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A New Vision of the Old, Old Story

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!

by Jonathan Coppedge-Henley

On Maundy Thursday, I sat in the chapel of a seminary with about nine other people to remember Jesus’ last night before he was killed. The ten of us represented things that past generations of church might not have envisioned. I, a straight United Methodist pastor, shared leadership with a gay Presbyterian pastor. Our group was diverse in age, gender identity, denominational histories, and ethnicity, paying no mind to the old discriminations of too much of church life in America. We needed this service to demonstrate that we all belong to God. My friend made that real for me in a way that made me feel like we were part of something beyond just us.

The old “triumphal” version of Christianity was nowhere to be found as we tried to embody Jesus’ commandment to his disciples: love one another. Instead of getting a liturgy from a publishing house, I put the liturgy together myself, combining high doses of introspection and accountability with the Gospel readings and the Communion and foot/hand washing rituals. The guitar player from my friend’s congregation played music he had written, music that set the tone for something intimate and real, nothing packaged, nothing made for sale. We were small and decidedly not worried about attendance numbers or finances. I think we saw a new vision of the old, old story of Jesus.

In the late 1990s at the first parish I served, the postmaster in that town told me that she always asked new residents which denomination they claimed so that she could both give them directions to the church and also — get this! — send their contact information to the pastor of the “church of their choice.” That violation of privacy actually seemed normal to her! To her, churches still had a vague belief that newborns were the “future of the church,” that churches held a foundational part of the community, and that new folks were just out looking for a church to attend.

Denominations trusted these time-tested theories, so they built their new churches in high development suburbs having only slightly adapted to new cultural circumstances, believing that church was like cereal to people — everyone bought it so the only question was which one. Because those emerging generations had lots of questions, we created “seeker sensitive” worship services intended to address those questions by still funneling people towards the “right” answers. Church leadership learned to measure success by the numbers: attendance, contributions, staff size, square footage, number of programs, and the number of those who participated in programs.

By those standards, the Maundy Thursday service my friends and I put together would have been considered a failure, partly because it would have been desperately confusing to know which church got to claim the attendance numbers, and partly because in my misguided denomination my partner in leadership would not be allowed to fully respond to how grace has called him as a husband or as a minister.

Perhaps denominational fiefdoms, standardization of doctrine, segregation of worshipping communities, and the straightness, whiteness, and maleness of mainline Protestantism served some purpose (God only knows what). But while God has always been up to something new, the institutional American church has generally shown little capacity to do anything more than repackage the product — a product that in practice has often had little to do with Jesus the deliverer and more to do with Jesus the logo.

We are now learning that what we were doing, particularly in terms of our funding model, isn’t sustainable. We find ourselves staring at a different situation with less certain paths. This new frontier has the potential to reform the ways in which the people of Jesus practice what he taught, but it is clearly scary to many in the pews and many in the institutional offices. Hopefully the loss of our privileged stature in society will remind us to repent of how we’ve let go of our essential mission to love God, love everybody, and teach others to do the same. Jesus still speaks to people. People still need the love, accountability, honesty, and grace that Jesus expects and that Jesus people are called to offer. The difference is that people are now emboldened to admit that they don’t find those things in the institutional church any more. This is a chance for the church to recalibrate and let go of some idols.

For us the question now is what we should have been asking all along: what is God doing and how can we be part of it? From simply talking to people, you realize pretty quickly that many folks didn’t wait for the permission or vision of the church before setting out to meet the real needs of the world: caring for the poor and the migrants, actively combating racist systems, caring for the environment, searching for solutions to everything from homelessness to the re-segregation of schools to the cruelty of gentrification to the economic injustices that define too many workplaces. Many who don’t attend church long ago embraced that same-sex couples deserve the human dignity of a marriage ceremony. God didn’t wait on the church to get things done. In fact, I’ve come to believe that many of my non-church friends are better doers of the Word than the people who read it every Sunday morning.

People need what we’ve always needed: spiritual and physical safety and nourishment; we’ve always needed places to belong. That Maundy Thursday service sure felt close to what God is doing, close to the kingdom Jesus dreamed about. We know he likes to challenge our assumptions about what it means to follow him — a service led by a gay pastor and a straight pastor, a Presbyterian and a United Methodist, might challenge some assumptions. But what I know is that the willingness to belong to one another in that one hour helped us belong to Jesus in ways previously unimagined. God did and is doing a brand new thing.


