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The Hour Has Come–A Sermon about NEXT Church

By MaryAnn McKibben Dana

I was honored to preach at the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley at their stated meeting on May 9, 2013. It was a bit of an introduction to NEXT Church. I share it here in hopes that others will find it a helpful taste of what we’re about: 

 

The Hour Has Come

John 2:1-11 

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.

When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

 

Many preachers I know have a love-hate relationship with the gospel of John. The Jesus in John is just so muscular. I don’t mean that in the sense of brawny, I mean… he’s so capable. Confident. Free of angst. Every move he makes is deliberate. There is no sweating blood in the garden in John, no cry of anguish on the cross, no “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” (Yes, he does say “I’m thirsty,” but John is quick to assure us: He didn’t really need a drink; he just said that to fulfill the scriptures.)

This is a man who knows what he’s doing at every moment. And that’s a comforting thing. But it’s also what makes John’s Jesus really hard to relate to. Jesus is never, ever caught off guard.

Except… here. Here, in this story, we get a little bit of a different picture than the Jesus we meet in most of John. He seems caught a bit off guard. Plus, this is Jesus’ first sign, and it feels different from the others. There are seven in all, and in case you need a review, here they are in no particular order:

–       Walking on water.

–       Three healings.

–       Feeding 5,000 people with the contents of a child’s picnic.

–       Raising a guy from the dead.

–       And… restocking the bar at a wedding.

One of these signs is not like the other.

*          *          *

Jesus’ mother comes to him: “They have no more wine.” It’s a statement… that’s really a question. A request. And Jesus gets that, because he responds to what remains unsaid: No mother, that is not my concern. This is not mine to do.

Mary is saying to him, Look… here is an opportunity.

And Jesus responds: Really? Beverage service? For my inaugural sign? I don’t think so. Anyway, my hour has not yet come.

And she turns toward everyone else: Do what he tells you. And again there is a subtext: Yes, your hour has come. You are needed, right now, right here.

I love that Jesus’ first sign is one he never intended to make.

Jesus, it seems, had a plan. He had something in mind for his first sign. I’m not sure what he hoped his first sign would be, but water into wine wasn’t it. I bet it was something great. Maybe he was planning to heal an entire household in one fell swoop. Maybe a nice juicy exorcism. Later he would walk on water; maybe he was going to kick things off by flying through the air like Superman.

But instead he realizes that when it comes to sign #1… mother does know best. And of course, it’s not just about the wine—it’s about hospitality, it’s about providing something amazing for a whole village of people. It’s about God’s abundance. So yes, he’s in.

He looks around: What’s here that I can use? He scopes out his provisions like some kind of Palestinian MacGyver, and he finds 6 water jars.

Uh-oh. Six.

You remember the number 7 as a holy number in scripture. It is a number of perfection, completion. The seven days of creation. Seventh day as the day of rest. Seven signs in the gospel of John, seven churches in the book of Revelation.

But there are only 6 jars. Not good. In the ancient world, 6 was not a holy number. Far from it. Six was seen as a deficient number, imperfect, lacking. So we can see why Jesus would be reluctant to act—wine from seven jars would be a fabulously meaningful sign, dripping with significance. But the tools aren’t right. Things aren’t quite right. Six jars is somehow not enough.

I serve a small congregation in Northern Virginia that has grown from about 70 to about 85 in the last few years. We rejoice at this growth. And we are grateful to have a number of things going for us. We own our building; it’s not too big for us, not too overwhelming for the budget. We have a small endowment. We have great people and an excitement about the future.

And yet… and yet… even with all of those gifts, it is still hard to move forward.
It’s difficult to find the money to do what we want and need to do.
It’s tough to find the people power to move forward on projects and ministries that we feel passionate about.
It’s nearly impossible to figure out how to cut through the noise of the DC area so that our neighbors will know who we are and what we believe and why we’d like them to be a part of it.

It feels sometimes like a six jar situation.

And I wonder if you, too, look around your congregation, or your presbytery, and see six jars.
If we could just catch a break,
if we could just finish that camp,
if we could just get a few more young people to join our church,
if we could just hire a pastor—then, then, we could be the sign that we really want to be, the sign we’ve always dreamed of being.

Maybe you, like Jesus, feel like the timing is off. Jesus says his hour has not come, but for many of us, we feel like our hour is past. The statistics about membership decline in the PC(USA) are repeated so often that they have become a cliché. So many churches, here and around the country, are doing faithful ministry but without the means to call a pastor. Our buildings need maintenance. Meanwhile, a recent Barna survey of pastors and found that 90% of pastors said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry.  And an astounding 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.

We’re discouraged.

We’re a day late and a jar short.

Unless.
Unless it’s not up to us to perform a sign, but simply to be the sign.
Unless we worship a God of possibility.
Unless John’s Jesus, our Jesus, can take our jars and look at the clock on the wall and say, “Forget what time it is. I can work with this.”

