We are excited to announce a new experiment in the way we connect folks at the National Gathering and at home: Regional Echoes! In previous years, we’ve built in a lunch or dinner by regional context into the National Gathering so that folks would have a chance to connect with people they are more likely to run into a semi-regular basis. This year, we hope that by gathering folks after they’ve returned home, we will allow the conversation to continue, provide opportunities to further develop relationships and local connections, offer an accountability check for commitments folks may have made at the Gathering, and create space for folks who were unable to travel to Chicago but participated by live-streaming to connect to the larger Gathering.
Here are the cities (sorted by alphabetically by state) where Echo conversations will be held in the next few weeks and the names of leaders convening the conversations. To contact these folks for more information, click on their names below:
Birmingham, AL: Leanne Pearce Reed
Claremont, CA: Karen Sapio
Sacramento, CA: Jim Kitchens
Denver, CO: Linda Orosz
New Haven, CT: Adele Crawford
Winter Park, FL: Jason Micheli
Atlanta, GA: Betsy Lyles
Cedar Rapids, IA: A.J. Plummer and Chuck Peters
Chicago, IL: Jan Edmiston
Indianapolis, IN: Carol McDonald
Ann Arbor, MI: Kelly Shriver and Fairfax Fair
Grand Rapids, MI: Karen Fitz La Barge
St. Louis, MO: Rob Dyer
Charlotte, NC: Suzanne Davis
Greensboro, NC: Mark Brainerd
Nebraska City, NE: Greg and Heidi Bolt
Buffalo, NY: Howard Boswell
New York City, NY: Charlene Han Powell
Cleveland, OH: Eric Dillenbeck
Columbus, OH: Karen Chakoian
Dayton, OH: Margaret Gillespie and Shelley Wiley
Portland, OR: Beth Neel
Philadelphia, PA: David Stipp-Bethune
Mechanicsburg, PA: Kathryn Johnston
Greenville, SC: Al Masters and Andy Casto-Waters
Memphis, TN: Lucy Waechter Webb
Dallas, TX: Nicole Bates
Austin, TX: Kyle Walker
Seattle, WA: Leland Seese and Bert Johnson
Madison, WI: Scott Anderson
Milwaukee, WI: Robert Ater
Is your city missing from this list? Contact us if you would like to coordinate an Echo in your area!
Watch this space in the next couple of weeks for an article from the co-chairs of our national gathering, Chad Herring and Reggie Weaver. They’ll share thoughts and plans for our time in Minnesota, March 31-April 2, 2014. (Get it on your calendar now!)
In the meantime, the season for regional gatherings is heating up. There are a number of events planned for the next several months; at press time, here is what we have from the coordinators. As you can see, events are still taking shape, but mark your calendars and share the word with colleagues in these regions:
Southern California is planning a regional NEXT gathering for the last weekend in September. Plans are still coming together, so if you are in the region and have some ideas, please contact Karen Sapio at email@example.com
North Carolina: Andrew Taylor-Troutman writes: “Our gathering is at First Presbyterian in Mount Airy on October 5th. Rev. Betty Meadows, Transitional Presbyter for Charlotte Presbytery will be our keynote speaker, encouraging us to explore the processes of positive transitions in both churches and presbytery levels. I think she is terrific, as well as important for NEXT to work directly with presbyteries. We are structuring the whole day along the lines of our order of worship. Steve Lindsley is leading music. In addition, there will be discussion groups, both formal and informal, designed around the main topic and presentation of the keynote, rather than a series of workshops. A very, very good lunch too! The cost is looking like $30 and we are going to have online registration, hopefully by the end of the month. Right now, we have a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/483220195081473/ ” Coordinating team includes Andrew and Ginny Taylor-Troutman, Eleanor Norman, Cathy Mooney, and Steve Lindsley.
Texas and Oklahoma: What’s next for Presbyterians in the Southwest? How about church revitalization, hospitality houses for young adults, innovative worship and creative models for campus ministry? Join Presbyterian leaders from Texas and Oklahoma October 18-19 in Austin as we collaborate to consider what God has in store for our tomorrows. Contact Joe Clifford: JoeC@firstpresdallas.org.
Nashville: Nov 2. Contact Chris Adams for details <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Northeast: Monday, Nov 11th at Stony Point Center. Want to get involved? Share ideas? We’re starting a Facebook group. Contact: Rev. Frances Wattman Rosenau of Westminster in Albany, NY: email@example.com
Washington DC/Baltimore: February 22, 2014, Saint Mark Presbyterian Church, Rockville, MD. Tentative theme is “The Way: Creating a Learning Community” and will feature three basic pieces:
– modeling how to be a learning community throughout the day
– providing examples of how to transform congregations into learning communities
– creating community for learning across congregations in our region
For more information: Jessica Tate, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Would you like to plan an event in your area? We can help you make that happen! Leave a comment here or contact our director, Jessica Tate, at email@example.com.
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
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.
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 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?
MaryAnn 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.