Having grown up in the North Carolina mountains, Jonathan Coppedge-Henley has a deep appreciation for folks whose voices are ignored, under represented, or misunderstood. He has been a United Methodist pastor for 23 years in urban, suburban, and rural churches, He has been a church planter and has served historic congregations. He has some extraordinary worship experiences and tripped all over himself in some others. He has held numerous leadership positions in the United Methodist Church, particularly in campus ministry, but he also has an extensive background in community development. For five years he was the host of the Road Signs radio show on the alternative rock station in Charlotte in which he highlighted alternative rock songs as ways to make sense of life. He is a clergy coach to residents in ordained ministry and he writes weekly columns for the Morganton News Herald. As his current side gig, he is preparing to launch Neighborhood Table, a non-profit coffee shop, pub, and co-working space that will host community-building story-telling, artist collaboration, conversation, and peacemaking. Jonathan and his wife Elizabeth, also a United Methodist pastor, have two wonderfully sarcastic children, Owen and Lora, and vicious watch dog, their Berne-doodle, Homer.

Confession through a Queer Lens

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the confessional sequence. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Max Hill

As a queer person, I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with authenticity.
Not all spaces are safe for full honesty about my identity.

Time home with certain family members just causes stress.

As does living in a seminary community among students with a diversity of theological beliefs about my body, my expression, and those I love.

And so does walking into an unfamiliar worshipping community and not knowing if such a space is one that I can relax in or

if my walls of anxiety are a warning that this isn’t a place where I can be all of who God created me to be.

Photo from Maryland Presbyterian Church Facebook page

So I negotiate.

Not always consciously, but it always happens.

I ask questions about what I need to wear and how I need to perform that day.

Should I paint my nails? Put on makeup?

Those little things that help me to feel like myself – or

is it better to do what’s safer

To wear my boy clothes? To keep my nails and face bare?

And if I do that, do I need to hide the rainbow tattoo on my arm?

This negotiation can be exhausting and draw me away from worship.

So maybe a more meaningful worship is happening amongst those where I don’t have to hide –

my queer family.

I’m lucky to have a queer family of faith.
People that I can go to and it doesn’t occur to me to negotiate outward expression or and put up an internal wall of protection.
People with whom I can just put on “Thank U, Next” by Ariana Grande and vogue the night away.

The drag queens, butch queens, femme boys, trans persons, and those of nonbinary identity and expression in our churches all negotiate themselves almost to the point of extinction. Not all of us have the strength or opportunity to live authentically in our places of worship.

But what is worship when we hide?

What is confession when we are not giving all of ourselves – when we are not SO honest and authentic that we can feel it in our bones?

The authenticity of queer identity and expression is not the act of confession – because it’s an authenticity that doesn’t hinge on our imperfections.

Queer identity and expression is not an imperfection.

But it’s something our confession can learn from.

In confession we get honest – or we’re supposed to….

We speak together of our failures and admit our faults.
Those of queer identity and nonnormative gender expression know what it means to not always love ourselves. We know how easy it can be to internalize the isolation of not seeing ourselves in the world (or in the pulpit).

Those lucky enough to have the strength and resilience to thrive know what it means to unpack the shame placed on us, to take the harm we inflict on ourselves and lay it down.

And what more is confession than radical authenticity? To be authentic is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to trust and hope for grace.

Confessional vulnerability is exactly what our worship needs. We need to break our liturgy open and examine ourselves.

Because when we do, we can truly experience the grace that Christ shows us.
The grace to dance.

To laugh.

To live.

To be.

Negotiation forces us to examine ourselves deeply.

Examination allows us to know ourselves intimately.

This way, we can harness the strength to accept Christ’s love and grace.

Our confession can learn more about how to know yourself intimately from queer, trans, and nonbinary persons.

We know how to proclaim as Brooke and Carmen Xtravaganza do in Paris is Burning, singing, “I am what I am, I am my own special creation!”

And we know how to show grace to those that can’t see our authenticity as beautiful.

Thanks be to God.


Max Hill is passionate about relationships, community building, and the intersection of faith and identity. He has recently served as the Student Minister for Contextual Exploration, Community Engagement, and LGBTQ Belonging at Maryland Presbyterian Church outside of Baltimore. He has also served as a Student Pastor for LGBTQ Fellowship at Broad Street Ministry and Brick Presbyterian Church in the City of New York. Before that, Max was a grant writer and New Worshiping Community founder/facilitator with United Campus Ministry at the University of Arkansas. Max is in his senior year at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Call to Worship and Paperless Liturgy

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the call to worship. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Elizabeth Pruchnicki and Billy Kluttz

Let us introduce you….

Pantomimed digging. Laughter. High fives. Spontaneous prayers. These are not uncommon ways for us to gather ourselves for worship at Immanuel Presbyterian Church’s weekly evening service.

Often, we begin worship with a single phrase; the leader motions for the congregation to respond. Liturgical leaders build prayers, sometimes already written, but often improvised. The congregation continues to respond with one voice, sometimes repeating the phrase or responding with their own broken words, prayers, or images. We might add a simple dance or movement. We might add clapping or instruments. We might hum underneath.

No matter how we open worship at 5:30 pm, we’ve decided to open worship together and everyone participates. Paperless liturgy is an integral tool, and we think it can be a resource for your church as well.

