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Re-post: The Challenge and Opportunity of Timely Adaptations

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on September 19, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Christopher Edmonston

I sat on the third pew and listened as Scott, the inspiring pastor of Saint Matthew’s, a Church of Scotland congregation, told us story after story of what ministry is like there.

St. Matthew's

Take a look at this picture. The place, the sanctuary, the space is huge.

St. Matthew's Front View

And far too often it is empty. Pews and balconies once brimming with gospel proclamation and ministry remain silent too much of the time. They are silent in spite of the fact that the pastor is an inspiring, dynamic, and amazing disciple of Jesus Christ. He is a faithful risk taker. I found myself marveling at his energy and integrity. I found myself listening to the invigorating work that he is doing. I found myself thinking: that is the kind of ministry I want to be doing! He is the kind of pastor I want to be!

For years I have said, in meetings public and private, that the future of the church depended largely on leadership. Here before me was the kind of dynamic and wonderful leader that I have long admired.

Even more challenging was this realization: every pastor we met from the Church of Scotland was theologically engaging, intellectually astute, and pastorally alive. They were each of them willing to be creative for the gospel. Compared to the churches I have served, some of the Church of Scotland congregations were years ahead of us in innovating new ways of being church.

And yet too often the church in Scotland struggles to find an audience for the beautiful message of the gospel in its cities and neighborhoods. Scott talked about feeling lost sometimes. He gave witness to the ecclesiastical depression that comes with empty pews, programs, and worship.

What happened to the church in Scotland?

Not being from there, the best I can offer is an educated guess. But here it goes:

The towns were changing, the culture was changing, attitudes about the relationship between church and spirituality were changing and the church was not adapting alongside the larger shifts. On Sundays people were going to soccer (across the pond – football) games, rugby matches, yoga classes – finding in these events and activities ritualized practices, community interactions, and authentic meaning. They were doing all these things and more, and going to church less and less or not going to church at all.

The statistics are sobering. Presented by Doug Gay from the University of Glasgow, we learned that during the two decades of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the Church of Scotland lost thousands of members. They saw it happening, and yet, they were paralyzed — paralyzed by the pain they felt as their faith communities dwindled. Big churches became empty churches. Downward trends became downward spirals. Budgets collapsed. It was a negative exodus.

Scott arrived at St. Matthew’s six years ago in the middle of that storm. The church has added 62 members since he arrived, which makes St. Matthew’s among the faster growing communities in the Church of Scotland.

This story may seem far off, across an ocean. But it is very close.

At White Memorial, where I serve, our Clerk of Session writes to the congregation annually. This year, our clerk, Laura, wrote about her sadness in sharing our congregation’s booming baptismal records with a church who had only one baptism in 2013. That church, the church of one baptism, is not across an ocean. It is here in North Carolina, in the Bible belt.

It is my experience that whenever things go wrong, people frequently start looking for causes. They start looking for something to blame in order to cut the source of decline from their midst (think: I am going to cut carbs out of my diet; or, we are going to stop wearing robes in worship).

But what if there is no one thing, or even no one, to blame?

I remember a church I once visited in New York. It was a Czechoslovakian Reformed Church, and for generations they worshipped using Slavic languages. As the neighborhood evolved and there were fewer and fewer Slavic speakers, fewer people came to church.   Keep in mind that their core membership still spoke in mother tongues. To change the language whole-heartedly would have been pastorally unacceptable and unkind.

But that pastoral reality did not stop the world from changing around the church. By the time I arrived in 2010, there were a dozen or so members in a church that once held hundreds.

I thought about the church with one baptism and the Czechoslovakian Reformed Church as I sat in St. Matthew’s.

As we look around, there is ample evidence of the church’s end if we deny ourselves a commitment to being adaptable to the changes in our midst. But it doesn’t have to be so. Nowhere in the great commission (Matthew 28) does Jesus suggest that the disciples are never to change or adapt. Indeed, by the Apostle’s reckoning, everything is adaptable in order to spread the gospel’s good news (1 Corinthians 9). In Scotland, I became convinced we are living, even in our strongholds of church (like Raleigh, NC), in an age of adaptation.

