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The Surprising Benefit of Evaluation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Casey Thompson

Once in first grade, my teacher asked the class what each of us wanted to be when we were older. Cindy said a fireman; Mark answered a teacher; Stephanie wanted to be a princess (bless her heart, it seems more unlikely the older we get). Then our teacher turned to me, “Casey, what do you want to do when you grow up?”

I said, “I’d like to spend my life propping up an institution on life support, squeezing out the last bits of life from it so that it can continue to over-serve the wealthy and under-serve the poor. In short, Ms. Cunningham, I’d like to be a pastor!”

In retrospect, I might have been a cynical child.

Photo from Wayne Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Perhaps you were as well. It would explain why the church of Jesus Christ seems to have a problem with cynicism now. Cynicism happens when our hopefulness deflates, and it seems to me much of the church’s hopefulness has deflated. We’re wondering how to do ministry when the tested, traditional methods don’t work anymore — or when those methods actively make things worse. We’re wondering how to keep this marvelous institution alive that introduced us to the very thing we love most in life. As it gets harder to do, we get more cynical.

I too am prone to cynicism, but I love pastors (most of us) and elders (more of you) and congregants (nearly all of them). I don’t want the church to lose hope.

So I agreed to try and help as I could. I joined the Cultivating Ministry team. We were called together to consider new ways of evaluating ministry, ways that considered numbers and storytelling, ways forward focused on theology and new learnings.

What I have discovered in my time working with this group is that there is an unexpected benefit to evaluation. Evaluation is not just a way to gauge the effectiveness of a ministry so that it might be tweaked toward perfection. Evaluation actually subverts the forms of our ministry. It actually returns us to the theological question at the heart of vocation, a question so fundamental that we start asking first graders so they’ll have enough practice answering it by the time it becomes pressing for them: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” How do you want to spend your time?

My genuine answer is that I want to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want people to encounter the gentle spirit that canopies the world, the shelter that is also the source of our being, and the incarnation of that spirit in the person of Jesus Christ. I want people to know of his love for the world and of his vision of justice and peace. I want people to know there is grace for our failures and consolation for our grief. I want people to know they are not alone, that the Holy Spirit is with them.

When I’m not re-addressing these fundamental questions I find that I drift from trying to serve the gospel to simply managing a slow decline of the mainline’s flavor of the church, staving off social trends with my own work and creativity — instead of the generative work of Christ. “We’ll try it this way this year,” I say. Or if there is less energy: “It was good enough last year. Just move on and get the sermon done.”

I’m going to lose the fight against the slow marginalization of the church in the United States. I think most of us know that now. It’s like trying to sell Blackberries in an iPhone world. It doesn’t fit anymore — even if there’s a dedicated group of users.

But serving the gospel? Yes. I know that serving the gospel is a worthy endeavor even if I fail at it.

Evaluation returns me to the core of why we do what we do in serving the gospel. Evaluation isn’t simply a tool to make your Wednesday night fellowship group run smoother, your Sunday school class more topical, or your Christmas Bazaar better than the Methodist church’s down the street. Evaluation asks why it’s important in the first place. It’s a reminder that the Wednesday night fellowship group helped a couple persevere through a cancer diagnosis for their daughter. It’s the reminder that the Sunday school class birthed a tutoring ministry that helped to close the achievement gap in the local school. It’s a reminder that the Christmas Bazaar raises funds for a church camp where pre-teens fall in love with God in a way that haunts them and enlivens them for the rest of their lives.

The surprising benefit of evaluation is that it prompts us to return to why we spend our lives how we spend them. In that, we see how God works through us and in us and we find hope for a future.

Evaluation, it turns out, is salve for cynicism.


Casey Thompson is pastor of Wayne Presbyterian church in Wayne, Pennsylvania. 

Field Guide Preview: Theology as Assessment

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

Today, we’re sharing the second sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from the first movement of the guide: theology as assessment.


