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We Are the Church, for God’s Sake

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Ken Fuquay

“Talk less about Jesus?”

“SERIOUSLY?”

By three o’clock that Sunday afternoon, I had re-read the text message half a dozen times. Each time, discouragement shrouded me like a well-fitted pall expertly knitted together with strong cords of anger. I knew the words were well-intended, but having them appear on the screen of my phone that particular Sunday shook my faith. After all, just a couple hours earlier, I had delivered what I considered to be one of my finer sermons.

The exegesis of the passage was stellar, and the structure was well-crafted. The delivery, equal parts manuscript and extemporaneous, was empowered by the Holy Spirit. If ever there was a sermon meant for a specific group of people on a specific day and time, I felt that sermon, on that day, was it. Yet, the text message called all of that and more in question. I pulled out my phone and read it again, “Pastor Ken, I enjoy our little community. But if we want to attract more people, we need to be more relevant. And I’m certain, to be more relevant, we should talk less about Jesus.”

Talk less about Jesus?

Are you kidding me?

Talk less about Jesus.

The phrase played on repeat in the core of my being.

Talk less about Jesus?

I was taken aback by the suggestion.

Talk less about Jesus?

The words seared my soul.

Talk less about Jesus?

I wanted to text back in all caps; “BUT WE ARE A CHURCH, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

In my short tenure as an ordained Minister of Word & Sacrament in the PC(USA) and as a bi-vocational planting pastor of a new worshiping community that gathers in one of Charlotte’s most iconic bar and entertainment venues, I have become keenly aware that the church is engaged in a daily skirmish which pits role against relevancy.

The church I pastor knows the battle well.

When the brewery down the street promotes itself as being “mission-driven,” what is the church to do? When the coffee shop around the corner is crowned the neighborhood’s favorite “third space,” what is the church to do? When atheists’ gatherings and AA meetings tout life-transforming engagement, what is the church to do? And when 7 minute TED Talks garner millions of clicks, views, and shares, what is the church to do?

Here is what we did.

We attempted to become a relevant presence in the neighborhood.

Photo from M2M Charlotte Facebook page

Rather than “church,” we’ve opted for the more seeker-friendly less-offensive phrase “new worshiping community.” We selected an eye-popping logo which translates well on mobile devices. We chose a catchy name that tests well in focus groups and represents the entirety of who we feel called to be. We made sure our website contained all the correct buzzwords. We put up an online giving link and will soon have our very own app.

Contextually, we designate two Sundays each month as non-preaching, community-friendly, outreach experiences. First Sunday is “Fellowship Sunday.” (We sit at table, eat brunch, share stories, sing songs, and get to know one another.) Third Sunday is “Park Bench Sunday.” (We invite community voices to share their work and listen for ways God may be calling us to join.) We’ve had open-mic Sunday, comedy improv Sunday, and concert-for-the-community Sunday. We’ve gathered out of doors for worship.

We practice inclusion at every turn. We invite other faiths to share so that we might understand their religion and beliefs. We march in gay pride parades. We partner with other non-profits to increase our efforts exponentially. We serve dinner to the homeless. We canvas the neighborhood on street clean-up patrol. We gather for discipleship training at a local sandwich shop. We give food and water to immigrants passing through out city. We meld coffee time and worship. We eat together every Sunday. We’re pet-friendly. And…we worship in a bar, for God’s sake.

How much more relevant can we get?

Yet, I worry.

I worry that we’ll idolize the bar rather than worshiping the One who calls us to gather there. I worry that we’ll take pride in our renown as “the church that meets in a bar” rather than following the One whose namesake we are. I worry that we’ll boast about our good works more than boasting in the One who gives us breath. I worry that we’ll elevate our inclusion to the point of being exclusive. I worry that we’ll abdicate our role for the sake of being relevant.

Yes, it is necessary to explore every avenue available to determine where God is calling us to be and how God is calling us to live the gospel in context when we get there. So, we discern: Is it church in a bar? Is it church at a skate-park on Saturday morning? Is it church on a Tuesday night with a calypso band? Is it free coffee and doughnuts on the corner? Is it church in a space where gatherers can bring their dogs? Is it cowboy church, Harley church, or late church? All of these, and more, are worth exploring. But in our quest to become a more relevant presence in the world, we must not sacrifice the role of the church.