By Lori Raible
Let me go ahead and get this out there: I’m one of those people who texts at red lights. You honk at me when the light turns green. Save your breath, I know the danger. I’m working on it. In the meantime, I still congratulate myself for not texting while the wheels are spinning. You see, I am in recovery from an overbooked, maxed-out, unintentional, energy-sucking schedule.
Last year, while I was still too busy to realize how isolated I had become, a friend invited me to help organize a NEXT Church conference for our region. Good thing for him, I unintentionally said YES and joined a few other (seemingly more balanced) folks. Good thing for me, God tends to make something transformative and holy out of the jumbled mess we offer up.
How is it, as church leaders we serve as catalysts for relationships and builders of community on behalf of God’s children, yet so often neglect our own need to be connected with one another as God’s gathered people?
Within the span of a few months, our motley planning team came to know and lean on one another in unexpected ways. The small group collectively endured: a cross-country move, two pending babies, a new career, children woes, serious illnesses, and the “usual” gifts and responsibilities of ministry. Yet by the power of the Holy Spirit, together we created a space to celebrate and worship a God that repeats to us over and over again:
Fear not, I AM with you.
God really would have been the best at Twitter. Even if I had received that text directly from God, I’d have missed the point.
Honestly, as concerned as I am about the future of the PC(USA), I get tired of hearing the complaints. Numbers and money and ‘NONEs,’ property and politics and policies . . . it’s all critical and messy work. I am as committed to that transformative process as you are. Re-creation is always messy.
But, if we forget God’s promise, if we forget to hold fast to the rich story,
of whom we have always been, and whom we are called to be,
if we expect God to show up on our handhelds between appointments and deadlines,
then we will surely miss what God has in store for us NEXT.
NEXT Church has reminded me that its best to put the phone down and drive, with humble intentions, to the place where I can look my Christian brothers and sisters in the eyes, the place where we can share and celebrate the joy and passion of being called together as Christ’s Church. NEXT Church is the place we say to one another, “Fear not, I AM with you.”
Lori Raible has served Selwyn Avenue as an associate pastor since 2009, but has been on the staff since 2007. Having graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2005, Lori enjoys staying connected to the seminary community as she is able. Lori graduated from Wake Forest University where she ran track and cross-country before embarking on a sales career. She met her husband Rob along the way, and they have two children who love to run the halls of Selwyn, Joe (7) and Maeve (6). Lori is active in the NEXT Church Community, has served as a conference leader at Montreat Conference Center, and was selected as fellow for the interfaith clergy program at the Chatauqua Institute in 2010. Lori enjoys writing, running, photography, and sneaking away to Charleston with her husband when they can.
Brief Reflections on an Awesome Western and Central New York Next Regional Conference
by John Wilkinson
The second annual Western and Central New York Next Regional Conference was held Monday, November 5 at Third Church in Rochester NY. A special word of thanks to the Third Church volunteers and staff, and particularly Becky D’Angelo-Veitch, for their hospitality. Nearly 100 were in attendance, and we shared a rich and full day of networking, visioning and connecting.
Six presbyteries were represented, primarily from Western New York, Cayuga-Syracuse, Geneva and Genesee Valley. Ministers, elders, educators, musicians and members were all present – many ages and church sizes as well.
Worship grounded us in God’s vision in Romans 12 and reminded us, though prayer and music, that God has a future in store for us.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana provided a terrifically creative and supportive keynote presentation, “Leadership at the Speed of Change.” There were many, many takeaways from her presentation, particularly around the notion of the art and practice of improvisation. Her thesis statement both challenged and comforted us: “The church will continue to flourish to the extent that it can learn to improvise in a constantly changing culture.” Using a nifty Prezi presentation, MaryAnn drew on the notion of improvisation outlined in part by Patricia Ryan Madsen’s book Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. Both the concepts of Madsen’s book and MaryAnn’s appropriation of them will bear much fruit as the Next Church conversations continue to unfold.
National Next director Jessica Tate was present and shared the overall vision and directions of Next Church – it was a great opportunity to connect the national conversation with the particular and contextual needs of our region.
Workshops covered a broad base of ideas and needs — some hands on, some more conceptual. We discussed community organizing, mission, our connectional church (as the Synod of the Northeast and various New York presbyteries evolve), and various forms of practices of ministry.
Open source/open space time in the afternoon allowed for lively, group-generated discussion. Topics included worship, improvisation, Board of Pensions changes, local mission, Next Church, and new faith communities.
Participants reflected later on the gathering:
“…the conversations in NEXT are another manifestation of the way we’re learning to live out the Great Commission anew; they have synergy with other more structured processes for thinking about evangelism and growth (e.g., New Beginnings, etc.) that many of us are involved with, but allow us to think about them with fresh eyes. NEXT brings in the innovative voices of folks in the field, especially those of younger adults, in a way that our polity isn’t designed to do.”
“…NETX is building a network if not a community where Presbyterians can go to imagine, enhance, expand ministry. The old places to do this are either gone or largely ineffective or too narrowly restricted…”
Presbyterians in Western and Central New York look forward to building on our connections in the region, exploring the particular needs of our local contexts. At the same time, we look forward to connecting with the national Next conversation for resources. Throughout it all, the vision of improvisation seems compelling and timely.