For the last couple of years I’ve been honored to be a part of the leadership of the NEXT Church. This is a movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that has been working to celebrate the places of health in the church and to support those places and help them propagate. The premise of NEXT Church is that the church is not dying. The church is changing, and changing quickly. And we are capable of change, but we can’t wait for Louisville or presbytery or our pastors to do it for us. We are the church.

Last year we hosted half a dozen regional events around the country where ruling elders and teaching elders came together not to transact business or kvetch about presbytery, or argue about ordination standards or gay marriage. They came together to share resources and inspiration. They formed relationships and partnerships.

NEXT Church recently had our national gathering in Charlotte, and we heard about churches that were on life support who turned their worship life around through improv and storytelling. We heard about a large church partnering with a small church through an adminstrative commission. We heard about congregations coming together through community organizing to transform entire neighborhoods.

You can hear these stories and many more on our website. What’s interesting is that many of these folks were reluctant to speak at the conference because they felt like what they had to offer wasn’t all that radical. I’m no expert, they would shrug. They might as well have said, “Eh, I’ve only got six jars.” But their testimonies set the place on fire.

When we offer up those jars… when we fill them to the brim, like those servants did… well, that’s when the good wine starts to flow.

*          *          *

We’ll never know what Jesus had in mind for his inaugural sign. But it’s significant to me that his first sign wasn’t a healing… it wasn’t an exorcism or a sermon or feeding 5,000 people. It wasn’t a life or death situation at all. The first sign of Jesus helped the hosts of the wedding save face, but otherwise it had very little utility. It was just an act of pure beauty. The party needs to go on, says Jesus. The love and fellowship should continue.

Water into wine is such a small sign. But maybe this sign is just the sign we need. Jean Varnier, founder of the L’Arche Community, reminds us: “A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of man is to accept his insignificance, his human condition and his earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness.”

We get mixed up sometimes. We want to save the church. We want to save the world! But maybe it’s enough to keep the feast going for as long as we can—not cautiously, not fearfully, but brimming over with hope and trust that the wine will flow as long as God means it to.

Maybe God is preparing us for something really, really—small:

Beauty, joy, community, friendship, hospitality.

I will drink to that. How about you?


MamdMaryAnn McKibben is co-chair of NEXT Church. She is a frequent speaker and workshop leader and author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time. She blogs at The Blue Room.

 

photo credit: Paco CT via photopin cc

Courage

Dear friends,

As we wrestle with tragedy as individuals, congregations, and the larger church, please receive these pastoral and prophetic words from Marcia Mount Shoop as an offering. Personally I read her insights as an experience of worship; may it be so for you as well.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman

*****

“Courage”

http://www.marciamountshoop.com/2013/04/16/courage/

Youth Ministry in the NEXT Church

Here’s a story about a small world. At a youth retreat I organized with some friends last fall, I got accused of stealing the idea for my go-to youth group game. My friend Erik claimed to have invented it while he was an Associate Pastor in South Carolina. He marched up to my table at lunch with a crowd of my students in tow. Erik’s a reasonable grown up person, but my students were itchin’ for a fight.

“Where’d you get Grog?” he demanded. My youth grinned and bounced on their toes. They’d been telling him about the game over Sloppy Joe’s before he leapt from his seat to confront me. It’s a question with a very simple answer, though. I gave it. “Adam Walker Cleaveland’s blog. Why?”

He proceeded to insist that the game, which involves youth trying to locate and put together a disassembled flashlight in a darkened sanctuary before another player (the Grog) can tag them all, was his invention and that the way we played it—and even what we called it—was all wrong.

“It’s actually called ‘Gorgon,’ he scoffed.” Also, the Grog—er, Gorgon–is not a youth but a robed up pastor who leaps out to scare the bejeezus out of unconfirmed teens.

I pleaded innocence. I really had found the game on Cleaveland’s blog in 2009 in an enduring (if not grandiose) post chronicling the “20 All Time Best Youth Group Games” (http://pomomusings.com/2009/03/10/top-20-youth-group-games/). I’d been playing Cleaveland’s version for three years.

The episode (Gorgongate?) illustrates something important about youth ministry in the NEXT church. Sharing, for example. I’m eager to be part of a youth ministry community that shares resources, best practices, counsel, and encouragement. I’ve wrung lots of mileage from old Youth Specialties games books, but I’m not half as committed to them as I am to Grog. The dispute over authorship only makes me love it more.

The NEXT youth ministry shares material of its own making, though, which distinguishes it from a ministry that relies on expertly-published curriculum. Curriculum isn’t going away—nor should it—but youth workers in coming years will have to flex their creative contextual muscles more than they follow someone else’s instructions. Where we’re not creating our own stuff, at least we should be engaging a content-creating community, locally or through social media. After all, that’s how I found Grog. It’s also where I’m closely following John Vest’s public re-working of his confirmation curriculum (www.johnvest.com).