It is a theological fallacy for Christians to think of ourselves as victims of post-Christendom cultural shifts beyond our control. It is a lack of spiritual imagination to act as if our faith communities and organizations are without strength or power in the world. It is a misunderstanding of our own history to assume that we are facing unprecedented challenges. The realities of the first-century Roman Empire — which witnessed the exponential growth of the early church — were no less hostile to the way of Jesus than the realities of twenty-first-century North America.[i] In both contexts, the Christian mission remains the same. Now, as then, followers of Jesus are commissioned to make new followers of Jesus and participate in the emergence of what he called God’s kingdom. Jesus was committed to this mission and held his disciples accountable to his radical vision of individuals and societies transformed.

As members of numerically declining denominations, mainline Protestants often find ourselves caught between a false polarity. On the one hand, we long for our culture’s idolatrous notion of success. According to this way of thinking, if you aren’t experiencing significant growth you are dying. Maintaining the status quo is stagnation. Numbers tell the story.

On the other hand, church leaders often take solace in a notion of faithfulness, which downplays numbers in favor of the integrity of our devotion, social witness, and service to others. According to this way of thinking, God is pleased so long as we faithfully do what we have always done, regardless of its effectiveness.

Rather than either of these inclinations, Jesus purposely calls us to bear fruit.[ii] This metaphor evokes consideration of both quantity and quality. Neither a bountiful yield of mediocre produce nor a small yield of sweet fruit are ultimately satisfying. Those charged with bearing fruit — especially fruit that will last — must be concerned with the quantity and quality of their product. Cultivated ministry is therefore a commitment to fruitfulness, which attends not only to the faithfulness of our endeavors, but also to the outputs and meaningful impact of our work.

Cultivated ministry is also a reorientation to the missional goal of kingdom growth. It is noteworthy that Jesus only mentions “church” twice in the New Testament. Both instances are oblique references in the Gospel of Matthew (16:18 and 18:17) and may in fact be editorial additions. By contrast, throughout his ministry Jesus was primarily concerned with the emergence of God’s kingdom. Consider, for example, the first words attributed to Jesus in the first of our gospels to be written down: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”[iii] Jesus’ ministry was urgent. Jesus’ ministry was rooted in the here and now. Jesus’ ministry was about the imminent manifestation of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ ministry was about change and transformation. Jesus’ ministry was — and is — good news for a world all too familiar with bad news.

[i] Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating Apostolic Movements (2nd edition; Brazos Press, 2016).

[ii] Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8; John 15:8, 16

[iii] Mark 1:15, CEB.

Moving Beyond Sexy Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Billy Honor

“Make it sexy!” I hear these three words whispering in my brain every time I’m planning anything pertaining to ministry. It doesn’t matter if I’m planning a bible study, sermon series, worship experience, service project, or leadership meeting, somewhere along the way I’m going to ask myself the question: is this sexy? I know it may seem odd to think about ministry in this way but I’ve come to understand that making ministry sexy is one of the most pervasive ways ministry is practiced today.

Those who pay close attention to the contemporary Christian landscape can attest that a goodly number of churches and ministry facilitators spend a significant amount of time thinking about whether their ministry activities are sexy, i.e. attractive and appealing. One of the ways this is clearly seen is among the churches that call themselves “seeker sensitive.” These are congregations and faith communities that are unapologetically invested in making their activities attractional and alluring to those they are trying to reach.

Over the last couple decades, this attractional approach to ministry has become more wide-spread than many want to admit. Though most churches would never describe themselves as seeker sensitive, the fact is most church leaders are constantly wrestling with how they can make their ministries more compelling.

On a personal level, in my own ministry development, I can admit that I didn’t always have this mentality. In fact, I distinctly remember when and where I learned it. It was during my time serving as an intern at a megachurch while I was in seminary. We would have staff meetings once a week where the leaders and department heads were expected to report their upcoming plans and projections. As we’d go around the table, it was not uncommon for the executive pastor to ask someone in response to their plans, “but it is sexy?” This was her not so subtle way of asking: will this plan bring out big numbers? Will it create mass community appeal? Will it look like a success?

Rethinking Ministry as Sexy

Initially, I thought this was a very effective way to lead and supervise – especially given the fact that most of what I’d seen growing up in a very large congregation gave me the impression that ministry effectiveness is about the numbers. However, as I grew and became more experienced as a ministry leader, I started to become ambivalent and increasingly weary with the “sexy ministry” approach.