My new friend Scott is hopeful and passionate about his ministry. His is a faith in God to do all things – a faith tempered by trial and error and the realization that the status quo will neither save the church nor share the gospel in his context. In his hopefulness he has become an adaptable pastor in an adapting and adaptable church.

Am I?

Are we?


Christopher Edmonston and Amelia - DEP

Christopher Edmonston began ministry at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in September of 2011. His primary responsibilities are preaching, teaching, pastoral care, membership development, staff development, and long term planning. Christopher has moderated Presbytery Committees, serves on the Montreat Retreat Association Board, and serves as the President of the Board of the Presbyterian Outlook. He is a contributor to the forthcoming Feasting on the Gospels and is on the national strategy team for NEXT Church, a renewal movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA). He was recently recognized as a William Friday Fellow (2011-13). Christopher is a graduate of Davidson College, Union Presbyterian Seminary (Master of Divinity), and Columbia Theological Seminary (Doctor of Ministry).

He is married to Colleen Camaione-Edmonston, who is a 7th grade grammar and literature teacher at St. Timothy’s School here in Raleigh. They have three children, Patrick, Gabriel, and Amelia, ranging from sixth grade to first grade, all three of whom attend St. Timothy’s as well.

Hills of Appalachia

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Janice Stamper

Photo by Anna Pinckney Straight

It’s holler, not hollow
where I live
On the farm in the hills
Of the Appalachian mountains
The land is our soul
Not just our property
Settled generations ago
The spirits of my ancestors
Are all around me
As I work the soil
My hands cracked from toil
Just like theirs from hard days.
Living in poverty ain’t easy
It’s not because we don’t work
We work our hands
To the bone
Cutting wood for fires
Clearing land of thickets
Planting gardens
Hoeing, weeding
plowing, harvesting,
Storing, drying,
Freezing, canning
And food in the winter
is our pay.
It is our work.
It is our job.
Yet, others say
We are lazy, sorry
We could move
We could go
Where there are jobs
But to leave
Is more than just moving
It’s leaving our world
Our family, our culture
Our music, our faith
Our land, our heart.
It’s not like moving
From one place to another
It’s giving up everything
That one knows and loves
To move to strange ways
Strange lands, strange cultures.
Mysteries and wonders
of Appalachia
Cannot be known
By driving freeways
And reading about it
One must turn
Onto windy roads
Traveling deep
Up and down craggy hills
through lush forests
Sometimes
Five or six roads
Off the main road
To find the places
And see the people.
Sit on the porch
Eat at the table
Stay for a while
To listen to the
Stories as only
The teller can tell
With laughter
And tears
Fables filled
With wisdom
And truth.
One must look
Into the eyes
Of weary souls
To see hearts
Burdened by
Hard times
Hard work
Hard lives
Yet alive
With God’s grace
Love’s steadfastness
Spirit’s power
And faith
That endures
Hoping beyond hope
That others remember
And will not forget
The stories
The faith
The love
The lives
The beauty
The hopes
The dreams
Once they drive on
From the hills of Appalachia.


Janice Stamper is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College and the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. She served in ministry in Alaska for thirty years then returned to KY in 2010 to care for her father, who recently died in March.

2018 National Gathering Tuesday Morning Worship

Jess Cook, John Molina-Moore, and Erin Counihan provided testimonies during Tuesday morning worship at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering. The worship service theme: dying.

Here is the liturgy for the service.