Why paperless liturgy?

Photo from Immanuel Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Historic: The first Christian liturgy was paperless! The earliest Christian worship didn’t rely on bulletins or hymnals. That’s good news for all of us as we seek to model our worship after our historical foundations.

Ease of use: Paperless liturgy requires no knowledge of prayer books, hymnals, or your weekly bulletin layout. Visitors and longtime members are set on an equal plane.

Accessible: Paperless liturgy cuts down barriers to participation, allowing non-readers, children, people with vision impairment, and others to more fully participate.

Engaging: It’s easy to zone out when the congregation is reading together from a bulletin. It’s harder when you’re actively engaged in the worship experience; it’s not for spectators. If worship is the work of the collective people of God, our liturgy should be, as well.

Expansive: Not just for the call to worship. At Immanuel, we’ve used paperless liturgies for call to worships, communion, prayers of the people, confessions, and more! Imagine a great prayer of thanksgiving where people’s hands are free to lift alongside their hearts. Envision a confession where your congregation looks at one another, and those they’ve wounded; it’s connectional. Paper-free liturgy can be a helpful addition to any segment of worship.

Adaptable: Do you reprint your entire bulletin when a major event or crisis happens on Friday or Saturday? How do we edit an opening prayer after a tragedy? Paperless liturgy allows your worship to reflect context. Important things happen between the time you print your bulletin and the time the congregation gathers for worship. Paperless liturgy gives us the flexibility to incorporate the totality of who we are and what we’ve been through each week.

Less is more: Smaller bulletins are better for the earth. It’s no secret that paperless liturgy makes for shorter bulletins. That not only means less paper and ink, it also means less work putting a weekly bulletin together. Perhaps some weeks you won’t even need to print a bulletin!

Empowering: Anyone can be the leader. If a child can’t read, they can still teach a phrase or give instructions for an improvised prayer. If an older adult can’t hold a hymnal, they can still be a leader. Let paper-free worship be a tool for including everyone in worship leadership.

Types of paperless liturgy

Consistent Response: This is the easiest and most natural type of paperless liturgy. Often done during the call to worship, consistent response is the bread and butter of paperless liturgy.

With consistent response liturgy, the worship leader begins by telling the congregation what their response will be. It should be something simple and easily remembered. A common go-to is “Lord, in your mercy; hear our prayer.” Have the congregation practice once before continuing the liturgy. The congregation repeats the same line throughout, so even if they don’t have the recitation memorized immediately, it’ll catch on quickly.

Feel free to add a particular gesture, sound, movement, or clapping to the refrain. If the liturgy is about working hard, have the congregation get involved by with a pantomined dig while they say something simple like,”the work is our prayer, and our prayer is our work.” Anything will do, and get creative! Consistent response liturgies are a great place to involve full body movement or additional sounds like clapping or whistling.

Call and Response: The congregation repeats varying lines following non-verbal cues. I often lead this type of liturgy by saying, “repeat after me” and then I’ll hold my hands close to my chest while I say my lines, then I’ll open my arms to indicate that they are ready to repeat after me. I’ll do that in our preface for the varying call and response lines. For example, this piece is cut from a paperless communion liturgy we created:

Worship Leader: You are invited (hands clasped together)
Many: You are invited (Worship Leader hands opened out to the congregation)
Worship Leader: You are needed (hands clasped together)
Many: You are needed (Worship Leader hands opened out to the congregation)
Worship Leader: You are wanted (hands clasped together)
Many: You are wanted (Worship Leader hands opened out to the congregation)
Worship Leader: You aren’t just invited, You are needed, You aren’t just welcomed, You are vital [continue with the full liturgy, until it’s time to repeat those phrases again]

This form of paperless liturgy requires trust between the worship leader and the congregation. Call and response requires a combination of consistent response and an increased reliance on gestures and eye contact. Remember that paperless liturgy benefits most from repetition.

Improv Responses with Pre-written Openings or Special CuesWe often use this type of paperless liturgy for confession. The worship leader opens a dialogue by asking the congregation to name a sin. She’ll open with a line such as, “We recognize our participation in systems of oppression that unfairly keep the marginalized and impoverished disenfranchised. And we name those systems here.” Then she’ll remain silent for the congregational naming. We might also offer areas of concern and wait for improvised responses from the congregation.

Fully Improvised LiturgiesOther weeks, we might fully improvise a paperless liturgy. An outline or suggested theme facilitates leadership, but we find that less is more. For example, an outline for an improvisational call to worship might read:

  • Naming of God and Divine Attributes
  • Thanksgiving
  • Petitions
  • Aspirations and closing

This collect-style outline allows even inexperienced leaders to create an improvised liturgy.

