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Hope For What’s Next

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 Jeff Bryan

Who am I to summarize the blog posts from this month? Who am I to conclude these thoughts? I can only say, “Amen!” Amen to Liz Crumlish, our sister from the Church of Scotland, who said it so well: “We are engaged in a movement not a programme.” Amen to Yena Hwang, articulating a theology of death and rising, while summarizing ministry so succinctly: “So, what we do is just that: we show up. Be present in people’s discomfort as they experience the church existing in a different way, not in the way it used to be.” Amen to the vulnerability of these contributors, sharing their personal experiences in the difficult work of the faith. I could go through each of this month’s blog posts and find something to “Amen,” but I’ll spare you the systematic approach. Instead, I’ll simply say I’m grateful to be in such fine company.

I’m also impressed by the restraint of our blog contributors. They have chosen to engage the content of the conference with honesty and integrity, whereas I have rewritten this paragraph 400 times, deleting screed after screed. The mid-twentieth century, White, Anglo-Saxon, male-oriented, culturally-cozy, Main Line church, and it’s perceived loss of privilege and status… I could just scream! But not our writers. They have better, more faithful things to do.

If we are in a desert, it truly is a desert in bloom. So much good is happening out there! Almighty God is still Sovereign. Jesus Christ will never stop calling forth a church to worship, grow in faith, support one another, and serve the ones he called “the least of these.” The Spirit of Christ will continue to send us out, abiding with us every step of the way, comforting, encouraging, and challenging us. That is, until we reach that glorious country where “there is day without night, light without darkness, and life without shadow of death forever.” But there I go preaching again.

When I hear Presbyterians digging into the faith, thinking critically about ministry in their local (and often difficult and painful) contexts, and doing their very best to follow Christ, I feel inspired. I feel hope. I feel my heart yearning for whatever’s next, with all the NEXT Church puns included.
Here’s to whatever God has planned for us today. Here’s to taking it one day at a time, making the next best decision, and keeping our eyes open for the presence of God. Here’s to the future and the NEXT Church.


Jeff Bryan is senior pastor of Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, SC. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Jeff has also served churches in Ann Arbor, MI, and suburban Philadelphia. He enjoys spending time with family, and has an embarrassingly large music collection.

The Desert is in 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 Jeff Bryan

I feel like an apology is in order. Here I am, curating the NEXT Church blog, writing the opening and closing pieces, and I didn’t even attend the 2018 National Gathering. I have a good excuse. We had a serious medical emergency in the family. Don’t worry. It’s been a long haul, but everyone is okay. I have a good excuse for my absence; I also have a silver lining. The family emergency gave me the opportunity to listen and watch the National Gathering events online, look at pictures, and read these blog posts with a different perspective. Things look different from far away. Plus, I got to see them from the resurrection side of Easter.

desert bloom hand wash handsThe desert is in bloom. There is life on the other side of death. Resurrection is real. I saw it in my family, as we kept vigil in the hospital for a week, prayed, and witnessed a full recovery. I saw it in the loving hands of church members, bringing countless casseroles and pound cakes to the house. I was surprised to see it in relationships: “You and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but you really came through for me. Thank you, brother. I love you.” I heard it in the voices of children, shouting “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday. On Good Friday, I heard resurrection in the clarinet of a 91-year old man—

the band director from the old, segregated, black high school,
marching into the all-white cemetery,
past the statue of a Civil War soldier
and the rusty C.S.A. markers,
in an integrated band,
the jazz cats giving the old man respect…
“Yeah, man, play!”
“He’s 91 and the best musician in town!”
“It’s an honor to march with you, sir.”
with an integrated crowd,
arm in arm, singing,
“Just a closer walk with thee!”
too many layers of meaning to count,
that ancient clarinet wailing front and center,
with hope as strong today as 1950

—and I’ll never be the same again. I saw it on the smiling faces on Easter morning, children screaming “Risen indeed!” I’ve seen resurrection in congregations, our denomination, and the NEXT Church National Gathering, asking the hard question, “What is God calling us to do, be, or change?” And I read it in the voices of these blog contributors. Their excitement for the future is palpable, and their hope is contagious. Make no mistake. We bear witness to the resurrection of Christ, we proclaim the victory of God’s grace, and the Reign of Heaven is gaining ground.