I can vividly remember how I felt when I started pastoring and I realized that most of the shortcomings of our church could be mitigated by the fact that we had people in seats and money coming into the accounts. Whenever I’d fill out our annual denominational assessment forms, I’d get this unsettling feeling about having to deal with a report that was so numbers-driven. Each year, the same questions. How many people were baptized? How many people made a profession of faith? How members are active? How many participated in Christian education? How much is the yearly budget?

Quickly it became apparent to me that our numbers (though consistently growing and exceeding our projections) did not tell the most important story of our congregation. From my viewpoint, the more significant story was how we as a church were faithfully participating in the Spirit’s movement in the world and this was a story that could not be told by numbers alone. Rather it had to be told by a narrative articulation of how the Divine is moving in the lives of those who share in the church’s ministry.

Eventually I transitioned from pastoring that church to accept a call to organize a new urban church. Part of my reason for choosing to do this was my desire to shape a ministry from the inception that assessed church vitality by its faithfulness to the stated mission and not merely by the numbers.

A Different Way of Assessing Ministry

Now, after almost two years as a church planter, though I still think about how to make ministry sexy, this is far from my primary concern. To be sure, we still count the numbers, but our primary focus is whether we as a faith community look like our stated core values. In other words, no matter our congregational statistics, if we look and function like our mission statement, then we are being faithful.

Leading a new congregation with this approach has been refreshing – but it’s also been very challenging. There have been times when I felt like we were just spinning our wheels without any clear measurement of our work together. This is why I’m so thankful that I was asked to participate in the NEXT Church think tank on ministry metrics. It has been a great opportunity to consider new models of assessment that make faithfulness to God’s mission in the world the primary concern. It’s also been a great way for me to seriously reflect on how our church can be more intentional about understanding the ways our activities contribute to the Spirit’s work.

In the days ahead, our think tank will have the opportunity to take our work public. I’m excited about this because I know it’s desperately needed. Very often the conversation around the mainline church is saturated with narratives of decline but I’m hopeful new insights on church vitality and “cultivated ministry” practice can help shift the conversation.

If nothing else, I’m hopeful this will provide an opportunity for churches and ministry leaders to slow down and ask critical questions about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we can do it better.


Billy Michael Honor is a minister, public scholar, and social critic who writes and speaks about issues in faith and culture. He is also an ordained PC(USA) minister and the founding pastor of Pulse Church in downtown Atlanta.

Cultivated Ministry at The Board of Pensions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Frank Spencer

Jesus never said check your intellect at the door and forget what you have learned outside the Church. Jesus praises the good manager in parables and chides those who waste or steal. We are obligated to make good use of our time, talent and treasure. Thus, we are called to excellence in all we do while extending the hand of hospitality and living in the grace of compassion.

Here at the Board of Pensions, we often say that the numbers can never define our values, but analytics must always inform our stewardship.

Jesus also talked a lot about vineyards and the hard work that goes into growing good fruit. He used that analogy to talk about fruitfulness in our lives. NEXT Church has furthered that analogy to explore new ways of assessing ministry effectiveness. A cultivated ministry exhibits the following four principles: theological reflection, constant learning, mutual accountability, and storytelling.

Asking the theological “why?” has transformed the Board and its programs. We began the change three years ago by developing a Theology of Benefits. That work allowed us to understand our mission as a vital part of enlivening the body of Christ in the PC(USA). It led us to understand benefits as wholeness, rather than a financial proposition. This theological understanding is embedded in everything we do, seeking well-being for those who serve Christ’s Church in the four critical arenas of health, spirituality, finance, and vocation. Those who have experienced the CREDO program know these focus areas well.

We believe in constant learning, evaluating and re-evaluating everything we do. To learn from past errors and identify future possibilities, we have had to be brutally honest about the current state of things. Some things like care for our members and investment of our assets we did really well and we affirmed that excellence. Other things, like information technology, flexibility, and cost control were not as good. By facing these challenges, we have dramatically improved how we serve and expanded whom we serve. But we are only just beginning because there will always be more to learn. Knowing that we can and will improve keeps us energized and hopeful for the future.