Tips and best practices

  • Lead by example, not explanation.
    • Begin a paperless liturgy with the liturgy, not an explanation. Do not say, “and now we’re going to try something different.” People will learn through doing. Say as few words (outside of the liturgy) as possible. Trust the Spirit.
  • It’s not going to be perfect.
    • If the congregation misses a cue, respond positively. Take a breath and try again.
  • Gestures are important (so is eye contact).
    • Try different body postures and gestures to cue the congregation to respond, to be silent, to wait. Help your worship leaders reflect on how they can creatively use non-verbal leadership cues in paper-free worship.
  • Start by going semi-paperless.
    • Paperless liturgy works best if it’s introduced bit by bit. Start with an improvised prayer of invocation or illumination and work to incorporate paperless liturgies as the congregation becomes comfortable relying on eye contact and gestures instead of the worship bulletin.
  • Be creative. The only limits for paperless liturgy are your imagination.

Conclusion

We did not invent paperless liturgy. But we are, perhaps, its greatest enthusiasts. We’ve borrowed and repurposed ideas from lots of great liturgical leaders and scholars. In a similar way, we hope that these ideas are a starting point for your congregation. Take what we’ve suggested, change it, and let us know how God works through paperless liturgy in your community of faith.  


Billy Kluttz works as Evening Service Coordinator at Immanuel Presbyterian Church (USA) in McLean, Virginia and Community Music and Arts Director at Church of the Covenant (PCUSA) in Arlington, Virginia. Billy is passionate about creative community engagement through liturgy and music. He is currently certified ready to receive a call in National Capital Presbytery.  

Elizabeth Pruchnicki is pursuing her Master of Theological Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary. She combines an academic passion for public theology with parish ministry as the Director of Youth Ministry at Immanuel Presbyterian Church (USA) in McLean, Virginia.

Worship Outside the Box

by Katy Stenta

“Worship outside the box” is a blog series meant to explore the myriad of ways we find and experience God. To me, worship is all about accessing God. God may be omnipotent, ever-present and everywhere at once, but that doesn’t mean we always feel like we have access to God.

Worship services are, in theory, designed to provide a variety of access points to God through speech and silence, companionship and meditation, singing and listening to music. But church happens other times too: in my church’s parking lot, during the free playgroup in our building, during conversations with AA members who are hanging around the church. One of my favorite experiences of church was the More Light Presbyterians reception at the 2015 NEXT Church National Gathering, which happened to be the very day that LGBTQ marriage was ratified; a bar full of young Presbyterians celebrating the queer community is one of the rarest forms of church I have ever experienced.

Being Presbyterian, I am very conscious of those things that we prioritize in worship and what we think are the elements that automatically make worship happen: words and language are hugely emphasized. Pieces of paper or screens help us to stay decent and in order, and many things are recited by the corporate body together.

However, for those individuals who are visual, those have trouble reading/speaking/hearing, for those who have trouble standing, and those who have trouble sitting, there is much to be desired in a worship service. As the mother of a basically non-verbal nine-year-old boy with autism who loves church, I get to think about all of this a lot.

If worship is providing ways to access God, then its important to think outside the box, the church box, and even the reading/neurotypical box. Where can we allow creative access to God? Where can we open the door to the work of the Holy Spirit? Where can we learn from other individuals’ spirituality?

When we write liturgy, do we examine it to be the most accessible of texts? Does it include everyone? Does it encourage welcome? Do we include images to help our non-verbal individuals? Is the text large enough for everyone to read? Do we have a predictable enough structure to make everyone feel comfortable, but is it open enough for those who need wiggle room?

One example from my context is that we have been writing bulletins for our new inclusive worship community, TrailPraisers. We try to include many elements: moving and non-moving, verbal and non-verbal, loud and quiet, participatory and martyr.

Examining and re-examining how and when and where we do liturgy is essential to expanding our growing knowledge as to how to access God. That’s where a series like this is essential, and I am hopeful that there will someday be ways for us to conference/create/congregate for a larger and exciting way to talk about worship and access together. Hopefully this blog series provides insight and inspiration for you to find more ways to access God and provide that access to others as well.


Katy Stenta is the pastor of a bigger-on-the-inside church in Albany, NY where she has been the solo pastor for 8+ years. She is the mother of 3 children – Franklin, almost 11; Westley, almost 9; and Ashburn, 7 – and is married to a librarian, Anthony. She loves big and creative ideas and to read as much fantasy as possible. She is also the co-founder of TrailPraisers, a developing inclusive worship experience for all faiths, ages & abilities.

The Wilderness Church

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 Liz Crumlish

Two years ago, I left a pastoral charge in the Church of Scotland to work on a project that seeks to transition congregations from maintenance to mission and from survival to flourishing.

Through a network of residential conferences, mentoring and learning communities, we seek to journey together, discovering God already at work in our communities and taking up God’s invitation to join in. Support, collegiality, and accountability are built in as we do theology together and as we respond to God’s mission in our many different contexts. We are engaged in a movement, not a programme.