After all, it is our role that makes us relevant. (That sentence is worth reading again.)

What is the role of the church?

The role of the church is the same as it was when the gestation period ended and the church was pushed from the womb into the streets of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.

“And you shall be my witnesses…”

The Greek word is μάρτυρ, which means “one who testifies.” Ah shucks. There’s that word we Presbyterians dislike and try to rationalize away. But the word is unavoidable. We are people of the book; a book filled with stories. And the stories are begging to be told over and over again! So, somebody, testify!

The role of the church is to speak a Word that cannot be heard anywhere else in culture.

The role of the church is to proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ;

The role of the church is to announce the nearness of God’s kingdom, good news to all who are impoverished, sight to all who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and declare the Lord’s favor upon all creation.

The role of the church is to participate in the mission of God on earth.

Please understand, I am all about being the church in the context in which we are planted. I’m all about casting a vision that unites and makes us relevant. But if, in our attempts to be the church, we abdicate the role of the church for the sake of being relevant, then we are simply engaged in a kitschy fad, one that will surely fade, and we become nothing more than the next non-profit organization down the street engaged in fundraising alongside our attempt to offer some modicum of good works.

Take heart! Shepherding a congregation through the process of discerning the balance between role and relevance is a necessary skirmish — one that leaves us bruised but beautified; sometimes disappointed but always hopeful; challenged every day but continually invigorated.

And finally, I’ve realized that throughout our discerning and being and doing, we can never speak too much about Jesus. Never! It is our role, and it is that role that makes us relevant.

After all, WE ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST, FOR GOD’S SAKE!


Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is planting pastor at M2M Charlotte, a 1001 New Worshiping Community. Ken is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary and is the CEO of LIFESPAN, a non-profit that serves more than 1,300 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities across 23 North Carolina counties. He and his husband, Terry, live in the Charlotte area with their mini-doodle named Abby-dail.

Preaching Justice Without the Gospel is Nothing More than Moralism

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Colin Kerr

Children’s Sunday school classes are notorious for bad biblical interpretation. We’ve all bemoaned the well-intentioned volunteer who teaches Bible lessons with an agenda for simply making well-behaved children. Every Bible story has moral lesson to them, usually something to the effect that God wants us to not hit our siblings, be nice to our peers, and share our toys. Nice lessons, but not exactly anything our non-Christian neighbors aren’t teaching their children either. Suffice it to say, Sunday school classes like this really aren’t teaching the Christian faith so much as they’re teaching Christian moralism.

Yet, many of us are only preaching to the adults a more sophisticated moralism. Sermons that preach justice are the adult version of bad children’s Sunday school classes. The scriptures we interpret have a moral lesson to them, usually something to the effect that God wants us to practice non-violent resistance (aka don’t hit our siblings), be radically inclusive (aka be nice to our peers), and work towards economic equality (aka share our toys). Nice lessons, but not exactly anything left-wing activists aren’t blogging about either. This kind of preaching isn’t teaching the Christian faith. No matter how just the cause we think we think the scripture is telling us we must do, this is still an exhortation to moralism.

Ironically, this is really the other side of the conservative moralistic coin that so many of us have outright rejected. We have rightly discerned that a steady diet of sermons extolling virtuous habits and condemning personal vices has not helped those in the pews. Droning on about sexual purity, modesty, temperance, and obeying authorities induces a culture of shame. Telling people to pray harder, read their bible more, and start sinning less becomes tiring. However, progressive moralism simply substitutes a different set of virtues and vices while telling congregants to check their privilege harder, listen to NPR more, and start consuming less. In the end both sides of the moralistic coin – conservative and progressive – are exhausting. Even as we may congratulate ourselves for speaking “prophetically,” our congregations slowly suffer under the weight of the obligations we have placed upon them.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was meant to destroy the moralism so endemic to our attempts of pursuing the divine. In the Bible, we see this in the running rhetorical battles between Jesus and the religious elites, but it is also a point Saint Paul has to make repeatedly in his letters to his burgeoning churches.