Readers, I invite you to pay close attention to these blog posts. They are us, they are the future, and they are fantastic. Enjoy!


Jeff Bryan is senior pastor of Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, SC. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Jeff has also served churches in Ann Arbor, MI, and suburban Philadelphia. He enjoys spending time with family, and has an embarrassingly large music collection.

Some New Code Words

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!

by David Stipp-Bethune

My 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering began while I was still “on the way,” when I met a turn in the road overshadowed by a billboard:

“DIVERSITY” is a code word for #whitegenocide

I hadn’t caught my breath when a couple of curves later revealed another, larger billboard, listing all the white supremacy TV channels.

I didn’t want any part of this! I pinched myself, attempting to ensure I wasn’t dreaming, because I instantly identified with the Magi for whom a “dream” invited them to return home “by another way,” and I had already begun re-plotting my post-conference route!

I simply don’t get this yearning some have for being so divided, so “anti-diversity,” claiming a Christ who causes division and suffering rather than leading the great, diverse, Kingdom of God in all its glory. This lust for white power and domination is wholly and entirely inconsistent with what I know of Jesus that I secretly pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” as my own code words for “my Jesus is coming to kick your Jesus’ a$$.”

I’ve always believed “America” (that presumptive code word for the United States) is at her best when we are an open, diverse, color-filled people who share equality and freedom. Much more so, the Church. Part of the language I’ve been taught was “a great melting pot,” but that’s just a code word for “white-washing” everyone so to see ourselves with no marks of difference or diversity—a way of hiding this ugly ingrained racism that robs us all of our identity. Especially the Church.

One of the images I encountered at the National Gathering was a promise born from an ancient people trying to live into “an incarnate Kingdom of God.” In a conversation about the transition from a first-century Hellenized meal called a symposium to the meal we claim as the Eucharist, my friend and colleague Jeff Bryan reiterated the view that the banquet of the Lord would never fail to bring everyone to the table—literally, the whole stinking community. You would find yourself, quite unwittingly, dipping your bread in the hummus with someone else, not just wholly unexpectedly, but with whom you could never allow yourself to be associated with. Yet you’re already guilty by association, because you’re at this dinner party together with Jesus.

I’ve always had this idea I really shouldn’t want to dip my bread with a bunch of white supremacists.

I live in Arkansas. And while I don’t want to disparage the whole state on account of those here who espouse the anathema of racial purity led by white people, it’s definitely true that enough people here are as prepared as ever to fight for a way of life that I want no part of—i.e. segregation, uniformity, monochrome, black and white, separate but equal. And when I say “fight” I don’t mean the way we fight about what scripture means or the color of the new carpet for the sanctuary.

And some of those people are in our churches regularly!

And I struggle to know exactly what I need to be doing about it.

Because “church” is one of the places where we have a history of being divided by issues of race.  Maybe that’s why in the new-to-me-congregation I’m serving, one of the “rules” has always been “check your politics at the door—we don’t talk about these things in church.” Code words for “we know we disagree and if we have to admit it, it leads to division.”

But it’s either the meal of the Kingdom’s freedom, joy, diversity, and love; or it’s not.  “Jesus, bread, and wine” are—or should be—code words for living together—not because we agree, but maybe because we don’t?

Because “church” is one of the places we think or believe we should be more “at one” with each other, “communion” is another code word we use to demonstrate oneness in Christ, downplaying difference and diversity because we must be “a part of the same.”

But maybe Jesus had another idea. That a part of loving one another is not based on agreement.  But that we are at table as the Psalmist says, “even in the presence of our enemies.”

The Lord’s Table: code word for Christ’s holding the different together.


David Stipp-Bethune has a passion for most things PCUSA, thinks General Assembly should still meet at least annually, and currently serves First Presbyterian Church El Dorado, Arkansas as pastor, having arrived in November 2016 and after pastorates in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Arkansas, and Nebraska.