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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.

Trusting in God, Always at Work

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Derrick Weston

“We trust that God is always at work in our world and in our lives, giving us joy, and calling us to be faithful to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom.”
– The Sarasota Statement

Underpinning the confessions, griefs, and commitments of the Sarasota Statement is a hope. That hope is rooted in a belief that God is at work, remaking the world in justice in love. It is this deep hope that allows us to carry on even when It seems that the world is at its darkest. We trust that God is working in our lives. We also trust that God is working through our lives. It’s that trust which keeps us from wavering in our work, recognizing the privilege we are given to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

For the last year I have had the privilege of working as the neighborhood organizer for Arlington Presbyterian Church just outside of Washington, D.C. Facing struggles similar to many congregations in the denomination — namely a large, aging building and a small, aging congregation — the church took a faithful step. They sold the building to a local, mission-oriented developer who is in the process of turning the space where the building once was into affordable housing, a major need in Northern Virginia. It was a courageous move, one that could only be made with a firm belief that God is doing a new thing and the church gets to be a part of it.

APC is in the middle of a process. Once the new building is constructed, the church will relocate to the first floor of the new affordable housing complex in a newly designed storefront. While there is incredible excitement for what the church will be once the new space is completed, it is in this in-between time when that trust is tested. The imagery of desert and wilderness feel less like abstract notions and more like lived realities. And it is in this “here but not yet” mode that the church relies on God for her joy.

We find our joy in thinking through new ways of being church. We find our joy in creating new partnerships that will help us to serve the community. We find our joy in knowing that the trail we blaze now may be for the benefit of other congregations that will follow our path or one like it. The joy that we experience is no fleeting emotionalism, but a deep satisfaction in knowing that we are striving to be faithful to the vision that God has given us. It is that joy, based in hope and perseverance that sustains us when the way ahead feels uncertain.

None of what the Sarasota Statement calls for is easy. The work to which it calls us is the work of many lifetimes. These words from the closing of the statement remind me of Dr. King’s insistence that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The work of God’s Kingdom is a slow, incremental climb toward love of God and love of neighbor. The importance of this reminder is that we should work in a way that builds on the legacies of the past while preparing to pass the baton to the leaders of the future. This ensures that the vision to which we are being faithful is indeed, Christ’s vision and not our own.


Derrick Weston is the neighborhood organizer at Arlington Presbyterian Church. He is the co-host of two podcasts, “God Complex Radio” and “The Gospel According to Marvel” and blogs regularly at derricklweston.com.