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Re-post: The Challenge and Opportunity of Timely Adaptations

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on September 19, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Christopher Edmonston

I sat on the third pew and listened as Scott, the inspiring pastor of Saint Matthew’s, a Church of Scotland congregation, told us story after story of what ministry is like there.

St. Matthew's

Take a look at this picture. The place, the sanctuary, the space is huge.

St. Matthew's Front View

And far too often it is empty. Pews and balconies once brimming with gospel proclamation and ministry remain silent too much of the time. They are silent in spite of the fact that the pastor is an inspiring, dynamic, and amazing disciple of Jesus Christ. He is a faithful risk taker. I found myself marveling at his energy and integrity. I found myself listening to the invigorating work that he is doing. I found myself thinking: that is the kind of ministry I want to be doing! He is the kind of pastor I want to be!

For years I have said, in meetings public and private, that the future of the church depended largely on leadership. Here before me was the kind of dynamic and wonderful leader that I have long admired.

Even more challenging was this realization: every pastor we met from the Church of Scotland was theologically engaging, intellectually astute, and pastorally alive. They were each of them willing to be creative for the gospel. Compared to the churches I have served, some of the Church of Scotland congregations were years ahead of us in innovating new ways of being church.

And yet too often the church in Scotland struggles to find an audience for the beautiful message of the gospel in its cities and neighborhoods. Scott talked about feeling lost sometimes. He gave witness to the ecclesiastical depression that comes with empty pews, programs, and worship.

What happened to the church in Scotland?

Not being from there, the best I can offer is an educated guess. But here it goes:

The towns were changing, the culture was changing, attitudes about the relationship between church and spirituality were changing and the church was not adapting alongside the larger shifts. On Sundays people were going to soccer (across the pond – football) games, rugby matches, yoga classes – finding in these events and activities ritualized practices, community interactions, and authentic meaning. They were doing all these things and more, and going to church less and less or not going to church at all.

The statistics are sobering. Presented by Doug Gay from the University of Glasgow, we learned that during the two decades of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the Church of Scotland lost thousands of members. They saw it happening, and yet, they were paralyzed — paralyzed by the pain they felt as their faith communities dwindled. Big churches became empty churches. Downward trends became downward spirals. Budgets collapsed. It was a negative exodus.

Scott arrived at St. Matthew’s six years ago in the middle of that storm. The church has added 62 members since he arrived, which makes St. Matthew’s among the faster growing communities in the Church of Scotland.

This story may seem far off, across an ocean. But it is very close.

At White Memorial, where I serve, our Clerk of Session writes to the congregation annually. This year, our clerk, Laura, wrote about her sadness in sharing our congregation’s booming baptismal records with a church who had only one baptism in 2013. That church, the church of one baptism, is not across an ocean. It is here in North Carolina, in the Bible belt.

It is my experience that whenever things go wrong, people frequently start looking for causes. They start looking for something to blame in order to cut the source of decline from their midst (think: I am going to cut carbs out of my diet; or, we are going to stop wearing robes in worship).

But what if there is no one thing, or even no one, to blame?

I remember a church I once visited in New York. It was a Czechoslovakian Reformed Church, and for generations they worshipped using Slavic languages. As the neighborhood evolved and there were fewer and fewer Slavic speakers, fewer people came to church.   Keep in mind that their core membership still spoke in mother tongues. To change the language whole-heartedly would have been pastorally unacceptable and unkind.

But that pastoral reality did not stop the world from changing around the church. By the time I arrived in 2010, there were a dozen or so members in a church that once held hundreds.

I thought about the church with one baptism and the Czechoslovakian Reformed Church as I sat in St. Matthew’s.

As we look around, there is ample evidence of the church’s end if we deny ourselves a commitment to being adaptable to the changes in our midst. But it doesn’t have to be so. Nowhere in the great commission (Matthew 28) does Jesus suggest that the disciples are never to change or adapt. Indeed, by the Apostle’s reckoning, everything is adaptable in order to spread the gospel’s good news (1 Corinthians 9). In Scotland, I became convinced we are living, even in our strongholds of church (like Raleigh, NC), in an age of adaptation.

My new friend Scott is hopeful and passionate about his ministry. His is a faith in God to do all things – a faith tempered by trial and error and the realization that the status quo will neither save the church nor share the gospel in his context. In his hopefulness he has become an adaptable pastor in an adapting and adaptable church.

Am I?

Are we?


Christopher Edmonston and Amelia - DEP

Christopher Edmonston began ministry at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in September of 2011. His primary responsibilities are preaching, teaching, pastoral care, membership development, staff development, and long term planning. Christopher has moderated Presbytery Committees, serves on the Montreat Retreat Association Board, and serves as the President of the Board of the Presbyterian Outlook. He is a contributor to the forthcoming Feasting on the Gospels and is on the national strategy team for NEXT Church, a renewal movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA). He was recently recognized as a William Friday Fellow (2011-13). Christopher is a graduate of Davidson College, Union Presbyterian Seminary (Master of Divinity), and Columbia Theological Seminary (Doctor of Ministry).

He is married to Colleen Camaione-Edmonston, who is a 7th grade grammar and literature teacher at St. Timothy’s School here in Raleigh. They have three children, Patrick, Gabriel, and Amelia, ranging from sixth grade to first grade, all three of whom attend St. Timothy’s as well.

A Sankofa September to Re-Member

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

Ever notice how you can hear a great idea, but when it’s the time to apply that wisdom you’ve completely forgotten all about it? Or even more, are there some things you’ve said you would not do next time, but yet when the next time comes around again, you repeat it the exact same way as if you don’t know any better?

As the church, we often become disconnected from the God-given gifts and graces – hopes and healing – trials and truths in our past. But there are many testimonies of faithful Christians. In the West African Akan culture of Ghana, Liberia, and Benin, there is a collection of Adinkra symbols that are connected to brilliant words of deep wisdom and spirituality.

One of these symbols is the Sankofa. Sankofa is symbolized in 2 ways: as two curved shapes facing each other, resembling something similar to a heart shape in our Western culture, and as a bird that is flying forward but looking backward as it tends to the future generations depicted as an egg.

The symbol of Sankofa is a sign to the divine truth that it is not wrong – it is not an anathema – it is not out of order – to go back and get which we have forgotten. In our Christian faith tradition, a key element of our faith is the ability to re-member our sacred story – to put together again – to experience anamnesis – a reconnection to the personal and communal memory of God’s faithfulness. It is in going back and tending to that which we have left unattended that we discover the grace of God in confession, vulnerability, repair breaches, and healing.

As many of our churches and community organizations are gearing up for what is coming next for the seasons and year ahead, we would like to re-connect (re-member) you to some communal wisdom from a diverse collection of voices from the NEXT Church community. As siblings and co-laborers for Christ, we hopeful are that you will find nourishment for your spirit and your leadership.

And – God-willing – we might pick up something we might have missed or left behind as we fly forward.

Interested in learning more about the connection of Adinkra symbols and Christianity? I commend this article and video on Weaving Adinkra Into the Christian Fabric by Griselda Lartey, Serials and Interlibrary Loan Assistant at John Bulow Campbell Library of Columbia Theological Seminary.


Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis is a member of the NEXT Church strategy team and serving as the interim NEXT Church communications specialist. 

Back to the Future: A Sankofa Moment

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Paul Timothy Roberts

17 If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” 18 do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, 19 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the Lord your God brought you out (Deuteronomy 7:17-19).

13 So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14 After I looked these things over, I stood up and said to the nobles and the officials and the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes (Nehemiah 4:13-14).”

And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran” (Acts 7:2)…

These are just a few snapshots in the life of Israel, moments when they are commanded to go forward into new and sometimes dangerous places and circumstances. Each time, the people of God are challenged to first look back, to remember, to be confident not in themselves but in the God who is constantly sending and rescuing and delivering and saving and calling and loving.

sankofaIn the African-American community, we have embraced the concept of SANKOFA, from a West African proverb. SANKOFA teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. SANKOFA is visually represented by a bird that is in forward flight while looking back, with the egg of the future in its mouth.

At Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, our tag line is “called to create what’s next.” But to create what’s NEXT, I believe we do well to first look back, gather all the best in preparation for exploring what’s next. Should theological education today resemble that represented in scripture? Many would question whether that is even reasonable, but, if it should, then it seems that that education must be less about the accumulation of knowledge and more about the formation of a way of life, of being. Pastoral education should not take place in an isolated academic environment, but in the midst of the world for which the disciple is being prepared. It should, at least in part, take place at a point within which there is a seamless integration of spiritual, intellectual and practical concerns; there should be strong mentoring/partnering relationships with individuals who have not just experience, but are themselves active learners, willing to push against and test the status quo, who themselves embody faith rather than just imbibe knowledge about faith. These mentors should be men and women who can exegete the culture as effectively as they can exegete Scripture and are able to guide the disciple in how to weave both exegeses together.  So, pedagogy should move outside the walls of academe and into the world of the missioning God where people live and work and worship. The interaction between academy, church and community should be always in flux.

Looking back for one more moment, Gregory of Nazianzus (who fled the pastorate four times and was finally forcibly ordained by his congregation) noted that pastoral formation is a life-long endeavor: “Not even extreme old age would be too long a limit to assign.”). Becoming a pastor is the work of a lifetime. Theological education needs to give pastors a better start on becoming a pastor.


Roberts

Paul Timothy Roberts is president-dean of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. You can watch his keynote to the 2013 NEXT Gathering here.