That was why the theme of this year’s NEXT Church National Gathering, The Desert In Bloom, struck a chord. I was keen to find out how others were grappling with themes of dying and renewal in the church.

I was not disappointed. It was refreshing and encouraging to be with other church leaders who are not afraid to grapple with how to be church in the wilderness of today’s culture while remaining “rooted in the institution” of church, working out what wholeness looks like in community in the knowledge that “whole people heal their own communities.”

In opening worship, it was stated: “The church is in a searching season of wilderness. This is a message not of despair but of hope,” and “Stop complaining about the church you are part of and start being the church you envision.”

Throughout the gathering, there was an honesty about wilderness being an inevitable experience of leadership. And, in communion, there was the assurance that “We are held by a love we are not required to deserve.”

David Leong urging us to consider the “abandoned places of empire,” in their decay, becoming “fertile soil for renewal and rebirth,” and our call to spread the gospel through “compelling not conquering,” encouraged me to allow such places to “act as a mirror of what we really believe about our life together.”

Jonathan Walton’s words, “When it comes to Jesus, every act of grace is accompanied by an uncompromising critique of corrupt systems,” are the words with which I am currently wrestling, as I seek to speak “not just truth to power but truth to power in love.” And then there are Kathryn Johnston’s words in worship: “Every time a line is drawn, Jesus is on the other side.”

While there was a comprehensive selection of workshops, it was the in-between conversations, the connections made, the stories told, the testimonies shared that really made the trip across the pond worthwhile. I am profoundly grateful to all those who welcomed me and allowed me to be part of a journey of hope in the wilderness and signs of the desert in bloom.

And I look forward to continuing to be part of the conversation and the pilgrimage.


Liz Crumlish is a minister in the Church of Scotland currently working on a National Renewal Project in the church. She lives on the west coast of Scotland and blogs about her work at: www.pathofrenewal.blogspot.com Liz writes for Spill the Beans, is on the board of RevGalBlogPals and contributed to the book: There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.)

Journeying Through the Wilderness

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 Erin Hayes-Cook

“And sometimes dying is rising. Sometimes dying sparks a new thing, becomes possibility, potential, the fallow ground where new life slowly takes root, unfurls, grows wild.” Call to worship, Tuesday, at the NEXT Church National Gathering. I’ve kept these words in my spiritual pocket for the past few weeks. They have shaped how I move about in this ministry world in which I find myself.

I came to face dying and rising in my ministry context, vocation, and life. For I feel like I am a leader in the wilderness carving meaning out of rock and claiming the God of transformation while listening to the grief of God’s people. To say it is hard work would diminish the cost of discipleship.

At the National Gathering, I named the dry and desert places with colleagues and heard from David Leong who asked us the question, “What if abandoned places of empire and other places associated with decay or neglect are actually fertile soil for renewal and rebirth?” His question stirred in my spirit and imagination. What if the leaders of the church are called to go to the abandoned and neglected places and find resurrection? To me that is a calling.

On the other hand, I heard stories from Sheri Parks and Betsy Nix about the Thread program in Baltimore who walk with young people who need a community to support them. Or the woman who stood up during the presentation and shared about her presbytery holding a racial awareness festival. Blossoms kept springing up.

John Vest presented an imaginative way to move through ministry challenges and find those blossoms with the Cultivated Ministry approach. The shared tools and rubric helped me find another way to claim the God of transformation in ministry. I look forward to using it in the future.

The final challenge for me was Jonathan Walton’s keynote speech, “Be Suspicious of Praise.” He claimed that it is easier to worship a supernatural savior than accept the challenge of a prophet. Jesus’ biggest temptation was not found in his interaction with the devil in the desert, but when surrounded by his people who gave him praise. As I try my best to listen to the Spirit in the midst of the wilderness my hope is that I may answer yes to the second question, “Are you one with the age? Or are you being what our age needs right now?”

I’m grateful that my experience at the NEXT Church National Gathering gave me space again to claim with joy the call to journey through the wilderness.


Erin Hayes-Cook is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Rahway, NJ. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (’05), she served two churches in the Philadelphia area. She finds community at her Crossfit Box and coffee shops nearby.

Death to Bring About Resurrection

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 Michele Goff

I come to the NEXT Church National Gathering every year to be reminded that I am one of many church leaders striving to teach the radical healing love of Jesus’ Christ.

The ideas I bring back to my church from the National Gathering surprise me, often. This can be some creative element of worship, a particularly insightful phrase from communion liturgy, or the depth of meaning found in one particular scripture preached from insightful and varied perspectives.

During opening worship, when I dip my bread in the cup, I am blessed with the words: “the cup of liberation.” I am floored with humility. AMEN! The intellectual piece of my brain says, of course. But my soul is about to burst from this enlivening kiss from the Holy Spirit. Liberated from sin. Set free to participate in radical love. Loved and unfettered because God’s power is compassion, not coercion, as the preacher articulated moments before. I have just participated in a declaration of liberation. Yes, Alleluia!