We practice mutual accountability with many levels of constituencies. We are of course accountable to our Board and have developed a culture of openness and honesty that has allowed us to work through problems together and take bold steps for improvement. We are accountable to members whom we serve in a consultative framework. We are accountable to the larger Church through the General Assembly and to each congregation. We have adopted a posture of complete transparency and have spent the past three years unmasking hidden subsidies and telling the Church honestly what benefits cost. We have scrapped hundreds of administrative rules trusting each congregation to make decisions that best fit its unique context.

And oh do we love the stories! We know our members personally because they call us and write us and meet with us. Some of these stories are wonderful triumphs of healing and wholeness. Others speak to the deep grief and disappointment that is a part of all of our lives. We always try to say “yes” but sometimes we have to say “no” and those stories are always the most painful. There is rarely a month that goes by without my being moved to tears of joy or sadness.

Cultivated Ministry implies a never ending cycle of assessment, reflection, input from constituents, and sharing of personal stories. Just as the vineyard is always in need of tending, so it is with every ministry. Staying centered in the face of constant change is a challenge. For us, prayer is an important part of staying centered. Every Executive Team meeting and every Board committee begins with prayer. We pray in thanksgiving for the honor of serving Christ’s Church. To remind ourselves of the community we serve, every prayer ends by lifting up another agency or organization of the PC(USA).

What a wonderful thing it is that sisters and brothers care for each other in the name of Jesus Christ. If you count all the active members and their families, retired members and their spouses, surviving spouses and children, and vested former employees, PC(USA) is caring for 61,000 individuals through the Board of Pensions. This ministry is well-planned, theologically grounded, ever reforming, and abundantly fruitful.

It is indeed a well cultivated ministry.


Frank Clark Spencer is the president of the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and served on the initial strategy team for NEXT Church. Before turning to full-time ministry, Frank had an outstanding business career which included leading his company to its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange and being recognized by Ernst and Young as 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year in the Southeast. Frank is the past Chairman of Montreat Conference Center and former President of Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte. He was a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School, and earned his M.Div. at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. You may listen to Frank’s sermons and find out about his latest book at www.fspencer.com.

Field Guide Preview: Cultivated Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

Today, we’re excited to share the first sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from the guide’s introduction, which debuts the concept of “cultivated ministry” and defines its four movements: theology, accountability, learning, and storytelling.


Cultivated Ministry

Jesus often used agricultural metaphors to describe God’s kingdom and our calling to participate in its growth. As anyone who has tried to maintain a garden knows, growing desirable plants requires intentionality and hard work. Growing nothing is easy. Growing weeds is easy. Growing delicious fruits and vegetables and beautiful flowers is much more difficult.

According to the Book of Genesis, from the beginning of human history God has called us to be caretakers and cultivators of our local contexts. The first commandment given to human beings was to be fruitful. This ancient calling provides the guiding metaphor for this field guide.

Cultivated ministry is a third way between toeing the line of traditional metrics and abdicating accountability altogether. Haphazard gardening is irresponsible and ineffective. Fruitful gardening involves mindfulness and discipline. A cultivated garden requires planning, ongoing assessment, learning when confronted with new challenges, and periodic pruning. Likewise, cultivated ministry insists that we undertake our work with a clear and purposeful understanding of how our activities contribute to God’s mission in the world. As practical theologians have long recognized, ministry requires seasons of reflection, evaluation, and evolution. From time to time we must slow down and ask critical questions about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we can do it better.[i] Without this discipline, our practices and methods become stale or out of touch with our rapidly changing cultural contexts. It is far too easy to rest on our laurels and allow existing ministries to outlive their original purposes or effectiveness. Unless we adopt open postures of listening, learning, and intentional discernment, we are prone to miss opportunities for the development of new ministries to meet the needs of new situations.

Cultivated ministry is more than a new set of metrics or a collection of plug-and-play tools. Rather, it is a commitment to four interlocking means of assessment, evaluation, and (re)design aimed at nurturing thoughtful expressions of God’s mission in the world. This is not a recipe to adhere to nor a linear process to follow—these four movements happen simultaneously, informing and supporting each other as an organic and coherent whole.