Finally, collaboration will be the NEXT norm. The most interesting work I’m doing these days I’m doing with a collective of youth workers and pastors including Erik and his wife Millason. Given a few hundred more words I could wax eloquent about Paul Knopf, Becca Bateman, Kat Blasetti, Erin Thomas, Jason Griffice, Reece Lemmon, and John McKellar. But I’ll limit myself here to a brief mention of the two retreats we’ve run together and the third summer service week for junior high students we’re planning. That’s a crew of youth ministry heavy hitters. I can’t say what we’ll do next, only that we’ll be making it up together and sharing it as we go.


RockyRocky Supinger is the Associate Pastor at Claremont Presbyterian Church in Claremont, California, a call he’s had for five years. Prior to coming to California, Rocky served a small church in Grandview, Missouri, as its Solo Pastor for three years. He is married to Meredith Clayton and the father of “Baby Girl” Laura (5). He foolishly loves the Kansas City Royals.

What New Ministers Need

by George Anderson

“I went to Law School to learn Law.  I learned how to practice Law after I joined a law practice.”  Robert Ballou, a lawyer in the church I serve, said this to show that he understood when I said the same thing about ministry.  While I can’t imagine anyone enjoying and appreciating seminary more than I did, I learned the practice of ministry serving in the church under the guidance of other ministers and laypeople who shared wisdom from their disciplines.  Because certain aspects of a vocational practice are best learned while immersed in the practice itself, the focus of continuing education right out of seminary should shift from identity to practice, from theory to skills.

For me, much of that practical learning was “on the job” and not at continuing education events because I was blessed with gifted ministers and laypeople who offered me nurture and support.   However, many new ministers do not have, and do not know where to find, such a network of support.  A shocking number leave the ministry before the fifth anniversary of their ordination.

Bothered by the rough start many have in ministry, I began to notice that most continuing education events for newly ordained ministers carry on the seminary project of focusing on pastoral identity over pastoral practice and do not use parish pastors and laypeople as leaders.  The lack of practical education becomes a problem when a congregation expects the ministers they call to already know how to deal with staffing issues, read a budget, raise funds, develop leaders, guide a church in long range planning, and manage competing interests.

Thanks to a fund for theological education, Second Presbyterian Church and Union Presbyterian Seminary have been able to offer one model for how practical skills can be shared in a continuing education setting.  The sixth Kittye Susan Trent Symposium for Newly Ordained Ministers was held at Second Presbyterian Church this past March.  The symposium is five and a half days that begin with worship and lead to seminars that focus on practice.  To enhance peer mentoring, the group is limited to eight participants each year.  The schedule includes times for rest and play.   Ken McFayden, a Union Presbyterian Seminary professor, and two experienced pastors, Ed McLeod of Raleigh’s First Presbyterian Church and I, guide the symposium and lead some of the seminars.  The rest of the seminars are offered by other experienced pastors or laypeople.

Imagine a day focused on finances where Ed McLeod talks about effective stewardship; Nancy Gray, president of Hollins University, talks about fund raising; Joe Miller, head of his own construction company and our church treasurer, talks about financial interpretation; Phil Boggs, Church Administrator, talks about budgeting and tracking funds; and, Steven Waskey a financial planner, talks about the minister’s personal finances.  Such is one day of the symposium.

“I don’t think a day goes by where I do not reference in some way to something I picked up at the symposium,” says Dean Pogue, a first year participant who calls on various seminar leaders regularly.  “The symposium provided some things I didn’t know I needed.  Now I know what to look for,” said Caroline Jinkins who participated this year.   All the feedback received has been similarly positive and grateful.  At the recent NEXT Conference in Charlotte, I ran into many former participants who told me again how much the symposium has meant for their ministries.  Because the nurture of new pastors has become a passion of my ministry, hearing these reports makes me deeply thankful for the symposium.   My favorite quote was spoken tongue-in-cheek by Rachel Achtemeier Rhodes who last year said to Ed and me, “Thank you for teaching us what we need to know to someday take your jobs.”  We laughed, but that is precisely why Ed and I have been doing this.  I have heard it said that the church needs my generation to “get out of the way” in order to find what’s next.   That’s true, as it is with every generation, but, first, we have some great stuff to pass on.

I am not suggesting that what is done at Second Presbyterian can be exactly replicated.  I do suggest that the components which make the symposium such a helpful experience for new ministers can be sought out elsewhere.  A sabbatical devoted to studying programs for newly ordained ministers led me to believe that in addition to spiritual disciplines of worship, reflection and prayer, these are the components most needed by new ministers: mentors to emulate, coaches to instruct, trusted peers with whom to share and learn, laypeople who are willing to teach what they know, exposure to “best practices,” and teaching congregations (either where one serves or where one can visit).  Not all governing bodies can provide these components, and fewer can provide them well.   Also, intangibles such as right leadership, chemistry among participants, quality materials, and accountability need to be in place, or even the best constructed program will bomb.  However, ministers on their own or as groups can seek out some or all of these components, and keep after it till what nurtures and sustains is found.

