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Facing Criticism and Questions

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 Sean Chow

In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.” I’d like to take a bit of liberty and translate the last part of that verse this way: “In ministry, you will face questioning and be criticized, but take heart! I’m not afraid of the questions and I have overcome the criticism.”

Face it: in ministry there will be criticism. We will be criticized. Especially when we’re at the forefront of what God is doing “next” in the church. Realizing that does not, however, make accepting criticism or having people question our ministry, motives and work.

More than 20 years ago, when I first started ministry, I had a question that still haunts me. “When are you going to get a real job?” That question, from a family member, stunned me. Was my work and effort and ministry as a youth pastor not worthy of being considered a “real job?” Thankfully, the question forced me to consider what I was doing at the time and even today, the question is cause for reflection.

For 6 years, I served a church on the East Coast. The congregation decided it was interested in being more involved in the community. At least, they said they wanted to be more involved in the community. The church hired an “evangelism coach” to help the pastoral staff and congregation understand what it would take to be truly outwardly focused. But, like most churches, what they really wanted was for the community to come into their doors, and they wanted them to enter on their terms.

As the leadership team began to chart a new course and unveil it to the congregation, tension began to rise. Pointed questions began to filter in. Questions such as:

“When are these new people you are working with going to sit next to me in church?”
“We are paying your salary; you should be spending more time with us instead of them.”
“When are they going to be contributing members to this church?”

I had a deep love for the congregation and through the years we had walked through the complexity of life together. But their criticism of the ministry God had called us to became a real challenge for me. I did not know how to deal with criticism from people that I respected, people I loved and people with whom I had forged great relationships. Yet, in the midst of the struggle, I knew that we were part of something greater—something far beyond ourselves and the four walls of that “church.” The endless criticism and constant questioning wore me down. It caused me to question if God had actually called me to that place and that ministry. I internalized the criticism and it changed me. It caused me to go down dark holes of despair and I found myself being passive aggressive. I became someone I did not want to be.

Recently, I was watching Brene Brown’s Netflix special and she raised up a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that gets to the heart of the matter:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I look back and reflect on those 6 years of ministry with a clearer understanding. Today, I wonder if those who offered critiques of my ministry had an adequate understanding of what we were doing. I wonder if I could I have helped them have eyes to see and hears to hear. Perhaps I failed to make space for them in the arena.

As we engage in ministry, as we discern what’s next for the church and as we walk into that vision, we will be criticized and there will be questions. Here’s my wisdom on the matter after 20 years in ministry. Be confident in who God has called you to be and steadfast in the work before you. Don’t fear the questions or the criticism and do not let those who criticize chip away at who you are. Rather, invite them into the arena; make space for them to walk alongside you and invite them into the thick of the discerning process.

Dare greatly as we participate in God’s mission on earth to journey into what is “next” for the church. And remember the words of the one we follow, “In this world as you answer God’s call on your life, you will face questioning and be criticized, but take heart! I’m not afraid of the questions and I have overcome the criticism.”


Rev. Sean Chow lives with his family in the San Francisco area and is the Western region associate for 1001 New Worshiping Communities.

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.

Church Matters — When It Mobilizes

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 Rev. Stephen Roach Knight

Does church even matter anymore? That was one of the questions posed to me when I was invited to write for this blog, and the one that most resonated with me. Of course, my answer to that question is “Yes,” but perhaps not for the reason you might expect (or, if you know me, then, well, you probably would).

I believe church matters, perhaps more than ever, as a center for organizing in local communities. A few years ago, we invited Liz Butler from the Movement Strategy Center and Friends of the Earth to come and speak at the Transform Network national conference in Washington, D.C., and as an activist, she said it better than I had heard anyone say it before (which is why we posted it on the Transform Network website for posterity): “Community is the first step of collective action. Faith communities play a vital role.”

There is an incredible amount of movement work that needs to be done in order to effect positive change in our communities, in our country, and in our world — and it won’t be accomplished without the vital participation of churches as centers for personal and societal transformation.

