Finding Inspiration

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Dwight Christenbury

I long ago got bored with the idea of trying to get anything practical out of attending a conference. Life’s too short, and anyhow it becomes a can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees sort of thing. You spend all your time stalking the perfect tree so you can chop it down and drag it home and make good practical use of it, but in the course of the chopping and dragging what you mainly end up doing is making a lot of unnatural noise, trampling the undergrowth, scaring away the animals, and choking the fish with soil runoff.

So these days I go to conferences looking mainly for inspiration, which is a lot more fun and has turned out to be thoroughly worthwhile. In the case of NEXT Church National Gatherings, I’ve found inspiration not only in the usual places — worship services and plenaries and workshops — but in the conversations and in the solitary wanderings through a strange city and even in that most-Presbyterian of places: the hotel bar. In all of these regards, the recent National Gathering in Kansas City lived up to the standard set by its predecessors.

So where did I find inspiration? In the verbal and visual interpretation of John 4 by women from National Capital Presbytery, who brought the Samaritan woman to life in both bold and subtle new ways, and in Alonzo Johnson’s fierce truth telling and his reminder that we’re called not to hold Living Water in our canteens but to be that water, seeping relentlessly into dry and parched places.

In Nancy Arbuthnot and Gerry Hendershot’s “Verse and Vision” workshop, which, along with the nice people seated at my table, managed to turn a godawful grey meeting room in the bowels of the Marriott into my childhood back yard on a summer evening, just at the tail-end of dusk, as we reflected on Jesus’s words in Luke 8:17.

In a strange, wordy (but in a good way) late-afternoon worship service in which we were all jolted out of our drowsiness by the Neema Community Church Choir and a dawning, in-your-face realization that we’re full of shit if we go around thinking that us has nothing in common with them.

In Soong-Chan Rah’s tasty culinary creation — the Great American Gumbo (or was it jambalaya?) — and in Rodger Nishioka’s infuriating ability to put creative words and pictures to ideas that I might have had once but then forgotten (and all the while making us church people realize how thoroughly wasted are our Sunday school hours).

In the lovely sanctuary of Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral (in whose rafters the strains of “I Love to Tell the Story” had probably never previously echoed), where Jenny McDevitt brilliantly used Joy Harjo’s poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here” as an Invitation to the Table, and where, if Te Deum had kept singing, I would still be sitting.

And of course in the restaurants (man, those Kansas City-ans do love their beef) and bars (a really good Old Fashioned at the Cleaver & Cork, which was made even more tasty by the fact that Fourth Presbyterian Church picked up the tab) and hotel lobbies and hallways where the inspiration was in conversation with old friends and new friends. And by conversation I don’t mean small talk but real, challenging, insightful, deep talk — the kind of talk that makes you realize what you’ve been missing (even if you’re an introvert who actually has met a stranger).

So no, I have no intention of going back to the days when I attended conferences seeking practical tips, tools, and strategies that I could drag home and put to work (even if, as it turns out, I end up with a handful of them anyway). Inspiration is much more, well, inspiring — and I’m grateful to those who work hard and long to put NEXT Church National Gatherings together, because their efforts have consistently paid off.

But lest anyone think that I’m either insufficiently critical or on the NEXT Church payroll, let me be fair and balanced in my reflections on the 2017 National Gathering: my hotel room had a really lousy view.

Dwight Christenbury graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2005 with dual M.Div./MACE degrees. He now serves as Associate Pastor of the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville, North Carolina, where he’s been for a really long time. He lives in nearby Black Mountain with his wife, Carol Steele, and their children, Olin and Dean, and he may or may not be working on a book.

2017 National Gathering Keynote: Rodger Nishioka

Rodger Nishioka, Director of Adult Educational Ministries at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS, gives the final keynote of the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering.

Rodger Nishioka is the director of Adult Educational Ministries at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS. Born in Honolulu and raised in Seattle at the Japanese Presbyterian Church, Rodger is the son of a retired Presbyterian minister. He is one of the most sought-after and inspiring preachers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Rodger taught at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta for 15 years. In that ministry, he taught pastors to be teachers and leaders in the church’s educational ministry, specializing in particular on youth and young adult ministry.  

Prior to teaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, Rodger was the national coordinator for Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (1986-1999) and taught English and Social Sciences at Curtis Junior High School (1983-1986). Rodger received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Social and Cultural Foundations of Education from Georgia State University. He earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies (with an emphasis in biblical studies and theology) from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and a  Bachelor of Arts in English with Minor in History and a Teaching Certificate for Secondary Education (grades 6-12).

Children’s Church is the Church

By Rodger Nishioka

one-eared-mickeyIn their book, The Godbearing Life, which has now become a youth ministry standard, Kenda Creasy Dean who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary and Ron Foster, pastor of a United Methodist congregation, identify one of the most problematic models traditional youth ministry as the “one-eared Mickey Mouse.”  In their description, the congregation and its ministry form the head of Mickey Mouse while youth ministry forms one ear that, like the Mickey Mouse image, is barely attached to the head.  The problem, they say, is that young people grow up with an understanding that youth ministry is only tangentially connected to the life of the whole church if it is connected at all.  They view youth ministry as something that is separate.  This view ends up reinforcing the natural egocentrism of adolescence and while that may suffice for a while, when young people grow up, they find themselves bereft of any understanding of church and the whole church’s ministry and their part in it.  That is when they drift away.  Tragically, we set them up for this by locating their ministry as something apart from the rest of the church.  This analogy is potent as we consider the place of children in the church.

In too many congregations, our children are “dismissed” to go to “children’s church” or something like it either a few minutes into the congregation’s worship or in place of being present in the congregation’s worship at all.  As far as I can tell, this is a 20th century phenomenon.  In reviewing session minutes from Presbyterian congregations in the archives here at Columbia Theological Seminary, this action of sending children out of worship began in the 1950s at the height of the post-war baby boom.  Prior to this, no such thing existed.  Children were in the whole of worship with their families.  But in the years following the second world war with the tremendous influx of newborns, congregations began looking for immediate and cost effective ways to gain more space in the sanctuary to accommodate all these young families and their children and some inventive pastor or church educator thought about sending the children out to make more space for adults and thus, the phenomenon of “dismissing” children from worship was born.  If a generation runs approximately 20 years, then we are into our third generation of this experience and it has become normative for us all.  Indeed, when I have preached in congregations where there is now plenty of room for all ages to worship together, church after church still sends children out of worship because “that’s what we have always done.”  The truth is, that is NOT what we have always done and even more, we are now reaping what we have sown.

We have sown three generations of children leaving or never worshipping with us, and it is no wonder that so many find worship boring and incomprehensible when they come of age and are expected to join us.  Further, when I suggest that children remain with us during the whole of worship, some of the loudest objections come from some young parents who want worship to be a time for them when they do not have to worry about their child’s behavior.  My own sense is that this reflects the current belief among developmental theorists that adolescence is extending well into young adulthood and what else is a true sign of adolescence but the primary focus on one’s own needs over others.  And after all, these parents of young children experienced the pattern of a separate “adult worship” and “children’s worship” when they were young so is not that what church is supposed to be like?

Here is the greatest problem I find in separating our children from us in the worship of God.  In Matthew’s gospel, he relays the story also found in Mark and Luke about Jesus encountering little children.  Parents are bringing their children to Jesus because they want their daughters and sons to meet him, but the disciples turn them away.  Jesus tells the disciples to , “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”  (Matt. 19:14).  Readers of Matthew know that the gospel writer often uses the words “kingdom of heaven”  euphemistically for “God.”  Given the quote from Jesus, he seems to be telling us all that God belongs to children.  This is unique, truly.  I can find no other place in the gospels where God is said to belong to anyone.  It seems that there is something about children that they alone are named as the ones who possess God.  For me, then, the question of children and the church is first and foremost a theological one.  If we are called as the body of Christ to worship God and to glorify God and to enjoy God (as the Westminster divines tell us in the catechism), then does it not make sense that those to whom God is said to belong, our children, should at least be present among us?   In fact, should not our children be leading us in this endeavor for which we were created?

There is no “children’s church” separate from the “church.”  Children’s church IS the church.  Amen.

Rodger Nishioka is the Benton Family Chair in Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.