To illustrate how it can be so, the Associate Pastor at  the church I serve, Elizabeth Howell, organizes three overnight retreats a year  for new pastors within our presbytery where the first day is devoted to the kind  of seminars offered by the symposium and the second day is devoted to the  participants mentoring each other.  Under the direction of one of the participants, Andrew Taylor-Troutman,  the group is now meeting additionally for lectionary study and sermon  preparation.  This is the kind of  local and organic connecting that is encouraged by the NEXT Church  movement. 

What can be done for new ministers where you serve?


levelREVDr. George Anderson is a graduate of St. Andrews University (’81) and Union Presbyterian Seminary (’85).  He served in Kingsport, TN and Jackson, MS before becoming in 1998 the Head of Staff at Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA.  He is married to Millie and they have three grown daugthers; Paige, Rachel and Virginia.  The symposium discussed in this blog was made possible by a fund established by John Trent, a widower, in memory of his only child, Kittye Susan Trent, who died from complications from a lifetime medical issue.  He left his estate to Second Presbyterian Church for the purpose of promoting theological education.  The first Kittye Susan Trent Symposium for Newly Ordained Ministers was held in 2008.  The names of past participants can be found at: http://spres.org/#/important-info/trent-symposium-history

From Generation to Generation

by Steve Willis

My sister works in a high rise building overlooking Rockefeller Square in New York City and her husband works in the city as well.  They live north of the city among the posh suburbs in a beautiful home that my family enjoys visiting and having the opportunity to drive into the city and see the sights as complete tourists.  But my family lives in a small town at the base of the Appalachian Mountains looking up to the Peaks of Otter in southwestern Virginia.  It is a bewildering, wonderful, often confusing mix of cultures when my family visits their aunt and uncle in the big city.

worship 280x100My sister and brother-in-law  do not have children of their own, but often talk about their employees as the unruly, sometimes exasperating, sometimes gifted next generation.  When they speak of their work companions it is always in the language of generational battles – Boomers, X’ers and Millenials.  They are the last edge of the Boomer generation, but it is clear that they are caught up in the latest cultural battle fad – not ideological this time but generational.

I can’t tell you in a short piece like this how different a way this is of talking about older and younger generations than the rural intergenerational culture in which I live and pastor.  In the mountains of Virginia, I never hear the older or younger generations talk about Boomers, Xers and Millenials.  Oh, they do talk about younger and older folks in the church, but they talk as people who share the same joys and struggles that younger and older people have always experienced from generation to generation.  They roll their eyes when the other generation presses its claims too hard, but they also show great empathy for the struggles that the other generation is experiencing.  I think this is because they are so closely and intimately a part of the life of all the generations including the disappearing Builder generation.  These relationships are too up close and personal to fit into battle categories.  These are people we are talking about; people from family, church family and neighbors.  Why label them Builders, Boomers, Xers or Millenials?  They are simply Mabel, Margaret, Mandy and Madison.

More and more these are the latest dividing lines that I hear people in the larger church articulating.  Isn’t this a cultural battle that the church should take a pass on?  How well did conservative, moderate, liberal do for us?  There is simply too much work to do during this era of church marginalization to divert ourselves with yet another battle created by a bored, stimulate-seeking American culture.

Can we simply see people?  Can we call them by name like the Gospels do?  Anna, Simeon, Zebedee, Mary, Joseph, Peter, James, John, Mary, Martha.  When the risen Christ appeared at the empty tomb and saw a grief stricken disciple, what did he call her?  Boomer?  Xer?  Conservative?  Liberal?  I believe he just said, “Mary!”


Steve Willis is pastor of the Virginia Presbyterian Church in the Appalachian Mountains and author of Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Alban Institute).

What’s NEXT for seminary students?

by Lindsay Conrad

What’s NEXT? I think that question had everyone’s heads spinning at the beginning of the conference in Dallas last year. How can we answer that question when we are mourning the loss of some of our churches? Severed and splintered over theological differences, we sat at this conference and thought about this question. The thought of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and walking forward in the footsteps of Jesus seemed out of the question. What’s NEXT just seemed like too much.

What’s NEXT? The video played begging that question at the beginning of our conference in Charlotte this year. Do you know what that question feels like to a student in the last months of seminary? It’s like looking down the barrel of a gun. It’s like being asked to jump from the place without a parachute. It’s that feeling like plunging into deep waters with no sure sign that you’ll reach the surface of the water before you run out of air. What’s next just seemed like too much, but it was coming at me whether I was ready or not – just like graduation!