In the Moral Movement work that I’m a part of through Repairers of the Breach and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, the participation of clergy and moral leaders at the center has been intentional and necessary. Many faith leaders are awakening to the responsibility to no longer be chaplains to empire but to be “prophets of the resistance” (as Michael-Ray Matthews says) or “moral prophets to the nation” (as Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II puts it).

Yes, the local church is to be a house of prayer and worship, but it must also be a place of action and mobilization. The era of the country club church, the membership club for insiders, is over (if it was ever sanctified at all to begin with).

Churches with buildings in neighborhoods and city centers can and must open their doors not just so that people can come in on Sunday mornings but so that people can go out the six other days of the week to be salt and light and wounded healers. And clergy are being called to not just preach truth, love, and justice from the pulpit on Sunday mornings but to proclaim truth, love, and justice in the public square — at press conferences and vigils and rallies to address and confront injustice.

Church work and social justice work are both extremely difficult and life-long commitments. Both require strength that comes from a deep inner well of faith and spirituality. That is why, at Transform Network, we have chosen to put such a strong emphasis on what my wife Holly Roach Knight calls “contemplative resistance.” The idea being that we must develop practices of contemplative spirituality that will feed us and guide us daily as we seek to be about God’s work of love and justice in the world. Without those practices, we will flame out and burn those around us with our toxic Christianity or, in my case, masculinity. Centering prayer and other practices are daily opportunities to pull out the poison of white supremacy and patriarchy.

There’s really no excuse today. The question you might’ve asked in years past, “But how do we do it? How do we get engaged?” is no longer a difficult question to answer. There are so many tools and resources available today that speak to faith and social justice, and campaigns (like the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival) to get involved with in order to engage. But if you are still uncertain and need help discerning where you and your church might best be engaged in the good fight of God’s justice in your community, I hope you’ll reach out to us at Transform Network. We’re available to spend 30 minutes on the phone with you for a free justice church coaching call to get to know you and offer whatever support we can to help you take the next steps to faithful presence and authentic engagement where you are, with the people you are walking with. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.

You’re not in this alone. In order to change everything, it will take everyone — and every church. Because church still matters!


Rev. Steve Roach Knight currently serves as Director of Communications for Repairers of the Breach, the nonprofit social justice organization founded and led by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. Steve has previously served as National Faith Organizer, mobilizing people of faith to the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, among other projects he has worked on for Bishop Barber. Steve is a commissioned minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and has formerly served as full-time consultant to the denomination’s church planting and church revitalization arm, Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation. Steve is a co-founder and current board member of Transform Network.

Diversity Is What’s Next

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 Phanta Lansden

I grew up with azaleas lining the walkway of my parents’ home and always enjoyed the beauty and radiance they offered. One spring, I decided to exchange the green boxwoods in front of my own house for beautiful azaleas. I planted seven fuchsia azaleas along my walkway. The garden associate at the Lowes Home Improvement store assured me they would bloom the following season. The following spring, nothing spectacular happened. I had one bloom on seven plants.

I examined the azaleas and discovered that, not only had the weeds choked the life out of the them, but I failed to prepare the soil. I pulled a few weeds and threw in some garden soil, but something went wrong. The azaleas were dying, save for one. I pulled up the dying plants and discarded them.

Not to be outdone, the following season, I purchased more azaleas. I tried desperately to match colors. This time around, my efforts were purposeful and thoughtful. I prepared the soil much better. I fertilized them properly and I put down black tarp to eliminate the weeds. I rejoiced when the plants grew beautifully and got bigger and more radiant with each passing season.

The one fuchsia-colored azalea that survived that first endeavor does not match the larger powder pink azaleas from the second planting. But, nonetheless, the fuchsia one pops with color and radiance alongside the powder pink ones and they all sit proudly along the walkway in front of my dining room window. Each spring, the blossoms are countless and the flower bed is filled with brushes of soft pink and fuchsia petals. All the azaleas are from the same family of flowers, but unique in the beauty that each brings and gives to our living space. One color is no better than the other, one cannot be compared to the other; both are glorious!

