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Seeing the Possibilities in Ministry

by Jessica Tate

Back in 2011, at the first NEXT Church National Gathering, Joe Clifford gave a short talk in which he introduced the chemistry concept of the “adjacent possible.” The concept, so far as I understand, is that specific chemical reactions are possible based on what elements are next to one another. Clifford suggested it is important for the church to pay attention to what is next to us because there are numerous possibilities available to us based on what is adjacent to us. Too often, moving down well-worn paths, we forget that other possibilities exist. On the flip side, we are limited by what is next to us. There are set possibilities of how elements interact with one another. Hydrogen and oxygen combine for water. If you have hydrogen and carbon, you can’t get water, no matter how much you wish it.

The concept of adjacent possible has stayed with me since 2011. In moments when I have felt stuck, it has encouraged me to take a step back and look at the adjacent possible. What combinations might exists that I have been ignoring? What reaction am I wishing for but don’t have the right elements in the right places?

NEXT Church gatherings – local or national – seek to connect leaders to one another, to spark imagination, to offer an honest reflection about the challenges confronting the church, remind us that God’s Spirit is up to something, and encourage us to see possibilities to which we had been blind before.

In 2014, Kara Root told the story of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church and the congregation’s creative reimagining of a rhythm for worship in their community. As is true for many congregations, Kara described Lake Nokomis as a congregation that had declined numerically and yet tried to keep up with all the demands and programmatic offerings of a larger congregation. The result was exhaustion. Congregational burnout. Together, the congregation undertook a serious study of Sabbath which led them to be more honest with one another about their energy, their capacity, and a desire to practice the act of Sabbath keeping together as a community. The creative result was a change in their worship pattern so that some weeks they meet on Sunday morning for worship. Other weeks they meet on Saturday evening for a simple supper and evening prayer, preserving Sunday for communal Sabbath keeping. Some weeks they lead worship at a local home for children. A radical change in the rhythm of life was borne out of honesty, theological reflection, and Christian practice.

All of the speakers and leaders at NEXT Church gatherings bring their gifts as an offering to the church in hope and in faith – not with the expectation that everything shared will be directly relevant across all contexts, but trusting that hearing testimony from leaders reflecting on their own contexts might spark a new insight for your own. As an organization, NEXT Church creates space for these offerings, recognizing that though we cannot control what is heard, what takes root, and what is acted upon, we trust that these interactions bear fruit over time.

This month, we are going to revisit some speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle, as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit.

As we continue to journey through Lent and as I, along with other NEXT Church leaders begin an audit process this week with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, I am reminded again of the powerful keynote Allan Boesak gave at the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering. During the Q&A, a participant noted the church’s long silence on racism and asked him, “what does the church need to give up moving forward?” Boesak responded with a story.

South African author Alan Paton wrote a book about a principal in Soweto, where the 1976 uprising began. The principal was a gentle guy, not controversial, not one who goes to protests. “Very much like me,” said Allan Boesak. He had many friends in the white community because he did not come to their tea parties to talk about politics. “He was reasonable.”

One day the whites saw him sitting on a stage at a rally. Then the next time they saw him and he spoke at the rally. Then he was in the front leading the march. And they said to him, “What has happened to you? We depended on you! Now you are making things worse.”

He responded to them: One day I will die and the Great Judge in heaven will ask me, “where are your wounds?” And I will have to say, “I don’t have any.” And when I say, “I don’t have any,” the Great Judge will say to me, “Was there then nothing to fight for?”

Boesak continued: In the end the one who will ask you about your wounds will not be me, will not be #blacklivesmatter, will not be the women, will not be the children. It will be the one who appeared before Thomas and said to Thomas, “look at my hands and my feet and put your hand in my side.”

“I pray God,” Boesak concluded, “we will have something to show.”


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

The Grass Withers and the Flower Fades

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Today’s piece is excerpted from a sermon preached by Joe Clifford on December 6, 2015 for the second Sunday of Advent at the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. You will see that it does not directly answer the question that has guided our blog postings this month, but you will also see that question is answered by God’s promises to us in scripture – promises that save us. To listen to the sermon in its entirety, click hereWe invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter! 

By Joe Clifford

Isaiah 40:1-11 (click for text)

“Comfort, Comfort my people,” says your God.

That is the call God issues to the prophet Isaiah in the midst of the people’s exile in Babylon. No more indictment for idolatry. No more rebuke for ignoring widows and orphans. No more calls for repentance. There was a time for that, but now the call is to comfort. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her time is served, a new day is coming.”

In the midst of our world of exile, a world defined by terrorism, born of a dangerous mix of extremism and distorted religion, a world where in this nation mass shootings have occurred at a rate of more than one per day this year, surely that is the word we are called to offer our world: comfort, comfort my people. A new day is coming.

Cry out! The Hebrew verb there is better translated, “Preach!” That’s what Isaiah was called to do. And that is what we are called to do. Cry out! Preach! The good news. The good tidings.

How does Isaiah respond to God’s call? “What shall I cry?” he says. “All people are grass,” dust in the wind, as the old saying goes. Every Advent for the past twenty years I’ve heard this passage and preached on it. I’ve heard its beauty. I’ve heard its comfort. I confess this year I heard something different. This year I heard Isaiah’s cynicism. What shall I cry? What shall we cry in a world gone mad?