I notice, more than once, that I am not the only one whose emotions stream down my face as we worship together. Whether we are washing one another’s hands or taping prayers to cardboard box “roadside memorials” scattered throughout the space, worship becomes a tactile experience. Worship is traditional and fresh: we break bread as one and in intimate circles around roadside-memorials-turned-communion-stations. And of course there is joyful singing – by those assembled, by the NEXT Church choir, led and shared by special guests, and even performed by the children of the Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School Choir.

This year’s theme of “Desert in Bloom” was particularly fruitful. It unified the workshops and was easy to recognize in teaching, sharing, and art.

The message of finding love for the fool kept surfacing for me. “A highway shall be there … no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” (Isa. 35:8)

It is easy to witness many people pointing and calling one another fools lately. And I hear myself doing the same thing. As I experienced this text with fresh ears, I heard for the first time that even if I stumble and behave like a fool, God will guide me back to the highway that is the Holy Way. And the “others”, the ones I may think are blind or deaf or fearful of the truth – they too can be restored. When God restores them, and corrects my own foolishness, we will be on the Holy Way together.

In the preaching I heard: Billy Honor exhorting us to call upon the Holy Spirit to be the “super” to our “natural.” With thoughtful humor, Kathryn Johnston cautions us to be careful where we draw the line [between us and them] because Jesus is always on the OTHER side of it.

There is hope for the fool! This is a blossoming bedrock of hope – an answer to the many fears that threaten and infect the world.

The theme this year successfully zeroed in on the importance of death to bring about the transformative power of resurrection.

I return home refreshed, and open to the ways that divisive and harmful attitudes, traditions and fears may be allowed to die a normal and timely death so that the full glory of resurrection might be realized.


Michele Goff is the pastor of Aztec Presbyterian Church in Northwestern New Mexico. After almost 12 years in television production, she graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2015 having finally found her true calling. She is an avid Sci Fi fan and a fledgling knitter whose “happy place” is on the sofa next to her husband with her two dogs at her feet.

2018 National Gathering Closing Worship

Call to Worship

One: Spirit that lives among us:
All: We see life here in our testimonies, in our tensions, and in this community.
One: Spirit that walks us through death:
All: We are aware of the deaths we experience, the grief we carry, and the pain we bear.
One: Spirit that burns as we rise:
All: We desire to resurrect, to restore, to reconcile; to rise into your call.
One: Spirit that teaches us as we live again:
All: As we worship together, let us live into the new creation that God calls us to be.

Song: Our Life is in You

Confession

Left: We stand in the desert and are consumed with the death that surrounds us
All: Creator let the new life begin
Right: We trust our own abilities and language to breathe newness into desolation
All: Creator let the new life begin
Center: We are parched and thirsty when speaking your truth
All: Creator let the new life begin

Left: We notice people linking arms in the streets
All: Creator let the new life break forth
Right: We feel communal laments of injustice
All: Creator let the new life break forth
Center: We experience the tension of a kindom that is not yours
All: Creator let the new life break forth

Left: We long for unity over oppressive systems
All: Creator let the new life blossom
Right: We yearn for connections that come with vulnerability
All: Creator let the new life blossom
Center: We crave courage to break through our deserts of fear
All: Creator let the new life blossom

Song: Draw Me Closer

Assurance/Peace

The desert is not dead:
Even the sand and dust of our lives
Give testimony to God’s abounding grace and healing,
Revealed in our living, dying, rising, and new life.

God takes all we have
In the desert times of our lives
And leads us into new vistas,
With vision, songs of joy, wellsprings of water.

And now, we invite you desert-wanderers
To live into this proclamation of grace,
By sharing the peace that Christ shares with us,
Stepping out of your contexts and comfort zones.

As you are able, please move to a new place in this room,
Staying there for the rest of the service,
And sharing the peace of Christ along the way.

Sharing the Peace

The Peace of Christ be with you.
And also with you.

Scripture

Voice 1:The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
Voice 2:The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
V1:Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
V2: “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.”
V1:Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
V2:For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
V1: A highway shall be there,
V2:and it shall be called the Holy Way;
V1:the unclean shall not travel on it,
V2:but it shall be for God’s people;
V1:no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
V2:No lion shall be there,
V1:nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
V2: they shall not be found there,
V1:but the redeemed shall walk there.
ALL: And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
V1:and come to Zion with singing;
All: everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
V2: they shall obtain joy and gladness,
All:and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Sermon

Song: Everlasting Life

Communion

Invitation to the Table

Come to this table,
You who have walked through the wilderness and dwelt in the deserted places-
Have you been fed?

Come to this table,
You who have seen the first signs of spring and have been longing for the blossom to break forth-
Have you been fed?

