing in our lives, he didn’t say, I have some things I want you to think about. He said, love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus was essentially relational.

I have changed my mind, my heart and my ministry. The church is not the church because we think the right things. We are not the church because we have found the right language to describe the difference Jesus makes in the world. Jesus does not come simply into our heads. The truth is, he doesn’t come into our hearts either….that’s far too narrow. He comes into our relationships.

So, in Officer Training we still gather around the scriptures and the Confessions but it’s not simply to gain information. It is to discover a new lens through which we learn to see ourselves and one another. After all, our primary offering and witness to a hurting world is not information we have, but love we give. It was Jesus who said, “They” shall know that you belong to me by your love for one another. Now in Officer Training in addition to learning doctrine, they learn to be a friend among their colleagues in ministry.

It’s not rocket science—the truth is, my approach to Officer Training might not seem any different than before if you weren’t paying attention. We just spend more time telling our own stories, praying together for the church and one another. We spend time exploring not only the Confessions of the saints who have gone before, but offering our own “confessions” working to find the language to describe what God is doing among us. It’s pretty simple, but it has made a difference.

We asked newly elected officers to share about their faith journey. They spoke of their grandmothers and youth leaders and Montreat. A few mentioned moments in worship and others mentioned the birth of children or trips in nature. But recently when some of these were asked the same question after they had completed their time of service: “Tell us about an important moment in your faith journey,” they mentioned serving on the Session together. That’s no small thing.


Tom AreTom Are is pastor of Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS and is co-chair of NEXT.