What’s NEXT? The most awesome and terrifying part of that question is the very answer. All of us sitting in those pews and participating online via livestream and twitter and facebook – we came to the shocking realization that we are the next church. We are the vessels used by God to be participants and initiators of the NEXT. Like Nicodemus, we are charged to be reborn. Like Mary, we are charged to bear Christ into the world. Like Jesus, we are charged to be mindful that in our baptisms we have died to ourselves. And as we break the surface of the water gasping for new air and new life, we are one with the communion of saints before us and those to come. With them we hear the same words Jesus did bursting from the heavens – YOU ARE MY BELOVED. What’s next is us – the pastors and seminarians and faithful witnesses to the Spirit moving and shaking the church into something new, something better, something exciting.

What’s NEXT? We are answering that question in lots of that ways – many discovered here in Charlotte. We are pulling improvisation and storytelling practices into our worship experiences. We are learning to band together across denominations and cities to bring new ideas and insights into our programming. We are embracing world music that opens up our view of the church. We are shaking away the frozen chosen-ness that binds us to our pews and we are dancing. We are clapping. We are rediscovering gifts that make us the church reformed and always being reformed.

So, What’s NEXT? I don’t really know – but I’m thrilled and terrified, and hopeful, and grateful to be a part of the movement determined to discover the answers.


LindsayLindsay Conrad is a graduating senior at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She is a candidate under care of Presbytery of the Peaks in Virginia and seeking ordination as a teaching elder this summer.

Exclamation!

By Lisa Salita

I got to go to the NEXT National Gathering in Charlotte!

I know, it’s uncool for an adult to begin a blog post with a sentence worthy of a fifteen year old. But you need to understand some things:

  • I experienced worship. Worship. Worship with 600 hundred people from around the country, varied in age and culture and context.  We sang, we moved (we moved!), we heard the Word from gifted preachers. We worshiped together, four times in two days.
  • I saw people engaging in real conversations. Complex, hopeful, practical, and prayerful conversations about how to be who God’s called us to be in the world and in our churches and communities.
  • I saw, heard, and took part in discernment about where God is at work, about how God is moving in individual people and places, and about what God is trying to show us. And we began to actively look for ideas, agendas, or other voices that are keeping us from hearing God’s voice.
  • I heard affirmations that we as the PC(USA) are called to discern what’s distinctive and critical and God-ordained in our Reformed tradition – and to hold tight to those things –  and to look for elements, practices, or beliefs that were right in another time, but aren’t consistent with being the Body of Christ in the world we live in today.
  • I heard words of great power and encouragement and challenge from C-67:  God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ and the mission of reconciliation to which he has called his church are the heart of the gospel in any age. Our generation stands in peculiar need of reconciliation in Christ.
  • I was reminded again and again that God knows what’s NEXT, that God’s Word and God’s work will always be real and active in the world, because we always have the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. We can (and should) plan and discern and work. But the Spirit is at work among us, and it is the Spirit the blows where it will, and that makes things new, creating and regenerating and setting hearts on fire.

So I stand firm in that decision to begin this post with an exclamation.

But NEXT meant more to me – more than all of these events, messages, meetings, and services. Now it’s personal. As you may have surmised, I’m one of those optimists, those annoying people who, despite Barna and Pew surveys and the discussions at committee and Session and Presbytery meetings, believes in the future of the Church and of our denomination. I’ve long had a sense that it’s all going to be OK. The Church is not going to die out. We’re not doomed. If the church that’s needed now, and in the years to come, needs to blend new models and new ideas, to modify some parts of what we do today, and do some pruning too, that’s OK with me. We’re going to have to take risks. And some ideas will work, and some things will fail, but that’s OK. How else do we learn, do we modify, do we find our way in uncharted territory? It’s OK that the world is different, and that we need to discern how to respond.

Because we are God’s people, the people of the Resurrected Christ, of the Great Commission, of Pentecost. And we are the heirs of the Reformation and the Reformed tradition. Always Reformed, always being reformed, according to the Word of God and the call of the Holy Spirit. Always called to be unwavering in our faithfulness to God, but also called to be aware of the world around us and ready to respond to our world in ways that will bring Christ, that will bring reconciliation, in the ways that our world needs.

That was the spirit that I felt at NEXT. And that, I believe, is the Sprit speaking, giving both comfort and challenge, to us all.

Now, back home, I want to be a part of what’s next. And I joyfully encourage you to be a part of what, in God’s plan and in the power of the Holy Spirit, is NEXT.


Lisa Salita, from Richmond VA, is a Ruling Elder in her home church and now a second career seminarian, studying at Union Presbyterian Seminary and a Candidate under care of the Presbytery of the James.