The antidote to moralism then is the gospel. The gospel consequently stands in opposition to moralism, even moralism drawn from the Bible and in service to justice.

The gospel does this by showing how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is substitutionary for us. This is often portrayed narrowly by our evangelical friends as a substitution for punishment or debt, where Jesus atones for the sin of humanity. Yet this misses the wider and more historical nature of substitution, and that is a substitution for our own efforts. We are never virtuous enough, whether those are the morals most prized by conservatives or progressives. We are always complicit in some sort of sin, whether those are vices are deeply personal of part of wider systemic injustices. Christ, however, is the new Adam, succeeding in every place where we could possibly fail. The futility of human moralism is substituted for the grace of God.

The gospel then, by way of the cross, heralds God’s victory over what would otherwise be a hopeless situation. This is a victory over my personal sin and our systemic injustices.

The only way our preaching of justice can move beyond sophisticated moralism is by always proclaiming the gospel alongside it, and articulating the substitutionary work of Christ on behalf of individuals, communities, and structures. Rather than being a counterfeit gospel that awkwardly parrots left-wing politics, our calls to the justice must flow from the countercultural implications of the gospel. Internalizing this foundational facet of the gospel allows me then to work for justice not out of a need to feel personally justified or become the agent of political salvation, but rather because I am gratefully responding to the reality I have already been justified before God and saved for the work of reconciliation.

Preaching the gospel at all times becomes both the cure for progressive moralism and the booster shot for our congregations in understanding unique nature of justice in Christian theology.

Once we do this, then can turn to the more difficult task of fixing children’s Sunday School classes.


Colin Kerr is the founding pastor of Parkside Church, a Presbyterian new church development. He previously spent eight years assisting historic congregations with church renewal strategies and planting a new multi-campus college ministry, which grew to become one of the largest Presbyterian college ministries in the nation. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina with his wife and daughter. His new book, Faith Hope Love: The Essentials of Christianity for the Curious, Confused and Skeptical, will be released this fall.

On the Holy Way

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

In the closing worship service of the 2018 National Gathering in Baltimore, Rev. Kathryn Johnston invites us to consider the holy way through her engaging sermon. Consider using this resource for any group looking to consider doing things a new way (a committee, a leadership body, a small group, a class, or a youth group) or anyone looking to be filled and inspired by this prophetic preaching.

Have you ever been side-swiped on the holy way?

Have you ever almost missed someone on the holy way because you were on the holier-than-thou way?

How have our churches missed people on the holy way because they are on the holier-than-thou way?

Kathryn says, “Any time a line is drawn, Jesus is on the other side. Friends, we can’t stay where we are. God calls us to the holy way. It’s a risk. We prefer our comfort zones. We like what we know. The more we dig in the more comfortable our rut becomes. Soon its almost impossible to move us as we have dug ourselves so far in that we are surrounded by protective barriers. A foxhole of the familiar. And we are moving nowhere.”

What is your foxhole of the familiar? Where are you most comfortable?

Kathryn invites us to get out of our ruts and move to unfamiliar places – to go willingly into the wilderness so God can do a new thing because that is the holy way.

Where might God be calling you? Where might God be calling your gathered community?

2019 National Gathering Closing Worship

Opening Song: “Come and Let Us Sing” by Israel & New Breed

Welcome, Census, and Remembering

We come from every corner of God’s creation,
We have brought our whole selves to this place,
Our bodies
Our hearts
Our souls
Our worries
Our doubts
Our dreams
Our questions
Our anger
Our fear
Our frustration
Our joy
We have come in our particularities
And in our communal stories
To be present
To be counted
To be celebrated
And to celebrate the love of the one who names and claim us:
And we name those who we want to remember, and bring into this sacred place:
We come to worship God.

Song: “Who You Say I Am” by Hillsong

Speaking Our Truth

Song: “Hungry” by Kathryn Scott

Filling the Font

From all the corners of our coming and going we bring our water:
Sacred
Ordinary
Life-giving water:
From taps
And snow caps
From seas
And ponds
Rainwater
And drinking water
Waters of life… we have migrated with this water
to this time and this place,
to pour into the common and sacred font,
to remember
and to be re-membered
to renew our covenant
with the God of the migrant and the exiled
with the God of water and life
with the God of mercy and grace.

