NEXT Church Denominational Listening Campaign Report

In fall 2015 – winter 2016, NEXT Church embarked on a denominational listening campaign. A listening campaign is a tool we’ve learned from community organizing (specifically the Industrial Areas Foundation). We invited and trained people who have been leaders within NEXT Church to host a listening session with church leaders around questions of “transformational mission.” The sharing of stories and experiences gives space to hear together where God’s Spirit is moving.

We convened 47 groups that involved 447 people. These are our findings.


Denominational Listening Campaign around Transformational Mission

What is a Listening Campaign?

In fall 2015 – winter 2016, NEXT Church embarked on a denominational listening campaign. A listening campaign is a tool we’ve learned from community organizing (specifically the Industrial Areas Foundation). We invited and trained people who have been leaders within NEXT Church to host a listening session with church leaders around questions of “transformational mission.” The sharing of stories and experiences gives space to hear together where God’s Spirit is moving.

We convened 47 groups that involved 447 people.

Purpose of the Listening Campaign

  1. To learn about how people are experiencing mission in local church settings.
  2. To offer the church a relational tool that can be used for discernment.
  3. To hear themes that can inform future directions for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and our national church structures.
  4. To connect local church leaders more deeply across differences in theology or vision for polity.

Through this campaign, we focused on people’s lived experiences. We believe taking time to build and deepen relationships is a critical practice in the church today. The relational fabric (our connectedness) is what will help us wade through the waters of cultural and denominational change.  

What We Heard

  • People shared exciting stories about transformational mission they/their congregations are engaged in. That is to be celebrated!
    • There seems to be an organic connection between missional engagement and congregational vitality.
    • Most of the mission described is happening at the congregational level, often with ecumenical or secular partnerships.
    • Mission is a place where people are eager to engage in church life.
    • Thought about mission is fluid and changing. Participants noted a shift toward “being missional,” a desire to seek full dignity of all parties in mission relationships, and that the most transformational mission experiences blur the us/them mentality.
  • People enjoy connecting with one another to share experiences or the practice of ministry. Sharing stories was a source of inspiration as people were encouraged by what their sister congregations are doing, made new points of connection around shared concerns, and got new ideas for mission connections in their own settings.
  • There is open wondering about the purpose of denominational structures (presbytery, synod, General Assembly) in the church today.
    • With a few notable exceptions, there was little despair or frustration voiced about denominational structures, but denominational structures or programs were not viewed as “go-to” resources.
    • There is hunger for denominational discernment. Where are the spaces to work through foundational questions that are not about voting?  
    • There is a desire to “flip the script.” We heard multiple sentiments like, “We need the denomination to stop inviting us in and start supporting us as we go out.”
    • People are very appreciative when denominational structures play one of the following roles
      • supporting — usually financially
      • training — educational resources or opportunities to increase capacity (community organizing, New Beginnings, and anti-racism training came up), or
      • connecting — linking people with similar interests/passions/mission engagement to share ideas or join together.
  • There is desire for a different denominational communication strategy around mission.
    • There is a sense that opportunities for connection in mission exist in the broader church but it is not clear how to find out about them or connect with them.
    • Others feel overwhelmed by the volume of mail/email from denominational sources and ignore it all.

Questions Going Forward

  • What does denominational participation mean today?
  • Where are the spaces to work through foundational questions that are not about voting? (Questions such as, what is mission? What is the role of the presbytery?)  
  • Is mission the threshold/entry space that worship was in previous era? If so, what resources exist (or need to be created) to help integrate education and spiritual development through mission, if that’s where people are engaging first?

For more information, contact NEXT Church Director, Jessica Tate,

Holding the Tension

by Angela Williams

Even though I am no longer a college student, I had the great privilege of attending College Conference at Montreat earlier this month on behalf of NEXT in order to host two listening sessions. I thoroughly enjoyed this time of personal and professional renewal that I had experienced as a college student; however, I came to College Conference from a different place than I did previously. For the past four months, I have been thrust into the professional church world. I am so grateful to be a part of the NEXT Church network that is truly on the cutting edge of moving the new church awakening forward. Simultaneously, I am experiencing what it is to work for the church and not simply be an enthusiastic, active member for the first time on my journey.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Recently, NEXT Church director Jessica Tate and I discussed where NEXT fits in Diana Butler Bass’s Arc of Awakening. We came to the conclusion that NEXT is in the thin space at the base of the arc, where we are free to imagine and experiment. NEXT must work with those who find themselves on all points of the arc, whether they are grasping the loss of the old way or already marching forward with new visions in hand.