5 Questions with Amos Disasa

We are launching a new series this month that highlights participants at the national gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina on March 4 – 5th, 2013. Presenters, preachers, teachers, and leaders were asked the same five questions and their thoughtful responses may be found here every week. The goal is to introduce you to people you’ll hear from in Charlotte and prime the pump for our time together. Hopefully, something here will spark an idea, thought, or question for you. We encourage you to reach out and initiate conversations that you can later continue in person. So without further ado …

Amos Disasa

Preacher at National Gathering

Amos DisasaAmos was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1983. Downtown Columbia was the first neighborhood that they called home. Twenty-nine years later, Amos and his wife Sarah are Downtown again to help organize a new Presbyterian (U.S.A.) church in the city center of Columbia. Amos and Sarah went to Presbyterian College. She graduated on time (a detail she can’t seem to forget) and Amos finished up a few months later in 2001. After college, Amos went to Brazil to work with street children, made a small fortune working on a government contract, managed to spend it all while killing time in Clinton SC, and eventually completed his graduate studies, on time, at The Divinity School of Wake Forest University in 2006.

1. Tell us about your ministry context.

I’m the organizing pastor of a new Presbyterian church in downtown Columbia. While we meet downtown, our congregation comes from all over the city. Our ministry doesn’t have a geographic focus. Instead it’s oriented towards people who work, eat, learn, and play downtown.

2. Where have you seen glimpses of “the church that is becoming”?

New church development is the most obvious and literal example of the church that is becoming. Given the opportunity (and freedom) to reconsider what is barely necessary to be a church, has been liberating for us. Now there is room to “become” something. In the past we might have worried about what must be sacrificed first

3. What are your passions in ministry? (And/or what keeps you up at night?)

– coaching leaders and servants
– preaching
– finding ways to grow and stay small at the same time

4. What is one thing you are looking forward to at the NEXT Gathering?

– Since I’ve never been before, I don’t know what to anticipate. This is kind of like the future for the church.

5. Describe NEXT in seven words or less.

Present and future church converge in Charlotte.

5 Questions with Jessica Tate

We are launching a new series this month that highlights participants at the national gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina on March 4 – 5th, 2013. Presenters, preachers, teachers, and leaders were asked the same five questions and their thoughtful responses may be found here every week. The goal is to introduce you to people you’ll hear from in Charlotte and prime the pump for our time together. Hopefully, something here will spark an idea, thought, or question for you. We encourage you to reach out and initiate conversations that you can later continue in person. So without further ado … 
Jessica Tate11. Tell us about your ministry context.

After five great years as an associate pastor in Northern Virginia, I’m excited to be the Director of NEXT Church, building relationships with Presbyterians across the country who are doing exciting, creative, Christ-led ministry. I’m fortunate to live in Washington, DC and be part of National Capital Presbytery, which is doing some good strategic thinking about the church that is becoming.

2. Where have you seen glimpses of “the church that is becoming”?

In more places than I expected! Discovering these places has been one of the gifts of NEXT Church. All the leadership for the NEXT Gathering in Charlotte are glimpses of the church that is becoming…like the generative ministry at Broad Street Ministries and Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia…improvisational worship at Church of the Pilgrims in DC…Community organizing ventures across the country (Patrick Daymond, Andrew Foster Connors and Andy Imparato will highlight their experiences in testimony and a workshop)…highly contextual ministry like that of Caldwell Presbyterian in Charlotte…1001 New Worshipping Communities and New Beginnings ministries within the PCUSA…the Ecclesia Project in Mid-Kentucky Presbytery. I’m excited to catch other glimpses of good news at the gathering in March.

3. What are your passions in ministry? (And/or what keeps you up at night?)

Our culture is changing rapidly. Perhaps this has always been so, but it is nonetheless changing and with it, the place of the church changes too. But the call of the church remains what it has been through the ages: How do we experience the redemptive presence of God in our lives? And how do we communicate that presence to others so that we embody God’s love, grace, and justice in the world?  How do we do that today?

Like the women who show up at the tomb, stubbornly insisting on hope when death and despair rule the day, I am passionate about ministry that helps us tap into the resurrection hope that is God’s redemptive presence in our lives. When we tap into that hope–individually and collectively–we are free to be born again ourselves, to be born again as institutions and communities, and, I believe, to bear hope and light in a world where people desperately need community, desperately need hope, desperately need God-in-Christ.

4. What is one thing you are looking forward to at the NEXT Gathering?

It’s hard to name just one thing! Of all the great things, I am most looking forward to the connections I make at NEXT gatherings (through what happens “up-front” and informally) that spark my imagination and help me grow as a leader in our church.

5. Describe NEXT in seven words or less.

Relational. Hopeful. Creative. Resurrection.

The Yeast from Durham

Rev. Esta Jarrett, pastor of Canton Presbyterian Church in the mountains of western North Carolina, preached at the NEXT Regional Gathering in Durham on August 18th, 2012. She was gracious enough to share her words here.

“The Great Leavening”                               

Esta Jarrett

Matthew 13:33

NRSV: He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

CEB: He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”

A little more than a year ago, I began work at Canton Presbyterian Church as their Designated Pastor, or Teaching Elder, or what-have-you. Canton is a tiny paper mill town in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I was called there as part of a residency program through the PC(USA) called “For Such a Time As This.”