Cultivated ministry begins and ends with theology, with our belief that God is intimately engaged in the world and has called us to bear fruit that will last. In this work to which we are called, we practice mutual accountability to God and to each other. Along the way, we commit ourselves to constant learning and reformation. At every step, we listen for good news of God’s redemptive work through transformative storytelling.

This four-dimensional practice of assessment is neither focused on the past nor fearful of the future. It is time for us to regain control of our own narratives. We are much more than passive players in the unfolding drama of human history. With God’s help, we can shape our own future and tell our own stories. God has placed us in the world and has given us seeds to plant. Now, as stewards of God’s good creation, it’s up to us to step forward in faith. It’s up to us to practice cultivated ministry.

[i] Sarah B. Drummond, Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation (Alban Institute, 2009), 103-122.


Want to read more about Cultivated Ministry? Check out NEXT Church director Jessica Tate’s blog post introducing our series about it, and pastor Charlie Lee’s reflections on implementing the Cultivated Ministry concept

The Stupendous Promises of God

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cynthia Rigby

My favorite part of the Sarasota Statement is the preface.

This is, no doubt, because I am wired like the theologian I am. And theologians like to think about why it is we are saying what we are saying even before we say anything. Thus, the caricature of the theologian is that we talk and talk before getting to the point.

So, enough already. I’ll get to the point.

The reason we dare to imagine what things should look like in this world (in the Sarasota Statement and beyond) is because God has made us stupendous promises. God’s Kingdom will come to earth as it is in heaven, we confess. Lions and lambs will lie down together. Tears will be wiped from suffering and grieving eyes. We will join Christ at the Table and hunger will be no more.

The reason we risk working toward realizing these promises in our world, today, is because Christ invites us not only to watch and pray for the coming of the Kingdom, but to join with him in doing the will of God that advances it. “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends,” Jesus says to the disciples, inviting us to live and act in the world as those who “know what the master is doing” (Jn. 15:15).

And the reason we submit to re-forming how we understand what it looks like actively to claim and enact God’s promises is because we believe the Holy Spirit continues working in us, in the context of the Christian community, conforming us to the image of Christ.

I’m sure the Sarasota Statement gets some things wrong, when it comes to the specifics of the Kingdom that is coming. I am even more sure we have left out a great deal, and have been humbled and excited by the good suggestions and queries Christian siblings have sent our way.

But what we get right is the affirmation that God’s Kingdom will come. What we get right is that we are called to do the will of the God who will bring it. What we get right is that we, as the children of God, are invited to claim the promise, to imagine it, to step into it, to live it.

We do these things, on this very day, with echoes of resurrection celebration ringing in our hearts: He is risen! He is risen indeed! And we remember, as our risen Lord instructed his disciples, that the journey is not over. The Holy Spirit will come upon us, and even greater things will yet be done. In the power of this remarkable promise, again, we join hands together to watch and pray, hope and listen, imagine and act. To God be the glory! Now: on with the work of the church!


Cynthia L. Rigby has been teaching theology at Austin Seminary since 1995. She holds a BA from Brown University and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. She is the author of “The Promotion of Social Righteousness” (Witherspoon) and “Holding Faith” (Abingdon, forthcoming). She is one of four general editors for Westminster John Knox Press’s new lectionary commentary series, “Connections,” which will be coming out in nine volumes over the next few years.

2017 National Gathering Ignite: Lee Hinson-Hasty

Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director of Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation, gives an Ignite presentation on the future of theological education and clergy at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering.

2017 National Gathering Sermon: Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, gives the final sermon of the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering during closing worship.

Scripture: John 4:19-26

The liturgy from this service is also available:


Paul Roberts is is president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA, a position he has held since the spring of 2010. He is a native of Stamford, CT; however, he grew up in Bradenton, FL, which he considers his home. Paul graduated from Princeton University in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture and African American Studies. Prior to his career in ministry, Paul worked in advertising in New York City. He later received the Master of Divinity degree with a concentration in New Testament Studies from Johnson C. Smith Seminary. He also is an Academic Fellow of the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey in Celigny, Switzerland. From 1997 through 2010, Paul was the pastor of Church of the Master (PCUSA), a church founded in 1965 in Atlanta, GA, as an intentionally interracial congregation. He serves on the boards of the Presbyterian Foundation (PCUSA) and the Macedonian Ministry Inc. of Atlanta. He is the recipient of the 2016 Devoted Service Award from Louisville Theological Seminary. Recreationally, Paul enjoys tennis and yard work. Paul and his wife, Nina, have three beautiful children—one adult daughter and two teenage sons.