Personally, I feel as if I have a foot on each side of the arc. I get to imagine the future of the church with NEXT at the same time that I work with incredibly valuable ministries of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church that have been spreading God’s love for over fifty years. In each of these placements, I am working closely alongside other humans and all of their beautiful messiness, some of whom are mourning the church of their childhood, others who cannot wait for the church to catch up with their ideas.

So it was with this mindset that at College Conference, I heard amazing preaching on John 3:16 from NEXT Church strategy team member Carla Pratt Keyes, the story of a football player who left the NFL to follow his calling to become a farmer, creative accounts of witnessing from Nadia Bolz Weber, and tales of transformative mission from leaders across the country. Through the listening sessions, I heard invigorating narratives of presbyteries that energize local congregations to meet the need in their communities. I also listened as some expressed hurt that a denominational program with so much potential fizzled. If I learned anything from these sessions, it is that we are not alone in the struggle to follow the Spirit through times of tension. Any questions I have about my ministries have found a home in others’ hearts, too. That solidarity that we found in an hour of relational conversation energizes me to keep imagining, while holding the tension of the church that was, the church that is, and the church that is to come.


Angela WilliamsAngela Williams is currently walking alongside the good folks at NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

“Just Listening” for Deeper Discernment

by Andrew Foster Connors

The worst part of hosting a listening session on church mission was the work it took to get ten leaders together in the same room for an hour. That was my immediate task last December as one of the 50+ trained facilitators for NEXT’s church-wide listening campaign. It proved harder than I first imagined. Talented leaders understand the value of their time and therefore resist putting themselves in situations where it will be wasted. So it’s hard to convince leaders used to “getting things done” that their time will not be wasted in a house meeting where the primary objective is listening.

I explained to each participant that many of us in NEXT, trained in the tools of community organizing, had learned the power of this relational tool. Unlike a survey, this kind of listening should lead to the deepening of public relationships. Unlike a complaint session, this kind of listening often led to deeper discernment. Unlike a debate, this kind of listening was designed for mutual learning that always happens when stories and experiences are shared with purpose and direction.

photo credit: ky_olsen via photopin cc

photo credit: ky_olsen via photopin cc

NEXT decided to launch a listening campaign in light of the changes occurring in leadership at the Presbyterian Mission Agency (with the departure of Executive Director Linda Valentine) and the Office of General Assembly (with the coming departure of Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons). Transitions are always crossroads moments for the church. Our conviction is that any agenda we might have for direction for the future resides within the leadership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as it’s lived out in congregations. Only by listening broadly could we hope to have anything helpful to contribute toward the church’s discernment.

In the first house meeting I hosted, the energy in the room was palpable. Mission that is rooted in relationships was a common theme that both inspired congregations and fed back into their vitality. “It’s hard for people not to swing a hammer,” one leader observed, but then went on to share a story of the transformation that happened to them when they found a different way to encounter the Spirit. The trust in the room quickly led to a safe space for opening wondering. “More and more young people are participating in our missional engagement work,” one leader said, “but not as often for our worship. I’m wondering if the next church is going to look more like a community of people engaged in mission who worship here and there rather than a group of worshipers who engage in mission from time to time. And, is that a good thing?” Others wondered about strengthening the capacity of their people to share the good news of Christ in and through their missional engagement.

There was healthy criticism but no blaming. For example, several mentioned how important the PC(USA)’s “New Beginnings” process had been for their congregations, but named an important gap: “New Beginnings got us to a place where we announced to the world with joy, ‘Yes! We are called to live!’ And then we had to go and figure out on our own what to do next.”  thers chimed in and acknowledged how they, too, had wished for guidance at that point in the congregational discernment process. These same leaders also recognized that “another national program isn’t necessarily the fix.”