The idea of the program is simple: it matches pastors with churches who are having a hard time attracting full-time clergy, because of money or location or both. The pastors and congregations are given 2 years to help the church find its feet and establish meaningful, vibrant ministry in their particular setting.

The program gives a lot of support during those 2 years – mentors, resources, continuing education, financial help when it’s needed. It’s an amazing program. I honestly don’t know how anyone begins a call in a church without this sort of support.

So here we are, one year in. My friends in the program and I keep in touch – we talk on Facebook a lot, checking in, comparing notes and experiences. We talk about what this year has brought us and our churches – relationships established, programs attempted, session meetings navigated.

We have commiserated when there have been spectacular disasters, like the night before my installation, when the ceiling of my fellowship hall fell in. Welcome to ministry! Another story: at my friend’s church on Maundy Thursday, during communion the baptismal font got knocked off its base and shattered. My friend asked what we would have done in that situation. I said that it couldn’t get any worse, so I might have been tempted to do jazz hands and say, “Ta da!” Fortunately she’s more mature than I am. She just pretended that nothing had happened, and went on serving communion. It’s things like this that we don’t learn in seminary.

We have also shared moments of celebration, such as weddings, baptisms, new members, and Christmas morning services that were surprisingly well attended. We lift each other up in the midst of all our milestones.

In our conversations during the past month, a common theme has started to pop up, as we look at attendance and membership. Like I said, we have just 2 years at our churches to try to turn things around. But for many of our churches, numbers are either the same as when we started, or are actually down. We have buried a few people, but not as many have joined. It’s a sobering realization, especially at this midway point of our residency, as the program is hoping for quantifiable good news so that we can get funding for another year.

Now, we all know that there are many ways for churches to measure vitality. Numbers can be deceiving. But that’s hard to remember Sunday after Sunday, as you look out from the pulpit at a sanctuary that once held 120 people, into the faces of the 20 or 25 who remain. They sit scattered around the room like paperweights holding down the corners of the church, where their parents sat and grandparents before them, seeming to brace themselves for what’s coming next.

It’s a challenge, to plan for vitality and growth in the midst of seeming emptiness. And yet, these congregations are taking on the challenge. Across the country, on the Florida coast and in the Kansas plains and West Virginia coal country and North Dakota prairies and Western North Carolina mountains, these churches are all trying something new. And we feel, we know, that hidden deep within the day-to-day grind of church ministry, something vital is rising up.

In our parable, we hear Jesus compare the kingdom of heaven to a tiny measure of yeast mixed with a huge amount of flour.  Some translations say the woman “mixed” them together, but others say she “hid” that yeast in the flour, like a light that is hidden under a bushel. Something small and nondescript can be so completely scattered that it becomes invisible. But even yeast that is well-mixed, or hidden, cannot be forgotten or ignored. Before too long, it will cause the dough to expand and rise transform into something entirely new, and delicious.

In such a way, the presence of the Holy Spirit, signaling the reign of God, cannot be ignored. When our churches are denuded of members, when our budgets shrink, when, on paper, it looks like there’s nothing happening, when transformation is painfully slow and just plain painful, in churches and ministries of all sizes…even then the Holy Spirit makes her presence known. Everything the Spirit touches rises and transforms into something new. You can’t hide that presence when it’s there, just as you can’t pretend it’s there when it’s not.

The fact that Jesus used yeast as an analogy amuses me. The chemical process through which dough rises is not pretty. Yeast are microorganisms that stew and ferment and produce gas. This isn’t the most elegant image for the kingdom that I’ve ever heard, and it may be a little too on the nose for some days of ministry I’ve had.

But ultimately, this parable shows us that part of the work of the kingdom is about the creation of open space. Yeast transforms flour into bread by stretching and seething and making room. It elbows its way throughout all the flour there is, as much as we can bring, and makes room, and turns it into something that will feed us.

I’ve seen a lot of new things happen in my church in the past year, most of which has been encouraging. The congregation on a small scale is doing what the whole denomination is seeking to do: trying new things, taking on new ministries and considering different ideas, some of which are rocking the boat, and some of which don’t look like church as we know it.

In Canton, one of our newest members felt a strong conviction that we should host a Vacation Bible School for our community. It didn’t matter that most of our members are older, and have little energy, and that we have exactly zero young families with children. What mattered was the need for kids in our neighborhood to have a safe place to gather, sing, make crafts, and learn Bible stories. We have a building and people, so why shouldn’t we do it?

So, this past June, we had Vacation Bible School. It was an intergenerational event, held with a neighboring Episcopal congregation. Over 5 nights, we had 30 kids and 25 adults for dinner, study, and play.

At the end of the week, one of the mothers came up to me and said, “When’s Sunday School? The kids want to know when they can come back.” So, a week later, we began a Sunday School program, the first the church has held in years. I should emphasize: this happened not because we felt we needed a program, but because the congregation is hearing the voice of the Spirit, making itself known through their particular gifts and desires. Many of the children at VBS came from troubled homes, or foster care, or are in group homes through the Department of Social Services. There are particular needs in this community with which we can work.