Like the beauty of the azalea, the radiance of its petals, the graciousness of its presence and the brightening power of its existence, this we are in God’s eyes in the world. We are unique without comparison and fearfully and wonderfully made.

The Psalmist sings in 139 verses 13-15,

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.”

God took time to nurture, craft and create our inmost being. We are who God created us to be and no one of us compares to another. There is no cloning or replication. Everyone is created with uniqueness, value, and worth. Each of us brings something beautiful to the world as we radiate with the gifts God gave us. We brighten a room, lift someone’s spirit, and become an image of love and joy.

Unfortunately, church has become a place where this is least recognized. Our churches have become like country clubs with their particular socio-economic, political, racial, and ideological grouping. Uniqueness and beauty is not valued and diversity is not put on the table. Some of God’s beautiful children are not met with warm receptions when they enter the doors of certain churches. The rate of “nones” is rising in culture, while church membership and attendance is decreasing. It is partly because we, as the church, are not accepting of all people.

Exclusion diminishes the witness of the church. Exclusion darkens the beacon of love as the foundation of our faith. I hope we will take a deep look at the weeds growing within our churches, notice how they are choking the life out of our witness. May we eradicate racism, bigotry, and hatred of any kind and cultivate a loving community of inclusivity and diversity so all people thrive and produce a bountiful harvest. Diversity is what’s next for the church.


Phanta Lansden is a fierce fighter of life who found her voice in the shadows. She is associate pastor of C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. You can find her at www.phantalansden.com.

Permission to Dissent

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 Nathan Rouse

My story is little different than many others, but maybe not that different from yours. It starts in the pews of a church and ends… well, I suppose in the ways that matter most it hasn’t ended, but for this part at least it ends outside those walls in the wilderness. But the wilderness is where life is, where true Goodness and holy light may be discovered. And the place you had always thought to be identity reveals, upon sober reflection and the benefit of hindsight, its own decayed innards.

My story is a story of walking away — no, limping away — from religion and a subsequent stumbling, staggering, into Hope; and maybe these are the wrong verbs. Maybe it’s more of a ‘dying to’ religion or, if I’m being perfectly honest (and really it’s just you and me here so why not be honest) it was more a ‘being crushed by’ religion, a crushing which itself resulted, thankfully, in a subsequent ‘being born into’ Hope. Yes, being crushed and then being born. Those feel right.

See if you can chart this path with me, as odds are good you’ve borne witness to it, if not actually lived it yourself: idealistic young adult of faith hitches his (or her) fortunes to a community he loves and in which he feels loved, welcomed, even known, insofar as we can comprehend known-ness. Even when teaching that runs counter to instinct is posited, the love of the community and the belief in its perceived core integrity rivals the impulse to dissent. Until that one day, that day it all sours, that night it all withers; power abused, ostracism enacted, silence condoned, community lost, faith dimmed.

The place I’d known intimately had abandoned even the artifice of faithfulness to loss and revealed its ugly commitment to power and control and personality-worship.

Thank God for therapy.

Then, of course, in the middle of my own intimate faith doldrums, the presidential election of 2016 happened and the angst and grief I felt at the church locally ballooned and magnified, exponentially scaled up, into a wellspring of angst and grief at the church nationally.

This all sounds poetic, perhaps, but at the root of these experiences, at the heart of this forced questioning over these past 5 years, I keep being led back to a most basic line of thought: if adherence to the traditional forms of church and its mores can still result in catastrophe, then why bother? When pastors and presidents are guilty as hell of heinous wrongdoing; when leaders of faith and of civic life metaphorically and literally abuse those in their care; where, then, are we left to turn?