In other words, what was happening in our listening session was that leaders were encountering each others’ wisdom, experiences, struggles, and dreams, and were feeding off each other. They were engaging some of the challenges that our denomination faces on a congregational level with strategic thinking, imagination, and intelligence. In the process, I gathered more than just “data” to be fed back to someone in Louisville. Relationships of leadership were deepening, ideas were coming out of the isolation of individuals and into community where they could be played with, improved upon, and shared.

It’s precisely this kind of discernment tool that NEXT is hoping to offer to our church. It fits nicely with our view that the if the church is first and foremost a community of relationships rooted in Christ, then the nurturing of those relationships needs to be at the center of our work. When we first announced this listening campaign, many people had a hard time believing there wasn’t more to the campaign than “just listening.” Even the statement “just listening” makes listening sound as though it has little value or worth.

I don’t know yet whether the common themes expressed among the ten folks who gathered in the group I led are shared beyond the region where I live. But I know that the time we spend listening together in a strategic, directed way is never wasted. It’s relationships like these that give rise not only to the ideas for change, but also the power to make it so. I look forward to coming together at the NEXT Church National Gathering with others who have been listening so that together we can share what we’ve learned.

Build_GOTV_14.2Andrew Foster Connors is the pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD and the co-chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. 

Changing the Culture of Connection

by Jessica Tate

There are times and situations in which we must learn what no one can teach us. We cannot turn to others who have gone ahead because no one has been in front of us on the journey. We cannot point outside ourselves. We learn—teach ourselves—as a “community of practice.” [i]

 — Gil Rendle

Over the last few months, NEXT Church has been quietly undertaking a listening campaign about experiences of transformational mission. We are on track to have fifty listening sessions with five hundred Presbyterians by the end of January.

Our desire in setting out on this listening campaign was to give leaders in the denomination a relational tool for discerning God’s direction for our future. Rather than surveying for ideas or asking for opinions, this listening campaign invites Presbyterians into conversation with one another around their actual experiences of mission to mine what we can learn from those experiences on the ground. Bonhoeffer said we must listen long and patiently to others. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others and finally not even notice it…the death of the spiritual life starts here. Gathering together to share stories strengthens the fabric of faith and our connection to one another.

120-next-20140402-114712Through the campaign, we are hearing important experiences from congregations engaged in missional activities. This is often inspirational, but more than that, as we listen to these experiences we start to draw conclusions (or at least common themes) that can inform our collective work – be that in cooperative work locally, in our presbyteries, or perhaps even the future directions for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and our national church structures. Through the sharing of stories, we bring to the level of consciousness the insights and wisdom from experience of mission on the ground. We become a “community of practice” and teach ourselves by bringing to conscious awareness what we have learned from our own experiences.

Out of this listening campaign we hope to identify leaders at the local level who we can resource and connect together for common action that can inform the future leadership and direction of the Church. We have the power to change the way things are when we engage energized leaders who are connected to one another.

Each of our meetings followed a similar process. A leader was trained in this listening process – a tool we have experienced powerfully in the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation. They then pull together a group of 10-15 leaders for conversation. Opening with a prayer and sharing the purpose of the listening session, the bulk of the session is spent with each participant sharing a response to this question:

Can you share a story from the past five years where your congregation engaged in mission with those outside your doors that was transformational in some way?

After everyone has shared, conversation ensues as the facilitator probes more deeply into the stories and begins to unearth some possible points of commonality or difference. At the close of the hour, next steps are shared – namely, that the facilitator will summarize the conversation and report that back to NEXT Church leadership for synthesis and insight and that all participants are invited to the NEXT Church national gathering in February when we will share what we’ve heard across the country.

In the coming days, we’ll be sharing some experiences of these listening sessions here on our blog. You can participate in an online conversation as part of our January Church Leaders’ Roundtable. If you would like to host a listening session, it’s not too late to do that. Please be in touch with me for more information. We look forward to sharing these learnings and in so doing, helping to strengthen the future of the church.

[i] Rendle, Gilbert R (2010-10-01). Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (Kindle Locations 293-295). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

Update: read Andrew Foster Connors’ latest blog to learn more about what a listening session at his church was like.