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 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

Beyond ‘Learning Something New’

By Jeff Krehbiel

I long ago stopped attending church-related conferences to learn something new. In my experience, congregational life is too idiosyncratic for an expert’s well-intended prescriptions to hit the target. I go, instead, for the relationships. If I can meet one new person with whom I make a deep connection, (that, and at least one good sermon idea), I go home satisfied.

Casual spaces and unscripted moments at NEXT National Gathering

That was especially true at NEXT this year. My colleague Ashley Goff was presenting on our worship experience at Church of the Pilgrims. I expected to be uplifted by hearing her tell our story, but I didn’t expect to hear anything new. A major focus of the plenary and workshops this year was related to community organizing, something I have been involved in since I was in seminary. NEXT Church for me did not provide new information.

Yet I came home from NEXT invigorated. It wasn’t just the relationships, both renewed and forged, though there were many. It was the contagious spirit that NEXT Church imbued. As a pastor, even with a team of wonderfully creative and collaborative colleagues, I sometimes feel as if we labor in isolation, trying to re-invent the wheel on our own, to figure out what it means to faithfully live out the gospel in our ever-changing 21st century landscape by ourselves.

What I found at NEXT was a deep and wide company of conversation partners who are struggling with the same questions, and equally unsatisfied with the old answers. The hardest part of ministry in our current context is that we don’t yet know what is next. All we know is that much of what we inherited in the past no longer works, and the best we have now is a glimpse of the contours of a new future. The community that NEXT has cultivated inspires me to enter that future with hope.

Jeff KrehbielJeff Krehbiel is Pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC, where he has served since 2000. He is the author of Reflecting with Scripture on Community Organizing.

NEXT Harvestings: Thoughts from Two Ruling Elders

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be harvesting insights and inspiration from the 2013 NEXT National Gathering in Charlotte.

Here is a reflection written by a director of children’s ministry for her church newsletter, reprinted with her permission:

As part of our staff continuing education, Tom and I attended the annual NEXT Church Conference in Charlotte earlier this week.  A relatively new movement, NEXT’s goal is to spark imaginations, connect congregations, and offer a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ. The conference theme was “Be Born Again” and they used John 3:4 as a springboard for our time together. In this scripture Nicodemus asks Jesus, “How can anyone be born again after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

The spiritual rebirth that Jesus wanted for Nicodemus and offers to us all, allows you and me to grow into someone new. I can’t say that the question “What’s next for the Presbyterian church?” was fully answered in Charlotte this time. But I can say there is something special about gathering with other believers, giving birth to new ideas, listening to big dreams/plans, and refreshing your spirit. For example, it was a blessing for me to meet up with two of my youth leaders from my high school days.

At the conference’s close, I hopped in the car for my drive home to Durham.  As the miles ticked by, I thought about how important these connections are, and how I can’t imagine doing ministry without help from others.  I reflected that I would love to see our church family strengthen our relationships with each other and with other churches in the area.  I know God has great plans for us; it will be exciting to see what’s next at SAPC!

Hallie Spence is currently Director of Elementary Ministries at Saint Andrews Presbyterian in Raleigh, NC where she is responsible for curriculum and programming for children in Kindergarten-fifth grade.  Hallie was born in Houston, TX to a family with strong Presbyterian roots. She studied music and child development at the University of North Texas in Denton and has worked as a children’s choir director. Hallie is working toward her educator certification in the PC(USA), and hopes to attend seminary one day.

Deuteronomy 31:6: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.

One by one the pastors that preached and taught at the conference shined the light on great awakenings that lead to our NEXT church. The Bride was unveiled and she is everything Christ hoped for. These gifted pastors illustrated the true nature of Christ and how people were glued to his sermons that filled them with spirit, evoking laughter, joy, parables, and love. They were contextual, healing, and liberating. We’re back! Jesus will never leave us nor forsake us. His timing is simply impeccable.

God has always shown me that the Presbyterian Church is the church to watch, even through this digital dividing refining technological revolution. We continue to move in God’s direction, learning to bestow freedom and equality to all and overcoming fear, in Faith in Christ Jesus; setting a bar on LOVE.

My experiences at the NEXT Conference reminded me that I belong to a church that seeks gender equality, multiculturalism (locally and at the General Assembly level), and global digital communications to welcome and supply brothers and sisters from every continent at a moment’s notice. Our church protects God’s Earth and God’s children by using planet saving paperless tools and technology. Throughout our history, we have fought politically, socially, and spiritually for peace, love, and liberty.

This is what the NEXT Conference inspired me to see and feel in just two days. Part of my call to the pastorate led me to observe hundreds of churches through England, Holland, Germany, France, the Islands, Mexico, and the United States, and I witnessed and felt the differences in how love and peace were expressed by the different denominations. I can attest to God’s eyes being on this body of Christ called The Presbyterians in the United States in America. What we do as a body of Christ is important. NEXT Church is important, beckoning us to stay thoughtful, kingdom focused, and keep aspiring to be the “true” likeness of Christ.

I’ll see you at NEXT Church in 2014!

constancejohnsonphotoConstance Johnson has a Master of Arts in Guidance and Counseling from the University of Maryland and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Livingstone College, in Salisbury, NC. She is a member of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Salisbury, NC, and is presently completing Masters of Divinity from the Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte. She is a Ruling Elder of the Presbyterian Church USA, and former Clerk of Session, General Assembly Commissioner, Church Moderator of the Presbyterian Women, and Bible study teacher. She is presently the Youth Counselor of Trinity Presbyterian Church after school program.

National Gathering Blog Roundup

By MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Another national gathering come and gone, and what a gathering it was! We heard from more than one person that this was the one of the best conferences they’d attended. We are humbled to have “touched a nerve” with what we offered in Charlotte and gratified by the effusive response from so many.

Big thanks to everyone who worked on the conference, and a HUGE thanks to everyone who spent time, money and effort to be there and to make it the energizing event that it was.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be harvesting stories, quotes, ideas and reflections from you all. If you attended and have a thought to share—or if you were one of the more than 600 people who watched via live-stream—let us hear from you. Email me at maryannmcdana at gmail.

In the meantime, here is a short roundup of blogs and articles inspired by the conference, in no particular order. Please let us know of others:

Jack Haberer, Presbyterian Outlook — NEXT Church at the Improv

Rocky Supinger — NEXT 2013: Worship and Failure

Presbyterian News Service — What’s NEXT

The Layman — The Development of One on One Relationships and Freedom to Improvise

Steve Lindsley — Reflecting on NEXT in the Pre-Op Room (Thanks again to Steve for helping provide such spirited and well-executed music during worship, along with Corey Nelson and many others. Heal well!)

Andrew Taylor-Troutman — The NEXT Dress

Robert Austell — Robert has three posts on the conference: NEXT Church–A Year Later, NEXT Church and the Waterbug, and NEXT Church and a Bluegrass Band

Michael Isaacs — #NEXTnext

Jan Edmiston — Pete Rollins and NEXT Church 2013

Adam Walker Cleaveland — Presbyterians and Social Media

Plucky Presby — Seeing Souls (not specifically conference related but inspired in part by it)

What have we missed? Let us know in the comments.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, VA and a co-chair of NEXT. She blogs at The Blue Room. She hopes to blog about the conference but is currently too bleary-eyed to pull it off.

Image: from the Presbyterian Outlook Facebook page

Lights, Camera… Church: Lifting Up the Prophetic Voice of Film

By Wayne Meisel

When I was a kid, my parents would not let me go to the movies on Sundays.

Even though I didn’t like it or understand it, when I became a parent I tried to enforce the same policy with my own kids. But when they (and their mother!) questioned it, I didn’t have a good answer for why Sunday movies would be banned and the prohibition was lifted.

It’s not like going to the movies was outlawed in our home. My dad took my mom to Tuesday night movies, partly because that was their only date night, and partly because he was looking for sermon illustrations for Sunday morning. And sermon titles were due on Wednesday.

My father provided a prophetic voice in his preaching — sometimes with the help of a tale of heartbreak or redemption he had seen at the movies. At the heart of this, though, was an ability to challenge people to become aware, to become educated and to engage.

That is what many do from the pulpit and it is what many documentary filmmakers are doing now. Some filmmakers see their work as an expression of their faith. Others do not. Regardless, when viewed and studied, a documentary film can:

  • Enlighten acts of courage
  • Challenge realities of oppression
  • Educate about failing systems
  • Call us to live differently, through what we eat, think and do

READ THE REST at Huffington Post. 

Wayne Meisel was a speaker at the 2012 NEXT Church National Gathering in Dallas. He and Macky Alston will be in Charlotte next week for the 2013 gathering. Alston’s film LOVE FREE OR DIE will be screened on Sunday evening at 8 p.m. at Covenant Presbyterian.

“What Really Matters” — Why I Am Attending NEXT

by Chris Chakoian

At a time when many of us feel pressured to grow numerically, find money for budgets, keep the older generation happy but fill the pews with young people, it’s easy to lose sight of the point of being church. NEXT helps me focus on what really matters. Like the gospel, for instance.

And at a time when we’re discouraged by religious trends, it’s easy to focus on disheartening statistics; Pew Research cites 1/3 of young adults among the “nones.”  NEXT reminds me that it’s possible for the church to be creative, young, connected, entrepreneurial, inspired.

And at a time when our society expects everyone to fall into tribal alliances (Republican/Democrat; progressive/conservative; FOX News/MSNBC), it’s easy for church leaders to mimic the culture. NEXT brings together diverse approaches –denominational leaders/inventive outliers;  older/younger; ruling elders/teaching elders/YAVs/deacons/other.

And at a time when we’re used to church meetings being boring, NEXT isn’t. That’s reason enough for me.

– Chris Chakoian, Pastor, Lake Forest Presbyterian Church, Lake Forest IL

“What It’s Truly About”: Why I Am Attending NEXT

For the past two years I have gone to the NEXT Church conference because I need it.  In fact, I thirst for it.  As a new pastor, I prioritize going to this particular conference not because it trains me in new skills.  Though it does.  And I don’t go because it is a great networking opportunity.  Though it is.  I go because I always leave excited about serving the church.  I go because it affords me sacred moments to remember what my call is truly about.  I go because it is precious water for a thirsty soul.  If this conference is a reflection of what’s next for the church, I’d say we are in pretty good shape.

Charlene Han Powell
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church

Are YOU attending NEXT? Don’t delay; register here.

Questions … and answers!

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 …  

Steve easonSteven Phillip Eason


Dr. Eason has been the Pastor/Head of Staff of the Myers Park Presbyterian Church since August 2002. Prior to serving in this position he served the following churches; Moyock United Methodist, Moyock, North Carolina (‘79-81); First Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia (‘81-88); First Presbyterian Church, Morganton, North Carolina (’88-97); and Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina (’97-01).

Steve is the author of Making Disciples, Making Leaders (Geneva Press) and has also written for other publications. He served as a trustee of Union Presbyterian Seminary from 2003-2011.

After 32 years of ordained ministry, Steve’s major focus in ministry is discipleship. He comments, “If the word disciple means student, then we are called to be students of Christ. If we are students of Christ then where is our classroom and what are we learning from him?” 

1.  Tell us about your ministry context.

I’m in my 11th year as serving as senior pastor of Myers Park Presbyterian Church. We are a 4,500 member congregation that has been here for since 1926. The congregation is diverse and yet very similar. Our congregation has had a deep commitment to local and global outreach. In the last $30 million capital campaign, they committed $11 million to outreach. Not only do they provide funds but it is also relational ministry.

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

I don’t know that I have seen it. I know that’s an odd response but I’m not sure any of us us have seen it. We have made stylistic changes in worship but I’m not sure that’s it. We’ve tried satellite churches, but I don’t know that that’s it. We seem to be in a time of experimentation, as if we’re waiting for something to happen that is outside and beyond all of us. That would be in keeping with the biblical record. Part of what I see is a pruning of the Church. Pruning can be painful and it often looks like death. We may have to wait awhile before we see the sprouts!

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

Nothing keeps really keeps me up at night! I fully trust in the sovereignty of God. I don’t mean to be glib with that response, but anxiety is diminished when you consider who you’re dealing with here. The Church belongs to God. We all belong to God. As hard as we’ve tried to kill the Church, we just can’t seem to do it!

My passion lies with wanting people to “get it.” Jesus Christ changes people’s lives. Following him means you have to move. I get excited about the transitions, the possibilities, the biblical stories that are being written today. They are far and few between. It’s easy to run out of gas before you get to the next one. But this passion keeps me coming to work.

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

I went to the Dallas conference and I really enjoyed the fellowship. I also enjoyed being a part of a group that wasn’t discussing homosexuality. It’s an important topic but it has dominated our time together. I particularly appreciated hearing younger pastors who are trying new things and being honest about what’s working and what’s not. That gives me some hope.

5.  Describe NEXT in seven words or less. 

Something God is going to do.