2017 National Gathering Keynote: Soong-Chan Rah

Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL, presents a keynote at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering entitled: “The Changing Face of the Church.”


Soong-Chan Rah is Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL and the author of The Next EvangelicalismMany ColorsProphetic Lament; co-author of Forgive Us; and Return to Justice.

Soong-Chan is formerly the founding Senior Pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church (CCFC), a multi-ethnic church living out the values of racial reconciliation and social justice in the urban context. He currently serves on the board of World Vision and Evangelicals 4 Justice. He has previously served on the board of Sojourners and the Christian Community Development Association.

Soong-Chan received his B.A. from Columbia University; his M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; his Th.M. from Harvard University; his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and his Th.D. from Duke University.

Soong-Chan and his wife Sue and their two children, Annah and Elijah live in Chicago.

What Do We Say?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jessica Tate

In the wake of the hyper partisanship of the 2016 presidential election, I began hearing from pastors across the country who were wondering, “What do I say on Sunday?” Some were crafting liturgy for congregations of young adults who felt despondent and afraid after the election. Others were writing sermons to congregations of supporters of the then president-elect, pleased with the results. Still others knew that sitting in their pews on Sunday would be a “purple church” – Democrats next to Republicans next to Independents, and that party affiliation didn’t necessarily correlate to one’s vote. Everyone I talked to was wrestling with their own reaction to the political moment alongside the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel.

What do I say on Sunday?

It is always the church’s job to proclaim the hope of our faith. To tell and retell the story of God – our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. It is also the church’s job to interpret the cultural moment and the human condition in light of our Reformed theological understandings. The Sarasota Statement is an attempt at proclamation and theological wrestling for this particular moment. At the same time, we know that every statement we make about God and ourselves is limited, and not without error. This statement is an attempt to take seriously the theological claims on which we say we stake our lives with the humility to recognize and confess the ways we continuously fail to live out those beliefs. It is also an invitation and commitment to live differently going forward.

The writers of the Sarasota Statement began their work with the recognition that they are but “a small and imperfect reflection of the church.” They would not – and could not – presume to write a confession of faith for all people for all times and all places. Nor could they assume the mantle of writing on behalf of the church, as is usually the process by which Presbyterians develop confessional statements. Rather, this group gathered because it seemed an important and difficult moment for leaders around our church to name the convictions of our faith alongside the disconnection and division in this country. What do we say?

The Sarasota Statement also began from the premise that any word for this particular moment must be a word that can be said by multiple voices. This is not to suggest that this particular statement contains exactly the right words in exactly the right way and that every person agrees with everything that it says. Rather, the Sarasota Statement is an attempt to stand under the judgment of our theological convictions – taking a posture of humility in recognition of our own blindness, stubbornness, willfulness, and idolatry. We hope this posture invites more voices into conversation and reflection, rather than furthering well-worn lines of division.

Further, we pray this statement can be useful in the practice of faith – in worship services, in small groups, in personal reflection – in the ways people actually engage in faith formation. We hope it provokes conversation and deepening thought. We hope it invites others to do their own theological reflection, their own wrestling with the human condition in this particular moment in time.

Ultimately, this group of writers doesn’t have the right words. We have a word, an offering, and we pray that it will be a blessing. More importantly, we hope it will be a catalyst that provokes you to ask, “What do I say?” If there are places of disconnect, how would you say it differently? If there are places of discomfort, why? If there is something you long to see here that is not, what is that? How can you say it? If there are pieces of the statement that resonate deeply with you, what longing do they meet? What truth do they express?

We hope you will wrestle with this statement and invite others to join you in the wrestling. And we pray that wrestling will invite you to generous listening, risky truth-telling, and ever-deepening faithfulness to a Savior who continually invites us to be undone and remade.

What will you say?


Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church. She lives in Washington, DC.