December 2nd, 14 dead 21 injured in San Bernadino. November 29, 3 dead and 9 injured in Colorado Springs. October 1st; 9 dead, 9 injured in Roseburg, Oregon. July 16, 5 dead, 3 wounded in Chattanooga, TN. June 18th; 9 dead in Charleston, SC.[1] May 17th, 9 dead, 18 injured in Waco, TX. Those are some of 355 mass shootings in this country in 2015.

What shall we cry? Racism? Terrorism? Extremism? Gun violence? Mental illness? Xenophobia? Security now? What shall we cry?

“The grass withers, the flower fades,” says the prophet, “…surely the people are grass.” For some reason this year, I know how Isaiah felt. Don’t you?

How does God respond? This is a matter of interpretation, but I believe God says, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.” The word of our God will stand forever. What shall we cry? What shall we preach? What shall we proclaim? The word of our God! And what does this word say in Isaiah? Let me give you a taste.

Later in Isaiah 40, that word says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 43, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 2, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up the sword against nation…ain’t gonna study war no more!”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 58: “Loose the bonds of injustice… let the oppressed go free… break every yoke… share your bread with the hungry… bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, … cover them, and do not hide from your own kin…Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

What shall we cry? Again in Isaiah 58: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

This is what we are called to proclaim. This is what we are called to embody. Or as the Lord tells Isaiah and all the people, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. All people shall see it together. ALL people shall see it together.”

What shall we cry? The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our Lord endures forever.

[1] Los Angeles Times Staff. “Deadliest U.S. Mass Shootings: 1984-2015,” published in the Los Angeles Times on December 2, 2015. Cited here: http://timelines.latimes.com/deadliest-shooting-rampages/


JoeJoe Clifford is the senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. He serves on the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

Seeing Jesus in the Stranger

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During April, as we continue to process the 2015 National Gathering, Joe Clifford is curating a month of blog posts exploring multiculturalism in the NEXT Church. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Joe Clifford

As we enter the season of Eastertide and consider the ways the risen Christ is working among the church, I am reminded of Luke’s story about the road to Emmaus.  You’ll remember that Cleopas and his companion are making their way home from Jerusalem following the crucifixion when they are met by a stranger on the road who asks them what they’re talking about. “Don’t you know what’s happened?” they respond.  And they proceed to tell the stranger about the crucifixion and the death of their hopes and dreams.  They mention rumors of resurrection, but they’re not buying it.

Like Cleopas and his companion, we talk a lot about the bad news these days, about the death of the church and the decline of Mainline Protestantism.  We know the statistics.  Mark Chaves of Duke Divinity School points out that no indicator of traditional belief and practice is on the rise.   Only 25% of Americans regularly attend worship services, and regularly now means once or twice a month.  In the past 20 years, the number of people saying they adhere to no religion at all– the “nones”–increased from 2 or 3 percent in 1990 to close to 17 percent in 2010, with the number of “nones” increasing most dramatically among young adults, with over 25% of Millennials reporting no church affiliation.  Only 15% of Millennials say that living a “very religious” life is important to them.  Institutional religion as we have known it is dying.  We would likely say to the stranger, “Are you the only person who doesn’t know what’s happening in the Jerusalem that is the institutional church?”

The stranger does not respond with much compassion.  In fact, he calls them “fools.” He proceeds to open the scriptures to them, to show that you can’t have resurrection without death.  In the midst of the decline of the white mainline Protestant church, another part of the body of Christ is rising in powerful ways.  According to an article published back in May 2014 on the Daily Digest of the PCUSA website   “American Christianity still has plenty of Millennials — they’re just not necessarily in white churches.”  Rev. Derwin Gray, pastor of Transformation Church, a multiethnic congregation in South Carolina reports,  “What I see among Millennials are African Americans and Asian Americans and Latinos who are vibrantly growing in faith and leading the future of what the church will become.”  According to data from the Public Religion Research Institute he’s absolutely right.  The majority of younger Christians in this country are people of color.  White Christians only make up 26% of Americans age 18-29.  Only 12% are white mainline Protestants.  On the other hand 28% of that age group are Christians who are people of color.   This is part of a huge shift underway in American Christianity. For Americans over 65 years old, about 70% of their generation are white Christians.  For my generation, it’s 54%.  For my children’s generation, it’s less than 25%.

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Rev. Gray believes the future will belong to churches that are multicultural, not because it is politically correct, but “because that’s what God wants.” He cites Revelation 7:9 “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”  He concludes, “The reason that we should have multiethnic churches is not that the demographics of America [are] changing — but because it is at the heart of the gospel.”

The rise of multicultural Christianity is connected to the expansion of Pentecostal churches.  The Pentecostal movement is often traced to the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 in Los Angeles.  Today it is estimated that by 2025, over 40% of the global Christian community will be Pentecostal.  That’s a shift the likes of the Protestant reformation.

Back on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion invite the stranger into their home.  There the guest becomes the host, taking the bread, blessing it and breaking it, and their eyes are opened to see the risen Christ. This month we invite into the NEXT Blog, Joel and Rachel Triska from Life in Deep Ellum.  They are ordained ministers in the Assembly of God Church running a fascinating ministry in urban Dallas. We also hear from Rev. Shane Webb and Pastor Antonio Pichardo who are partnering in rural Texas on new worshipping communities.


Joe CliffordJoe Clifford serves as Pastor, Head of Staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas.  In 2006 he came to Dallas from the Alpharetta Presbyterian Church in the Atlanta area.  Joe is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and has his Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from McCormick Theological Seminary.