Call to Worship

People of God, we have a story to tell
of life and death,
joy and sorrow
as we live in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

People of God, we have a story to tell
of lives cut short,
of life-times fulfilled
as we live in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

People of God, we have a story to tell of
our cities, farms,
and towns, desperately wondering
how they will begin again
as we live in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

People of God, we have a story to tell
of heartache and brokenness in our bodies
as we live in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

People of God, we have a story to tell.
Surrounded by God’s Great Cloud of Witnesses,
we give testimony to our stories of grief and loss,
as we are sustained by water, songs and prayers.
We are living in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

Let us worship God.

Litany

“We are a resurrection people,” we like to say.
And we say it often.
It is true.
But resurrection doesn’t erase or replace
the real life that happens before, during and after.
The real life that we all know –
the places where we are broken,
where we are grieving,
where we are sad,
where we are angry,
where we are hurting,
where we are anxious,
where we are lonely.
For we are human – fully.
And we each carry around
the experiences of trauma, and loss, and hurt
that are a real part of life.
Those experiences live within us,
and they exist
before, during and after
resurrection.
Yes, we are a resurrection people.
But we are also human –
Fully.
And that means that we know death
just as surely as we know life.
Death is real, it is excruciating, and painful, and it is a part of life.
But God is not afraid of death.
God is big enough to hold us
in our hurt, in our brokenness,
in those places of death where we cannot hold ourselves.
When we find ourselves in those places,
when we cannot imagine
ever feeling joy again,
may we remember
that although God will not erase the pain,
God will hold us, God will stand with us.

Psalm 27 (from Ann Weems)

O God of my heart
it is your name I call
when the stars do not come out.
O God of my soul,
it is to you I turn
when the torrents of terror
drown me.
O God of mercy,
it is for your hand I reach
when I stumble
on the stones of sorrow.
O God of justice,
it is to you I cry
when the landslide of grief
buries me.
I stand beneath the night
where stars used to shine
and remember
gazing mesmerized
at the luminaries of the sky
until I could walk
the ink-blue beach
between their shining.
Then their shining stopped,
for they left the sky,
and you, O God,
left with them.
And I am left
alone
beneath a starless sky
with a starless heart
that barely beats.
Will your stars
never shine again?
Will they never again
speak of your mystery?
Will they never again sing
their songs
to my soul?
Will I never again know
the wonder
of the God
of star and sky?
O God of my heart,
peel back the night
and let the starlight
pour out upon
my upturned face.
Let my eyes drink
a sky of stars.
Let my heart bathe
in the stunning light
until my soul sings again
with the conviction
of the faithful.
In your mercy and justice,
O God of my heart,
call me by name,
and the stars will shine
once more,
as they did
on that morning
when they first began
to sing.

Sung Response (from Psalm 27)

[O God], Will your stars
never shine again?
Will they never again sing
their songs
to my soul?

Unison Prayer

O God of my heart,
peel back the night
and let the starlight
pour out upon
my upturned face.
Let my eyes drink
a sky of stars.
Let my heart bathe
in the stunning light
until my soul sings again
with the conviction
of the faithful.
In your mercy and justice,
O God of my heart,
call me by name,
and the stars will shine
once more,
as they did
on that morning
when they first began
to sing.

Scripture Reading

John 13:1-17

Invitation for Remembrance and Handwashing

As death approached, Jesus commanded his disciples to love.
even as denial and betrayal, rejection and unworthiness
was mixed-up in that love.
Holy One, in washing and remembering, call us to love.
As death approached, Jesus gave his disciples ways to grieve:
a tender touch, washing with water, telling of a story,
being together in community.
Holy One, in washing and remembering, call us to love.
As death approached, Jesus gave his disciples a place to be together:
a table, a water basin, a home.
Holy One, in washing and remembering, call us to love.

Unison Prayer

O God of our hearts,
peel back the night
and let the starlight
pour out upon
our upturned faces.
Let our eyes drink
a sky of stars.
Let our hearts bathe
in the stunning light
until our soul sing again
with the conviction
of the faithful.
In your mercy and justice,
O God of our hearts,
call us by name,
and the stars will shine
once more,
as they did
on that morning
when they first began
to sing.