John Wilkinson is the Pastor of Third Presbyterian Church of Rochester. John has been active in the PC(USA) in many ways: a member of the PUP Taskforce, on the Executive Committee of the Covenant Network, and on the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. John believes that the church is the best place for people to gather to ask the deepest, most profound questions of faith and life. He is committed to urban ministry, the great hymns of the church and Presbyterian theology, as well as baseball, Bruce Springsteen and late night TV!
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.
Stephen 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.”
Harvesting Insights to Help Each Other Thrive
October 27, 2012 ~ 10am-4pm
at Church of the Pilgrims (2201 P St. NW, Washington, DC 20037)
Who should come? Presbyterian church leaders from the DC, Baltimore and Richmond areas. This isn’t just for clergy and it’s not restricted to elders. All those who are congregational leaders are a vital part of this conversation. (Of course you can come if you’re from somewhere other than the Baltimore-Richmond area!)
What is the focus of the gathering? There are three primary foci: Worship, Leadership, and Mission.
Who are the leaders? Jeff Krehbiel and Ashley Goff (Church of the Pilgrims) will lead the worship focus. Jud Hendrix (Ecclesia Project) will lead the leadership focus. Andrew Foster Conners (Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian) and Jessica Tate (NEXT Church) will lead the mission focus.
What will we do? Experience, Content, Harvesting. We experience something together; we explore the experience with content that reflects on and deepens the experience; we provide time to harvest insights in conversation, dialogue, feedback, and small groups.
What will I get out of it? As much as you want!
• You’ll come away with some new ideas for ministry (ones that have been proven to work other places) and also time to reflect with colleagues on why they are working, the theological grounding for the ideas, and how they might be tailored for ministry in your own community.
• You will meet other leaders from your region who are interested in continuing to develop as leaders and become ongoing conversation partners.
• Ideas for exciting joint ministry and mission opportunities might present themselves…
What is the cost? $20. That’s it. And that includes lunch.
To register, visit:
On August 18th, teaching and rulers elders from Roanoke, Virginia to Atlanta, Georgia and communities across the Mid-Atlantic met for the NEXT Church Regional Gathering at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham, North Carolina. Upon reflection, I imagined this day stretching out like a tall tree reaches up to the sky. Here’s what I mean:
We began in the courtyard, tilling the fertile soil of connectionalism. Participants were quickly registered and, while enjoying food compliments of University Presbyterian in Chapel Hill, we greeted one another in peace. As I understand it, NEXT Church is all about nurturing these healthy relationships to grow.
Then we came into the peace of the sanctuary. Worship included visual interpretations of scripture passages by a leadership team organized by Lori Raible, Associate for Congregational Life and Adult Christian Education at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. NEXT Church is also about planting seeds by introducing new liturgical practices, which engage the senses in thoughtful and faithful ways.
Those who have attended NEXT national gatherings have come to expect dynamic keynote presentations. They were not disappointed in Durham. Weaving humorous and poignant personal stories with theological claims about Christ’s boundary-breaking power, Franklin Golden outlined the ministry of Durham Church, a cross-generational, multicultural partnership with another congregation, Iglesia Emanuel. Co-pastor Amanda Diekman led a panel discussion with members of these two churches. Navigating cultural differences is by no means easy, and I heard several participants appreciate the honesty with which these pastors and panel members confessed their mistakes. Durham Church also models a different way of “being church,” an idea that correlates to the PC (USA)’s initiative to start 1001 new congregations.
Afternoon workshops were the branches that spread out from our corporate worship and keynote. A host of bright and committed people led participants to explore a variety of topics listed here. In brief, there were many “A-ha!” moments, the fruit of sharing both best practices and struggles about various aspects of ministry. One elder at New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Virginia came away from the workshops with the distinct feeling that “our denomination is heading in the right direction.” Amen, may it be so!
After the final workshop, everyone headed back into the sanctuary. Once again, we made a joyful noise through the music leadership of Steve Lindsley, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy, North Carolina, and a talented team from the Presbyterian Collegiate Fellowship at Virginia Commonwealth University. Esta Jarrett, pastor of Canton Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, preached on the parable of the leaven (Matthew 13:33) and shared her experience of God’s reign moving among her church and community, sometimes hidden yet always inspiring. She also presided over the Lord’s Supper and sent us out with a charge to leaven our communities with the hope of Jesus Christ.
I have tried to provide a tiny snapshot of this gathering with words, images, and pictures; however, I confess that it is difficult to describe the energy that was generated from the experience. Who knows where this will take us? Indeed, what lies ahead for the NEXT Church? I believe the future is still unfolding and we are being led to trust a process that Wendell Berry once described as the willingness to “submit to making, the shape of what is made.”
But I will say this: as I went forward to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation as part of the closing worship, I felt a part of something wonderful, deeply rooted in tradition and relationships; and yet, something that was likewise growing, stretching out and up beyond the four walls of one church and towards the blue sky in the great beyond.