Come to Christ’s table.
Rise and bloom in the wilderness.

Great Prayer of Thanksgiving

May the Creator of the Holy Way be with you.
And also with you.
Do not be afraid, people of God, but lift your hearts to the holy One.
Our hearts will be filled with God’s hope and grace.
Children of God, offer songs of goodness to the One who keeps faith forever.
We offer glad praises to the One who comes with justice.

You carved a holy way
through chaos, Creating God,
rejoicing with Word and Spirit as
The waters of creation
Burst forth to form rivers where there had been only dry land.
Those same waters continue to give us life in all its beauty and biodiversity.
Despite these gracious gifts we continually turned away from you.
Patiently, you sent prophets to us,
who urged us over and again to return.

Holiness is the path you walk, Gracious God,
and, in your mercy, you sent your Child, Jesus,
To bring justice for all people,
To lead us along the path of redemption.
He gives us vision where we cannot see,
Ears to hear what we do not want to hear.
When we are worry, world, and work weary,
he comes to strengthen our feeble knees,
And put to work our weak hands.

Truth be told, there are lots of deserts in our lives,
Places that are dying or already dead.
We know the pain—and so do those around us—
of keeping up the facade;
Spring up in us like blossoms in the desert,
Put us to leaping, give to our voice songs we have not sung in a long time.
Put us back on the holy way that leads to everlasting joy.

Come to us in our silent contemplation
As we prepare our hearts to receive this spiritual food

Silence

Gather your people now,
and lead us along the holy way to the Table
where the Spirit anoints the bread and the cup
and blesses all who have come for this feast.

Words of Institution

Sharing of the Bread and Cup

Prayer

Closing Song: Summons

2018 National Gathering Monday Opening Worship

At the request of Rev. Billy Honor, video of this sermon is not being posted.

Here is the liturgy for the service.

Call to Worship

One: This is our ancient story:
All: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.
One: In him was life and the life was the light of all people.
All: So no traveler, not even fools, could go astray.
One: God called us on the holy way where she was leading.
All: And he comes to us again today—to follow where he leads.
One: She promised to go with us, and she is with us now.
All: The wilderness shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.

Prayer of Confession

Holy God, in this dry and weary land, our souls are thirsty. We long for wholeness, for justice, for peace, for You, and yet our longing doesn’t always lead us to those places. We recall the moments we’ve tried to quench our own thirst, make our own path, or be our own healer. Whisper to us the promises of your grace, illumine the way home, and hold us in your loving arms, where are shall be well. Amen.

O Lord, hear our prayer.

Silent Confession

One: In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray.
All: Amen.

The Assurance of God’s Grace

One: In a world that offers so many old lies and false stories,
help us live into this truth:
All: We are held by a love that we are not required to deserve.
One: And nothing can separate us from that love of God. Nothing.
All: O Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief!
One: In the midst of our questions, doubts, and fears,
we are bold to make our home in your new creation.
All: In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, we are accepted
and everything is made new. Amen.

The Summary of the Law and the Passing of the Peace

One: Our Lord Jesus said:
All: “You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
One: “This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it:
All: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
One: And so that you may live connected to God,
to one another, and to your own truest life,
may the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
All: And also with you.

passing the peace

Scripture

Isaiah 35

Communion

Invitation to the Table

One: Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, the holy Supper which we are about to celebrate is a feast of remembrance, of communion, and of hope. We remember the new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation that we are accepted by God. We come to have communion with the one who promises to be with us always and with each other. And we hope that at this table, we might remember our deepest identity as children, beloved by God, so we might better live into who God has created us to be.

Two: The table around which we gather is not a Presbyterian table or a NEXT Church table. This is Christ’s table, and Christ invites everyone to dine with the Divine. Wherever you are on your own wilderness journey, you are welcome at this table. And because we don’t want anything we say or do to be a barrier between you and the love of God, we get out of the way. (Jeremy and Whitney move from in front of the table to behind it).

One: If you are here, you are welcome.

Great Prayer of Thanksgiving

One: God be with you.
All: And also with you.
Two: Open up your hearts.
All: We open them to God and to one another.
One: Let us give thanks to our God.
All: It is right to give thanks and praise.

One: Holy and right it is – and it just makes sense – to give thanks to you in all times and in all places, so we come to this table with thankfulness. You created heaven with all its hosts, the earth with all its beauty, and creation with all its charm. And we are thankful. Your light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. And we are thankful. You give us life and being. You hold us in your loving arms, but you have shown us the fullness of your love by sending into the world your son, Jesus. And we are thankful.

Two: We also come to this table with longing. Gracious God, in this brief moment of silence, we recall our longing with you (Allow 15 seconds of silence). We long to meet you at this table: to taste and see that you are good. We long for connection: with you, with others, and with our own truest self. We remember your unconditional love for all your children. We remember your love for us. We long for a world where everyone belongs, where there’s enough, where all of life can flourish. May this feast be a foretaste of that world.

One: And we come to this table with hope. In a life of dead ends and disappointment, loss and loneliness, we hold onto hope. We cling to hope. We hope that in this meal you might give us a taste of a future where we are okay, and perhaps with your grace we might live in the present trusting that all of life is your good hands. And as this grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf and these grapes from many hills into one cup, grant O God that your whole church would soon be gathered into your maternal embrace. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Two: And in the spirit of remembering, we pray the prayer you taught us to pray saying, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” Amen.

Words of Institution

One: On the night our Lord Jesus was betrayed, he took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it (break bread), saying, “Take; eat, this is my body which is broken for you. Do this remembering me.”

Two: After they had finished, in a similar manner, he took the cup saying, “This is the new testament in my blood poured out for you (pour juice). As often as you drink this, do so remembering me.”

One: (raise bread) Taste, and see.

Two: (raise cup) Drink, and remember.

One: Come, for all things are now ready.

Closing Prayer

Two: Having been nourished at your table… (this was mostly extemporaneous) …May you direct our steps in the way of peace that we might become creators of justice and joy. Amen!

Charge and Benediction

One: Go into the world in peace.
Have courage.
Two: Hold on to all that is good.
Return no one evil for evil.
Three: Strengthen the fainthearted.
Support the weak.
Four: Help the suffering.
Honor all people.
Five: Love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Six: And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the sweet communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all,
now and forevermore. Amen.

Collaborative Creation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Paul is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Manna for the People: Cultivating Creative Resources for Worship in the Wilderness.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Paul Vasile

It’s a gift to catch glimpses of God-with-us in workshops and planning gatherings I facilitate for pastors, musicians, and worship leaders. As we read, sing, and improvise with scripture and liturgy, the Word takes on flesh in unexpected and beautiful ways, often with refreshing directness and authenticity as individuals bring their voice and story into dialogue with sacred text.

This fall, leaders of a newly bi-lingual congregation gathered for a day of worship, reflection, and worship planning. We used the morning to strengthen community through practices of listening and discernment then divided into small groups, each assigned an Advent lectionary Psalm and a part of the liturgy to create (call to worship, community liturgy, prayer petitions, etc). There were a few anxious asides as we began but energy and ideas quickly flowed in Spanish and English. Twenty minutes later, we reconvened to share the thoughtful, hand-crafted pieces of liturgy they created together. A feeling of mutual support and care was tangible, as was the joy of making something specifically for their community.

Wholeness and beauty are found in creative spaces like these, where individuals and groups create space for new ideas and visions to bubble up and out of our imaginations. There is also something profoundly risky and anxious about it. Creating is vulnerable work and can be chaotic and unresolved. Sometimes we take what we’ve created, set it aside, and need start over. It’s humbling.

But there are profound gifts to be found in creating collaboratively, especially for leaders of faith communities. How might our ministry shift as we practice being in the present moment, as we deepen our listening skills and trust our God-given instincts, and as we shift from an often-obsessive focus on product and outcome to appreciation for (and even delight in) the process? How might we learn to dialogue with voices of judgement or critique that often lead us to shut doors that need to be left open or even walked through?

This is what we’ll explore at our National Gathering post-Gathering seminar “Manna for the People.” We’ll burrow into Eastertide scripture passages through improvisation, singing, and play, with lots of space for individual and group reflection. We’ll create a gracious, generous space where our creative instincts are welcomed and affirmed, where we stretch and grow into new ways of leading and living. And we’ll find joy and pleasure in making something together, as we offer our voices and ideas to shape worship for our faith communities.

Like Mary, who welcomed unknown possibilities with a bold “Yes,” we’ll use the phrase “Yes, and…” in our improvisation work and see what unfolds. Like the shepherds watching their flocks, we’ll hear the proclamation “Do not fear!” and reflect deeply on ways the love of God liberates us from judgement and anxiety that prevent us from taking creative risks. Like the Wise Ones, we’ll listen to our intuition, trusting the wisdom of God and the community to take us where we need to go.

As the mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is ever waiting to be born.” We hope you’ll join us at the NEXT Church National Gathering in February as we make space for the Holy One to be known in our work and play. Join us for an extra day of exploration, growth, and collaboration, and discover new skills and practices to enrich your ministry. It will be a renewing, life-giving experience!


Paul Vasile is a freelance church musician, consultant, and composer based in New York City. A multitalented musician and dynamic worship leader, he is committed to building, renewing, and re-shaping faith communities through music and liturgy. Paul brings over twenty years of ministry experience to his work as a consultant, workshop facilitator, and teacher. He is excited to help congregations broaden their repertoire of sung prayer and praise, and to demonstrate how participatory music and liturgy can energize and unify worshippers from varied backgrounds, cultures, and traditions.