All this is happening because one person in my congregation saw possibilities instead of reasons to say no. Perhaps the fact that he came to the church with an outsider’s perspective, a breath of fresh air, helped make all this possible.

Maybe it doesn’t matter so much how it happened. What matters is that everyone stopped saying “We can’t,” and started saying, “Why not?” What matters is that we are learning how to trust the power of the Holy Spirit, instead of ourselves. And with the Spirit, miracles do happen.

I admit that my vision of capital-C Church is a very particular one. I see ministry through the lens of a small town from which industry has fled, that is only slowly rebuilding its identity. Sometimes the challenges seem insurmountable. What does the work of one old church in such a community matter? Why do any of our churches matter, wherever we are? Whether we are a mono-ethnic suburban congregation, or a new congregation meeting in coffee shops, or a group of volunteers working at a community kitchen, or a two-language congregation navigating different cultural traditions, whether we wear dresses or jeans or seersucker and bowties, no matter how we see ourselves, we have to ask: what makes our ministry worth doing?

In this post-denominational age, during what Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence” of the next stage of Christianity, our churches are facing unforeseen challenges at every step. The founders of our churches could not have possibly imagined these cultural shifts that are part of our everday lives. Old paradigms of the church in the world no longer apply. So why are we pouring so much love and sweat into ministry, when numbers tell us it’s a losing proposition?

I believe the answer lies with the yeast. Even when we cannot see it at work, the kingdom of God is like this: persistent, unstoppable, undeniable, homely and comforting, infinitely nourishing.

Our Lord is at work in the world and is not letting creation lie dormant and unfulfilled, but is bringing about something new. As we ask important questions and seek to respond faithfully to God’s claim on us, the kingdom is revealed, in different small ways, wherever we are. What ultimately matters isn’t our strategies for growth and survival, our membership numbers and bottom line. What matters, for the church and for the world, is that the power of God’s kingdom is at work, and that there is nothing that can stop it.

I ask myself whether we are being naïve, to work so hard and care so much. It’s hard to maintain any fashionably ironic detachment when we’re looking at our communities through the eyes of church. We talk about love and promises and forgiveness, and we’re embarrassingly earnest about it.

But, our life in Christ is the opposite of naïve. We are called to a terrible and persistent hope. We cannot give up, or be content with the way things are, because God has not given up and is not content with the way things are. In the kingdom, we insist on hope. Every single day, we choose it, for ourselves, our neighbors, and the world.

That hope manifests itself in very particular ways, in small moments and shared stories. That hope is made known in occasions like small town Vacation Bible School, when a young mother in the neighborhood becomes connected to a congregation for the first time in her life, and finds an extended family of faith.

That hope rises to the surface when a Presbyterian Women study helps mobilize a group of grandmothers to fight human trafficking in our town.

That hope is felt in worship, when a mother is free to grieve for the death of her child, and is held by the congregation in love and shared mourning.

Through our communities of faith, in our living and our dying, our serving and praying, God’s relentless hope for creation can be given room and that hope mixes, and expands, and rises up, and becomes something new.

All these small, particular stories of hope and renewal are being echoed in churches, in worshipping communities, in towns, in countries throughout the world…wherever the Spirit is felt and welcomed. These stories help us understand and live into the great true hope of Jesus Christ that makes us more than what we were, uniting us in the work of radical love and hope that goes beyond life and death.

At the recent General Assembly, our denomination voted to support 1,001 new worshipping communities. We committed to think creatively about what makes a church. As we wrestle with the difficult issues of our life together, stories of transformation and hope will continue to rise up, like fresh bread baking in an oven. And we will remember that our purpose is not our own preservation, but our participation in the kingdom, where all may gather freely and be fed.

There’s no hurry. We have to give yeast time to work. Whether we have two years or twenty, we’re on God’s time, now. We can be in the kitchen together, talking, laughing, enjoying each other’s company. All the best parties wind up in the kitchen.

The divine hands are kneading and shaping, working their way through all of us with strength and assurance, so that the kingdom will be felt by every person in every place. Even as our institutions are in the midst of evolving into something different, this kneading, this “Great Leavening,” is bringing the living bread of Jesus Christ to the world.

There will be enough to go around, friends. A scant handful of yeast in a bushel of wheat will make enough bread to feed hundreds of people. And we know, don’t we, what our Lord can do with only a few loaves of bread. God is never stingy when it comes to feeding us what we need.

Our hope is realized when we gather at the table, as believers have for centuries, to share our common meal and tell our common story.

So, come as you are, beloved of God. Come broken, come humbled. Come with more questions than answers. Come and be fed with the living bread, and feel the Spirit at work in you. Come and rejoice, because in the Lord, there will always be enough.

Thanks be to God the Creator, God made flesh and risen, God who dwells with us, now and forevermore. Amen.