Song: “All Who Are Thirsty” by Brenton Brown and Glenn Roberston

Invitation to the Offering

Song: “Good Good Father/Friend of God” by Trey McLaughlin

The Story

Spoken by Glenn McCray

Sermon

Rev. Eliana Maxim

Blessing & Sending

We remember the stories of our hearts
We listen to the stories of our siblings
We treasure that which unites us.
Our struggles
Our dreams
Our uncertainties
Our faithfulness
Our faithlessness
Our hopes
Our brokenness.

Yet at the font
We reclaim our name: ha’adam and place: adamah– human from earth.
We recommit to one another in our baptism;
Named, called, held by the One who created us
Strengthened, sustained, convicted by the One who loves us still

I am because we are
My story is incomplete without yours
And our story goes on still in
Caracas
Lagos
Flint
Yemen
Ferguson

Pyongyang
Tijuana
Kashmir
Washington DC

We came from across the map
We leave as children of the Triune God.
Come, remember your baptism.
Take a strip of fabric, proclaim the name of a child of God
and go from this place to live into our story,
and together we be the church.

Song:”Psalm 23 (I Am Not Alone)” by People & Songs

2019 National Gathering Tuesday Worship

Call to Worship

The things of our hearts, our society and our world do not sit nicely together.
They don’t well fit into the small compartments we imagine.
Sometimes, the dissonant chords we strike are the only thing that will shock us and wake us up.
These holy sounds will remind us that all is not well, and God desires to work through us.
May we allow the notes to strike without rushing to find resolution.
May we understand the gift of being uncomfortable,
And know that though the valley seems unbearable,
God does God’s best work in the dark, and cultivates seeds of healing in lament.
May the essence of our being be enough, and
May we see the glinting of possibility along our journey.

Hymn: Lead Me, Guide Me

Prayer of Confession

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice

who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
futures
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning

when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again

when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return

and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid…

Assurance of Grace

Our lives are full in the hands of a tender God,
The One who is more concerned with the thriving of God’s people than their surviving.
So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

Scripture: Matthew 15:21-28 (MSG)

From there Jesus took a trip to Tyre and Sidon. They had hardly arrived when a Canaanite woman came down from the hills and pleaded, “Mercy, sir, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit.” Jesus ignored her. The disciples came and complained, “Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy.” Jesus refused, telling them, “I’ve got my hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel.” Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. “Sir, help me.” He said, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” She was quick: “You’re right, sir, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the provider’s table.” Jesus gave in. “Oh, woman, your faith is something else. What you want is what you get!” Right then her daughter became well.

Contemporary Voice: Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon

Video 1: 0 to min. 1; 9:17 to 9:37
Video 2: all

Scripture: Ruth 1: 19-22 (MSG)

And so the two of them traveled on together to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem the whole town was soon buzzing: “Is this really our Naomi? And after all this time!” But she said, “Don’t call me Naomi; call me Bitter. The Strong One has dealt me a bitter blow. I left here full of life, and God has brought me back with nothing but the clothes on my back. Why would you call me Naomi? God certainly doesn’t. The Strong One ruined me.” And so Naomi was back, and Ruth the foreigner with her, back from the country of Moab. They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Anthem: Total Praise

Sermon: Bitter

Song: Joyful Joyful

Communion

Invitation to the Table

#SayHerName is a justice movement to increase awareness for Black womxn victims of police brutality and anti-Black violence in the United States. The movement exists to address the consistent invisibilization of Black womxn within mainstream media.

Words of Institution

Sharing of the Bread and Cup

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Out of your great abundance and grace you have fed us, Holy One, sparing none the delight of your gifts and presence in Jesus Christ. Thank you, O God, for one more time! One more time to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with you. Now, may we live as you taught us to pray:

Our Parent, who is among us, blessed be your Creation.
May your loving presence be a reality here on earth.
May we become more interested in building your kin-dom here and now than in waiting for it to come down from above.
Let us share our bread with those who hunger.
Let us learn to forgive as well as to receive forgiveness.
Help us through the time of temptation, delivering us from all evil.
For ours are the eternal blessings that you pour upon the earth.
Amen.