With unveiled faces and with tear-reddened eyes, I have come to think, to maybe believe that we turn — impossible as it may be — to the Suffering Servant; perhaps, ultimately, into the Suffering Servant. The face we had before the world was made is that of humility, lowliness, meekness. We are taught self-aggrandizement. We are modeled ego-stroking, even (and especially) by those in pulpits. Thus, only in the rubble of our old identities can we finally forsake the security of the puffed-up self; can we finally abandon the rigid language of religion and embrace the untamed and untamable spirit of Christ, adopting the posture of loss as the only example worth emulating. We’ve grown drunk following Christ, letting him do all our dying for us, forgetting that the end-goal of any following is embodying.

God help us, we’re so pathetic at embodying.

Reject the Cross as purely and solely substitution, and embrace the Cross as our own will to loss. Resistance only matters if we know what we’re resisting for, if we comprehend what our resistance has to offer instead. Merely holding back the hordes of corruption and decay is not enough. Resistance is painting a picture with our lives, by the aggregation of all our mutual loss into a redemptive counterforce; the very essence of light in darkness.

We dissent in practical ways, like holding our tongue long enough for our words to transmute our anger into tenderness; like truly attempting to conduct a life of love towards others, all others; like recognizing our own limited perspective and embracing the discomfort that comes in broadening it.

We dissent in our religious life by interrogating our biases; by insisting on accountability for our leaders; by fully and completely rejecting the notion of a national identity as a theological one; by recognizing that our own theology has an adverb; by seeing the true dignity of every life at all stages; by full and unfettered inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons and minorities in the life of faith, abandoning the extreme exegetical gymnastics required to keep others from Christ’s great feast; by dignifying the agency of all in our midst, especially our mothers and sisters and daughters.

Once the church I loved had expelled me into the wilderness, I ceased striving against what I’d come to know is true: Christ’s kingdom and its gates are offensively inclusive and insultingly wide, and I would no longer be party to bodies, religious or otherwise, that worked to keep others from the Feast of Plenty, the Great Table of Christ’s Welcome.

Forced exclusion from a church congregation pushed me deeper into the suffering servant’s state, and imbued within me a permission to dissent; from the imperially entwined American church leadership that trades its sisters’ safety for power, its parishioners’ presence for pleasure, others’ children for perceived security, and its witness for an empty electorate.

There do remain good churches doing good work. But Christ’s kingdom isn’t bound by four walls and a steeple, no, it is unwalled and elevated, raised high and visible, it is untamed and untamable in the hands and feet of those embodying His prophetic witness to speak truth to power and to issue forth a Kingdom of goodness, where mercy and justice flow like a river.

The church was never a place, but a people. We fashion this Kingdom where we are so those who don’t know the way Home can more easily recognize it and find themselves amidst it. In the life to come for sure, but the life to come begins with the life at hand.

Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand. So, too, dissent, for the Kingdom is in your hands.


Nathan Rouse is a husband, a father, a pet-owner, and a fool for hope. He can be found on Twitter at @thenathanrouse, and also co-hosts a podcast called The Fear of God, discussing horror movies and faith, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Lost and Found

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 Karen Jones

The day I found my brother was the last day I formally went to church.

He was living in a discarded truck behind a car repair shop, isolated from the hearing world because of his deafness and from the seeing world because of his plight. He read the paper daily, front to back, and could tell you anything you’d want to know about current events. When I went to see him, just after 9/11, there was a small American flag perched in the side window of the dilapidated truck. Why was I surprised?

I came every week, bringing food and reserving a night for him in a nearby hotel. The time we spent together became church in the truest sense.

I cried.

I hallelujahed.

I shouted supplications and obscenities.

I did what I could.

And then, after our Sunday visits, I drove home, passing the manicured medians on a different side of town, passing the church I had attended for years but couldn’t return to. There was just no way to clean my brother up enough to go there.

Sometimes living is messy. And churches don’t do messy.

We want people to fold their lives, just so, and tuck them neatly in the top dresser drawer. We want order, cleanliness, 30 minute sermons, and lunch by noon.

Homelessness isn’t just about shelter or location, or finances or bad decisions. It isn’t just about addiction or mental health. It is the disheveled heap of humanity that crumples at the door.

Our door.

And what do we do?

