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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.

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.