Closing Song: Great Is Your Faithfulness

Embracing Mara

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

In her sermon at the 2019 National Gathering in Seattle, Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown preaches on the subject “Bitter,” referring to the name Naomi claims for herself in the book of Ruth. Attending to the truth told in this sermon might be a practice to consider this Holy Week as an individual practice of devotion, or with a small group.

Dr. Brown calls the church to take time for lament, viewing lament as a gift from God and a way to connect to God. Lament offers “the chance to weep bitterly at the state of the world, the circumstances and challenges that affect us all. Our neglect of lament has somehow changed us and thwarted our spiritual lives.” Dr. Brown challenges our desire to jump over Good Fridays and right to Easter. She contends that resisting the dissonance of lament and holding pain, prevents us from getting to the sacrifice or the liberation.

Take time in lament over the state of the world without trying to find a silver lining or a solution. Be present to the pain.

Naomi and Ruth are two of the first womanist theologians, Dr. Brown argues. When Naomi names herself Mara, she didn’t worry about comforting anyone else, but claimed her own space. She told her own truth. Dr. Brown exhorts the church to call her by her chosen name —

Honor her trauma.
Prioritize her.
Hear the words she is saying in between the words she does say.
Co-conspire with her.
Check our salaries and compare them with hers for equity’s sake.

Dr. Brown says there will be no forward movement if we do not embrace mara.

What is one way you can embrace mara this week, as Dr. Brown suggests?

Dr. Brown believes Ruth came from a womanist society “where she knew that being by yourself in the African context is the same as being dead. If she went back, Naomi would be alone. She knew Mara needed to have somebody to have her back.” Dr. Brown turns to the present day and says we need to learn how to have one another’s backs, to build trust, and to support the most vulnerable among us. The story of Naomi/Mara and Ruth is a story of redemption, but not for them, she says. “It is a story of redemption for the people who did not know how to welcome and listen to them. Solidarily is the order of the day.”

Reflect on the ways in which you turn toward individualism rather than solidarity.

A theme throughout the sermon is that we cannot be church together if we can’t tell the truth. Dr. Brown concludes that sermon by saying, she wants the church to be a place where nobody has to worry about what they have on or whether they have a degree or not or whether they walked up or drove up. She wants a church “that has a pastor that looks like me sometimes.” Her final line is, “I am loving you by telling my truth.”

Reflect on what defense mechanisms you use when someone else’s truth conflicts with your own. How do you overcome those defenses? How do you create the space to hear another’s truth and be changed by it?

Dr. Brown says, “The gift of the black sacred tradition is that you don’t want joy all the time. God will be the one to push you through to the otherside.” May it be so.

2019 National Gathering Monday Opening Worship

Welcome & Opening Prayer

Song: All Creatures of Our God and King

Song: We Worship You

Scripture: Ruth 1:1-19

Sermon Part 1: The Story Behind the Story

Response: Holding the Threads of Our Story

Sermon Part 2: Memories Long Held

Kriah: Tearing of Cloth

Video available here.

Confession & Assurance

Song: From the Depths of Woe

Scripture: Hebrews 12:12-16

Read in Spanish from the NTV translation.

Sermon Part 3: Aspiring to be Community

Weaving Our Stories Together: Tying of Cloth

Song: 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)

Song: I Then Shall Live

Benediction

Public Art as Prophetic Word

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the sermon. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Shawna Bowman

When we consider the sermon moment we often think first of the spoken word, whether an extemporaneous litany or carefully crafted prose. In the predominately white and western Christian communities I’ve been formed by, we have historically privileged the voice of a single preacher and depended upon the auditory (and hopefully eager) listening and learning of a gathered community in worship. This method of preaching and proclamation is beautiful, rooted in tradition, and has the capacity to inspire, form, and stretch the theological and spiritual imagination of our people.

And… and… it is only one of so many ways we human beings can engage with God’s dream for us and with God’s dream for the world. Rather than use words alone to demonstrate what I’m suggesting, I will invite you on a multi-sensory journey. Let us move for a moment from a stationary pulpit into the streets and look with fresh eyes and open hearts for a prophetic word preached in the visuals of street arts, graffiti and public installations.