We cry.

We hallelujah.

We shout out supplications and obscenities, because we are human, too. And then we do what we can.


Karen Jones has worked in Charlotte’s Early Childhood Community for over 30 years, promoting creativity and cooperative collaboration through literacy and the arts. She is formally the Executive Director for a non-profit agency, serving children and families of multi-ethnic communities in Charlotte NC. Currently she enjoys being a regular participant of M2MCHARLOTTE!

A Space for Stories

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, David Norse Thomas is curating a series featuring reflections on the 2019 National Gathering, which we held March 11-13 in Seattle. We’ll share the stories and insights of people who attended the Gathering in person and virtually (via our live stream), and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church. What piece of the National Gathering has stuck with you? Where are you finding hope? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rachel Cheney

This year during Youth Sunday, a sixteen-year-old girl stood in the pulpit. She was barely visible, given her small stature. From my view in the choir loft, I could see her knees trembling. Getting her up there was a challenge, but now she stood before our congregation and shared about her struggle with mental health issues. I watched the faces of the people in the pews; many nodded their heads in agreement, others looked surprised at her openness. “Anxiety is a relevant and personal battle many of us face,” she said passionately. “We need to start talking about it in the church.”

The days that followed brought a flood of emails and calls from congregants who heard her message and wanted to express their own struggles with mental health. Her boldness opened up new possibilities for conversation in our church. It took courage and honesty on her part, but it also required that the church make room for her young voice to be heard.

One of the most impactful ideas from the NEXT Church National Gathering centered around the importance of giving our youth space to share their stories. In a workshop designed specifically for youth ministers and leaders, Shelley Donaldson led a candid conversation on the obstacles and gifts of doing youth ministry today. While the first part of the workshop was devoted to time for us to bond over our shared failures and frustrations, the latter half was spent thinking about ways to integrate youth ministry into the broader church. Too often, it seems that our youth programs are sequestered from the congregation. This only fosters the harmful idea that youth are not interested in church, and even worse: that the church is not interested in our youth.

Even though we did not arrive at any earth-shattering solutions for this problem, I left with a simple but profound insight: the church belongs to the youth today. It often seems that we are waiting for our young people to grow up, go to college, spend a decade absent, and then come back to church when they have a couple of kids. Instead, the church belongs to them exactly as they are today. It belongs to our sixth graders who exclusively ask unrelated questions, our eighth graders who feel endless pressure to fit in, and our seniors who want to act grown up but still love playing dodgeball.

When we listen to the voices of our youth, we communicate to them that they are a valuable and essential part of the church. Our congregations should be guided by the stories and ideas of our young people. Though this is impossible when our youth are rarely involved in our services. By creating an inclusive environment for our youth, we meet them wherever they are in their story.

I left the NEXT Church National Gathering committed to lifting up the voices of our young people, hearing and sharing their stories, and looking for opportunities for the church to grow towards them during their faith journey. This past Sunday, thirteen eight graders stood in front of the congregation. Each of them begged me not to make them share first. But, despite their trepidation, each one gave a part of their faith statement. It was a holy moment. Going forward I hope we can keep creating places for the stories of our young people.


Rachel Cheney is a Youth Director in North Carolina who is passionate about ministry with students, healthy living, and outdoor adventures.

The Energy to Keep Going

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, David Norse Thomas is curating a series featuring reflections on the 2019 National Gathering, which we held March 11-13 in Seattle. We’ll share the stories and insights of people who attended the Gathering in person and virtually (via our live stream), and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church. What piece of the National Gathering has stuck with you? Where are you finding hope? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by David Norse Thomas

“This all sounds great, but I have to ask: how much were you working each week to make this happen?” This honest question, asked in the workshop I was co-leading on intergenerational ministry, was one that I wasn’t quite ready for.

As a church revitalizer of a small, older congregation in suburban Baltimore, I’ll be honest: I work long weeks. There are months where I’m focused on how to keep a sixty-year-old church building going, looking at how to save money so we can reduce our deficit, and rearranging our pews so our handful of children have enough space to play, while also being accessible to our deaf folks and our ASL interpreter, and folks adjusting to reduced mobility and walkers. It’s the important work of hospitality and leading a small congregation, and while it can be life-giving, there are moments that make my soul sing: visiting with folks in their nineties as they ponder what they want their legacy to be to the next generation of progressive Christians; meeting with someone who hasn’t been in church in decades, but who encountered Jesus anew in worship and wants to get involved; training leaders in community organizing so that we can partner with the Holy Spirit as they move the world from how it is to a little closer to how it should be. The two kinds of long days are interconnected, interwoven; the one not possible without the other.

When I arrived at Maryland Presbyterian Church, I knew that I was going to need practices that empower and energize me. Each week, I set time aside to meet with folks, both within and outside of our congregation, for relational meetings; 30-45 minutes where I ask about what keeps folks up at night, and what gets them out of bed the next morning to do something about it. I also share what kindles the embers within me, to keep going. This has set all of what I do, even the seemingly mundane, aflame with the holy fire that set the galaxy’s spinning.

I worked a lot the first year in my call, knowing that I had to lay the groundwork. Now though, I’m at a place where I take Tuesdays and Saturdays off to hike and practice Sabbath. But I also make time to do the work that gives me the energy to keep going.

The NEXT Church National Gathering is part of what keeps me going. I work a lot, but I also try to work on what gives me, and my congregation, life. I never thought that life was a fourty-hour-a-week gig. Instead of thinking of work-life balance, I think about being centered on being a disciple. That weaves me into a story, and an energy, that gets me through plumbing problems and deficits. I hope that this month’s blog ignites similar fires within you as well.


Rev. David Norse Thomas (he/him/his) is the pastor of Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD. Known as “the little Church in the woods,” and “the Church full of badass, progressive Grandmas, and everyone’s favorite Aunt and Uncle,” MPC is a dream congregation for Rev. Norse Thomas to explore what radical hospitality and community organizing can unleash in the hands of loving followers of Jesus.

Carefronting as True Allyship

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, David Norse Thomas is curating a series featuring reflections on the 2019 National Gathering, which we held March 11-13 in Seattle. We’ll share the stories and insights of people who attended the Gathering in person and virtually (via our live stream), and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church. What piece of the National Gathering has stuck with you? Where are you finding hope? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Karen Hernández-Granzen

Karen and Amantha’s workshop

I appreciated being invited for the first time to a NEXT Church National Gathering. I felt privileged to co-lead a workshop with my new Amiga/Colega Amantha Barbee. We met at the PCUSA General Assembly in St. Louis when each of us received the Women of Faith Award. Our workshop gave us both the opportunity to share how our churches are seeking justice, loving mercy, and working humbly before our God (Micah 6:8). I was inspired by what she and our participants are doing to respond to that call. I enjoyed every worship service. I was feed spiritually through the preachers, worship leaders, and music. The diversity of music and worship styles effectively reflected the diversity of the participants. I was moved to tears of gratitude, joy, grief, and laughter!

During what I would like to call the “Holy Times” separated for People of Color to gather separately in a safe space for mutual support via dialoging and debriefing, I appreciated witnessing us implement a Latinx idiom: “Hablar sin pelo en la boca.”/ Speak without hair in your mouth. Another way of stating this Latinx idiom is: “Hablar sin pelo en la lengua.” Speak without hair on your tongue. Basically, what it means is don’t swallow your voice. Instead speak immediately in order to communicate any questions, concerns, offenses.

I would encourage the planners of future NEXT Church National Gatherings to make this “Holy Time” for People of Color to gather together separately a new tradition. I would also suggest that during this time the group consider adopting the norm of “carefronting.”

David Augsburger coined this term over 30 years ago in his book, Caring Enough to Confront.

Carefronting takes a different approach to managing conflict. In carefronting, the overall goal is to attain and maintain effective, productive working relationships. Carefronting is a method of communication that entails caring enough about one’s self, one’s goals, and others to confront conflict courageously in a self-asserting, responsible manner.

In a future Next Church Conference, I would also love to be a part of an open and honest dialogue with People of Color and Euro-Americans to discuss what true allyship means as stated below, and how PCUSA can intentional develop more allies for People of Color within our denomination.

ALLYSHIP1
an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group

  • allyship is not an identity—it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people
  • allyship is not self-defined—our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with
    • it is important to be intentional in how we frame the work we do,
      i.e. we are showing support for…, we are showing our commitment to ending [a system of oppression] by…, we are using our privilege to help by…

1https://theantioppressionnetwork.com/allyship/


Rev. Karen Hernández-Granzen has passionately served as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church of Trenton, New Jersey for over two decades. As the co-leader of the Arts, Music and Culture Committee of the City of Trenton, she is seeking to ensure that creative ways are used to celebrate the history of the city and educate. As a commissioner of Princeton’s Civil Rights Commission, she is seeking to ensure that issues negatively impacting residents are addressed.

Sources of New Life

by David Norse Thomas

Church conferences can be, lets face it, weird. Long exhausting days can overwhelm me with an even worse sense of imposters syndrome than my first few weeks of seminary. Sometimes I leave with a nagging feeling that maybe this was the year I should have organized a reading retreat with my friends with my continuing education funds instead. But this year, at the NEXT Church National Gathering, I had a uniquely different experience, and I’m not the only one. This month the NEXT Church blog will share the stories and insights of pastors who attended in person and virtually, and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church.

This year, the gathering was in Seattle, and as a child of the Pacific Northwest, it wasn’t just the weather and the mountains that made me feel at home. For three days, I found myself engaging in the conversations with colleagues and friends, hearing from speakers doing the work that I see Jesus’ resurrection made visible in. This was a year full of honesty, tackling the ways in which we can be woven together too tightly without room for the people God is calling into our communities, speaking prophetic words about how we need to shift from constructs of racial reconciliation to repairing relationships and seeking reparations alongside our Black siblings, poetry that spoke to the power of being honest about how difficult the work of the Church can be, and where new life is showing up.

For me, one of the most powerful experiences was a workshop on utilizing design thinking in our congregations. Design thinking centers the experience of people and pushes us to creatively utilize the resources we have, instead of mourning what we lack. It is a powerful tool for opening leaders to new possibilities that God might be calling us to risk trying. In the workshop, we utilized the “Mission: Possible” game, and I took away two surprising paradoxical lessons from this experience. First, being encouraged to look at the resources we were given in the game (in the form of resource cards) set my imagination, and those of my table mates, to be creative with the skills and experiences we have. It seems so simple to start with the gifts God has given us in our congregations, but I realized that we so often start with what we lack, instead of giving thanks for God’s provision.

The other surprise came when our facilitators set firm time limits on our planning. Knowing that we had to make a decision freed us up to be more experimental, and to focus. This rang true personally for me. In my context at Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD, we have a firm deadline for when we have to become financially stable as a congregation, or begin to consider options like calling a part-time pastor, seeking to merge with another congregation, or consider selling our building. This deadline has unleashed unimaginable creativity, curiosity, and a willingness to risk failing that we would not have had otherwise. We have to act, and while we need to discern, decisions have to be made.

I returned from the NEXT Church National Gathering excited, ready to start from a place of gratitude and creativity, and I look forward to attending next year with more stories to tell. I ordered Mission: Possible for our next session meeting, and I am excited to see what our creative, motivated ruling elders dream up.


Rev. David Norse Thomas (he/him/his) is the pastor of Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD. Known as “the little Church in the woods,” and “the Church full of badass, progressive Grandmas, and everyone’s favorite Aunt and Uncle,” MPC is a dream congregation for Rev. Norse Thomas to explore what radical hospitality and community organizing can unleash in the hands of loving followers of Jesus.

Editor’s note: We invite you to dig more deeply into two of the stage presentations David references by watching the video recordings and engaging with the provided reflection questions: