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Can the Center Hold?

by Don Meeks

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming – W.B Yeats)

These immortal lines, penned nearly a century ago in the tragic aftermath of the first world war, seem eerily prescient of our current moment in American culture. Things are falling apart in front of our very eyes. Or so it seems.

Racial injustice. Income inequality. Theological division. Political acrimony. The list could go on.

Can the center hold? Can we bend just a little further without breaking? Can we find our way through this wilderness? Can we bridge what divides us?

Or even more modestly, can we even talk about all this?

ncp-open-spaceA few of us in National Capital Presbytery have begun a project that is far easier said than done. Aware of the many divides that impact our churches, we have asked ourselves one simple question: Can we talk? That is to say, can we reach across one of the aisles that divides us – the theological aisle – and actually have a meaningful conversation as evangelicals and progressives?

Can we honor each other, in the name of Jesus Christ, as sisters and brothers? Can we listen deeply and attentively to one another? Can we affirm the best in each other’s theological tradition while honestly confessing the weaknesses of our own?

The catalyst for this conversation came from an event hosted by one of our sister churches in the presbytery during the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. The event featured a panel discussion on Christian civility between Richard Mouw, then president of Fuller Seminary, and Ross Douthat, columnist for the New York Times.

Mouw noted in passing the common practice in political conversation for one camp to put their very best up against the worst of their opponent. Naturally. This is how the game works. In short, demonize your opponent and you never need engage in substantive debate on the issues.

Driving away from that event, I wondered aloud to myself, “What would happen if we turned this thing on its head? What if I chose to openly acknowledge the worst of the evangelical tradition and practice, and chose to affirm the best of what I see in the progressive tradition? And…can I find a progressive to join me and do the same?”

I call this a “thought exercise,” for it requires a fair amount of thinking. Some hard thinking. Some counter-intuitive and counter-cultural thinking. (Trust me – it gets easier).

In time, I posed the thought exercise to one of my presbytery colleagues, Jeff Krehbiel, and thus began what we now call a modest attempt at an uncommonly gracious conversation among colleagues who differ on matters of conscience.

Jeff and I have co-moderated an on-going Open Space dialogue prior to presbytery meetings for the past two years. We modeled this conversation at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta last February. And most recently, we led a panel-discussion and officiated communion in presbytery plenary meeting.

Can the center hold? Can we find others to join us in this modest and gracious conversation?

Jeff and I have been asked to curate this month’s NEXT Church blog in hopes that we might widen the conversation and bend it toward reconciliation and bridge-building across the theological and other divides. We invite you to join us as conversation partners and ambassadors of reconciliation in Jesus’ name.


don-meeks-headshot-2Don Meeks is the senior pastor of Greenwich Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia. He is active in the Fellowship Community within National Capital Presbytery.  His vision for ministry is to invite people to experience and express Christ-likeness in all of life. He is an avid golfer, psalmic intercessor and songwriter.

The Spirit Comes to Washington… A Reflection on the DC/Richmond Regional Gathering

by Stephen Smith-Cobbs

We began out on the side porches of The Church of the Pilgrims with coffee, bagels, and a gentle but persistent breeze that was a portent of things to come in more ways than one. While we all were more than aware of the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Sandy and her high winds and heavy rains, I am not sure we were as aware of the coming of the Spirit. But the NEXT church leadership conference, “Dynamic Church in a Time of Change,” was one occasion when the Spirit came.

With song and a choral reading of the Pentecost story from Acts, pastors Jeff Krehbiel and Ashley Goff of the Pilgrims church welcomed the participants and shared the story of the worship life of their congregation. Just as the story of Pentecost came to us from all directions in the choral reading, the worship life of Pilgrims seeks to involve worshippers in multiple ways. Worship at Pilgrims strives to be EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-driven, and connectional). The Pilgrims congregation believes that God is calling them to be a community of transformation that engages newcomers, especially young adults, in the practices of Christian community. At this NEXT church event, the whole day was itself a reflection of this kind of worship experience … as the Spirit came.

Jud Hendrix, Coordinator of the Ecclesia Project, a ministry of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, used images and poetry as he shared reflections on leadership. As we did throughout the day, participants broke into triads for sharing impressions and thoughts about what was presented. Judd used several poems that became the basis for examples of and lessons in leadership. He spoke of prototyping, which he defined as a short-term experiment for the purpose of learning – as opposed to the way some use the term “prototype” to speak of a kind of model for solving a problem. Jud closed the morning with the “Broken Toaster” game, in which we might take apart a toaster, and then, instead of trying to put it back together exactly as it was, we instead ask what the Spirit wants to do with all the component parts. What can the Spirit do or create with these parts? And the Spirit came …

During lunch we used an “Open Space” approach to breaking into small groups. Individuals who wished to lead a discussion were invited to share the topic they wished to discuss (like “Biblical Story Telling,” “How to Make Friends in Church” and “Creating Relationships and Community in Worship”). These leaders stationed themselves at various tables in the fellowship hall and participants brought their lunch to a tables according to their interest. Of course, some only wanted to share fellowship and conversation over lunch and several did just that.

We returned from lunch to hear Jud share the remarkable story of the Ecclesia Project and how God used some unlikely folks to help begin new communities of faith in Mid-Kentucky Presbytery. One important leadership distinction Jud mentioned was how, rather than funding one large project with one large set of funds, the Ecclesia Project used one large set of funds to make multiple small grants for wildly different initiatives, trusting the same Spirit of Christ that spoke in many different languages at Pentecost to work in many different ways in their presbytery. And the Spirit came …

The final theme for the day was mission. Andrew Foster-Connors and Jessica Tate shared their experiences of how community organizing had made a difference in the ministries of their congregations, as well as their own personal ministries. The very definition of the word “mission” was transformed for them through broad-based organizing in their congregations. Where mission had previously been defined as “helping the less fortunate,” mission now meant “sending.”

In their experience, broad-based organizing provided a framework for living into God’s mission as it shifted the church from a maintenance culture to a relational culture. They spoke of the changes organizing had brought as their churches shifted from groups to actions, to having a higher accountability to outcomes and results, and from doing one thing from eight different directions instead of doing eight different things superficially. They closed with a challenging question: What would need to happen in your church to begin to shift you from a culture of maintenance to a relational culture of action? I’m guessing one thing for sure would need to happen: the Spirit would need to come…

We concluded the day gathering around the table. Literally. Everyone got up and out of the pews and gathered (as Jeff Krehbiel put it, “by gather we mean crowd”) all around the Lord’s Table in the center of the sanctuary. There several elders from Pilgrims church, along with their pastors, led us in the communion liturgy of word and song and then shared the elements among us all. After sharing the communion, we all gathered in a large circle and held hands as we sang the John Bell hymn:

“Take, O take me as I am;
Summon out what I can be;
Set your strength upon my heart and live through me.”

Speaking for myself, it was a great and grand day to share with disciples of Jesus. I left refreshed, renewed, and fed – both body and soul. I left hopeful for the NEXT church. For, indeed, the Spirit had come. And I am confident that the Spirit, just as Jesus promised, will come again.


smith cobbsStephen Smith-Cobbs is one of the pastors of Trinity Presbyterian in Herndon, VA. He is a native Texan and graduate of Austin College in Sherman, Texas and Princeton Theological Seminary. Before coming to Trinity in 1997, he pastored two congregations in Texas. His current ministry passions include “what unites us as followers of Jesus Christ and what it means for us to be the church in the 21st century.”