As an artist/preacher, I am interested in cultivating an honesty about our own power and perceptions as we approach either the task of preaching or receiving a prophetic word. I invite you to carry these questions with you as we begin our journey into the streets:

Who decides what is acceptable “street art” and what qualifies as graffiti or even vandalism? Who and what artists are commissioned for particular and planned pieces of art and when does an artist risk a prophetic word or statement over and against the institutions who “own” public space? When is it the right time to break the rules, even the law, to risk a prophetic word or piece of visual proclamation?

YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL

Chicago based artist and designer Matthew Hoffman has been the custodian of a public art project that began in Chicago but has expanded across the globe in recent years. The project began as stickers and now includes public installations with the simple statement: you are beautiful in all kinds of shapes and sizes. It has turned up on the sides of buildings, in parks, along Lake Shore Drive, and has been re-created and imagined by kid artists in public school students and public artists around the world.

You can visit versions of the work here. Take a moment and soak them in! While the artists may not have set out to offer a sermon, take a moment to imagine how prophetic a word this truly is. How does the message “you are beautiful” resonate with our biblical story? How does God’s own voice shine through this particular invitation to embrace our beauty?

WHAT WE DO IN LIFE…

One of the most famous and yet anonymous street artists currently creating and curating work across the globe, known only as Bansky, calls their self a “quality vandal,” and their work appeared first in the UK and recently in Bethlehem, Palestine. The artist offers critiques on the status quo, and observations on systems of oppression and violence often revealing the way human beings in positions of power are complicit in upholding them. I love this because it reminds me of some of Jesus’ best parables. Simple yet prophetic, offered in a way that catches us off guard and invites us to see ourselves and the world through a fresh and potentially liberating lens.

You can visit more of Banksy’s work here. Take a moment to absorb each piece as it moves across your screen. Can you see God’s prophetic words peeking through these installations? How is this artist offering an alternative narrative to what many of us experience and put our faith in, in our day-to-day lives?

LARGER THAN LIFE

We know a prophetic word can change our thinking and can move whole communities towards hope and transformation. Chicago public artist Max Sansing creates public murals that are works of reclamation and representation in his community and across the city. He painted this particular mural in the neighborhood where he grew up. Sansing says, “I know a lot of times we get portrayed as certain things, and I wanted to reinforce we could be larger than life.” Isn’t that often the role of a prophetic word? To give voice, worth and hope to a particular people and in a particular context? To hold God’s dream up for the people to see, not only as a beacon but as a mirror? To say, “look, we have all we need, right here.”

You can learn more about this particular mural here, and explore here how Sansing and another street artist, Sydney James from Detroit, use their artwork to impact culture, encourage diversity, and engage youth in their communities. Can you hear and see God’s invitation to embrace the fullness of our human experience in their work? Do they disrupt, confirm, or challenge your assumptions about God’s dream the world?

AN INVITATION

Next time you encounter public art in the form of murals, installations, or graffiti take a holy moment. Breathe in the color, the imagery, the form and shape and listen for the prophetic word speaking through the work. Let the work wash over you like liturgy and let God’s dream for the world bubble up in your imagination!


Shawna Bowman is an artist and pastor doing ministry with the creative and justice-seeking folks at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Shawna is co-founder of Creation Lab, an arts incubator and working studio space at the intersection of creativity, spirituality, and prophetic imagination, also in Chicago. Shawna is also Associate Director of Field Ed & Experiential Education at McCormick Theological Seminary.

The Sermon I Tried Not To Preach

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sara Dingman is curating a series on the #metoo movement and the church. The series will feature recollections, sermons, and art. We honor the women who have shared their stories, and hope their courage might inspire others to seek the support they need to speak their truth too in ways that are best for them. The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline is always available to support survivors of sexual assault. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Shannon Kershner

This was a sermon I tried not to write or preach. Why? One reason is because I do grow tired of being told I am either too political in the pulpit or not political enough. I have received that kind of feedback ten times more in the last three years of my ministry than I ever did in the first 16 years of ministry. Another reason is because I do not want every sermon I preach to feel like it is a “response tweet” to the latest news cycle, which also usually changes between Friday and Sunday.

Photo from Fourth Presbyterian Church Facebook page.

But the more fundamental reason I did not want to write or preach this sermon is because I felt too close to it. My father survived sexual assault as a child and he did not remember it until he was in his 50s. Other very close loved ones have experienced similar violence to their bodies and their spirits. The whole Supreme Court nomination process exhausted me and I knew how much pain was resurfacing for so many people I love. So I tried to avoid it. But then the time came, as it does, when I knew that if I did not preach about what was going on in our larger culture, then I would be doing a disservice to the Gospel.

But you should know that my father (retired PCUSA pastor) was the one who finally lovingly pushed me forward. He wrote down a couple of paragraphs and advised me that a pastoral approach might be what was called for at that moment and from this pulpit. It was his wisdom that led me to wonder how many other 70 and 80 year olds might be sitting in the pews with their own secrets or memories. I realized again it was a privilege for me to get to remain silent when so many could not. Their souls were screaming out. I had to say something that I hoped was faithful and true.

As I mention in the beginning, this is not a very well-honed sermon. Many of you could craft one that sounds far more elegant and nuanced. I did not do much revision to it, so it is a bit more “stream of consciousness” than my normal preaching voice. But it was what came on a long Saturday afternoon with Sunday looming. Thus, it is simply an offering from me to God, in the hopes that it might be of use for those who need to remember they are loved, and for those who need to be reminded that hurting them has never been okay with God. The church had to say that out loud.


Shannon Johnson Kershner is the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.A.). She grew up in Waco, Texas as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and an elementary school teacher. Shannon stayed in Texas for college and graduated in 1994 from Trinity University in San Antonio. In 1996, she began her theological training at Columbia Theological Seminary and received her Masters of Divinity degree in 1999. Her sermons and articles have been published in a number of journals, including The Journal for Preachers and Lectionary Homiletics. She is involved in leadership for NEXT Church and serving on its strategy team. Shannon is married to Greg, whom she met in high school at a Presbyterian summer conference at Mo-Ranch. They have been married for 21 years and are the parents of 15-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Ryan.  

When We Are In The Sermon

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’re curating a series on NEXT Church resources. Members of the NEXT Church communications team, staff, and advisory team are selecting resources already on our site and sharing the ways they have (or would) use them in their ministry context. We pray these will be of use to you in your own ministry! Have other ideas for resources you’ve used from our website? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Pete Peery

Being now a person of senior status, I remember being taught in seminary to avoid using personal examples in sermons. It was not appropriate. It would divert attention from the Word to the preacher. The sermon was to be about God’s Good News, not about us.

Frankly, it was not a bad teaching. Yet in practice striving to avoid the personal sometimes led me to preaching some pretty sound theological treatises but not proclamations well connected to life. This meant, of course, that those sermons were more often than not boring! And what is the worst thing you can say about a sermon?

As a corrective to emptying pews with boring sermons, the personal vignette has worked its way into acceptability in preaching. This is a good thing. Yet, danger still lurks. Crafting sermons using “our stuff” may well be a way we preachers subtly feed our own narcissistic appetites. Attention indeed can get turned from the Living Word to our desperate egos.

On the NEXT Church website there is a tab noted “Resources.” Clicking on that tab brings up var-ious icons, one of which is “Video.” Clicking on that icon another page emerges showing an icon labeled “Sermons.” Clicking that will bring you to this sermon by Kathryn Johnston delivered at the close of the last NEXT Church National Gathering.

Kathryn is very personal in this sermon. You will discover it is far from boring! I believe she demonstrates a wonderful way to be personal and avoid drawing attention away from the Gospel.

I invite you to try the following:

  • Watch Kathryn’s sermon.
  • Note the way she uses her personal story. How does she avoid making herself the focus of the sermon?
  • Review several of your sermons in which you have used personal vignettes. In light of Kathryn’s approach, would you revise the way you used yourself in the sermons? If so, what changes would you make?
  • What nuggets from Kathryn’s sermon will you keep in your head as you consider using personal examples in your sermons going forward?

I thank God for Kathryn pointing a way for us to preach in this “next church” breaking forth in this very present era.


Pete Peery is the relationship developer for NEXT Church. He formerly served as president of Montreat Conference Center and pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC.