Posts

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.

Sacred Agents

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Eyde Mabanglo

The Purpose of Power is Restoration

Luke 1:17
“With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

I am tempted to recoil from power because I see power abused everyday. It is offensive to me and grieves my heart. As a result, I often reject (or shrink from) any power I might have in order to avoid any temptation to wield the same abuses of power that I abhor.

Reflecting on a theology of power has challenged me to re-evaluate and re-calibrate my ultimate distrust and rejection of power. My calling to follow after Christ and proclaim healing to the nations is woven together with a God-given power and sacred agency to participate in that restoration. I am reminded that the world desperately needs Christian leaders that have a healthy view of power to enter into this glorious, restorative work of God’s Spirit.

Power Comes from God’s Authority

Luke 4:36
They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!”

The truest power is God’s. I love how the word authority includes the word author. God is author of all that was, is, and will be, so naturally the only power that exists to bring renewal and restoration belongs to God alone. God is sovereign. Scripture reminds us that power and authority go together. When power serves self only (basically the definition of abuse of power), then it should be obvious to all that it does not reflect God. Power that diminishes or destroys is demonic. Power that restores is sacred and ordained.

We Have the Power to Help and Heal

Luke 9:1
Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases…

I believe that the abuse of power prevalent throughout the lifespan of humanity is indeed a demonic force. I may hesitate to believe that I have ultimate power over demons, but I now believe I have the power (and obligation) to speak to power, to redirect power, to leverage power, and to influence other agencies of power to bring about healing in our bodies, relationships, and institutions. I am a sacred agent of restorative power.

Power Restores Right Relationships

Luke 22:69
“But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”

The picture of Jesus sitting at the right hand of “power” is more than a family photo. Through a theological lens, the incarnate power of God simply (yet profoundly) abides with God’s Self. Power is about restoring each of us to a wholeness that finds itself in God’s self. This is the purpose of power—to turn hearts (Luke 1:17) to others which in turn is to turn one’s heart to God. This is the new commandment (self-giving love is the essence of God’s Word). In other words, “They will know we are ‘Sacred Agents’ by our love.”

God Sends Power and Sends Us

Luke 24:49
“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

God’s power is God’s essence which means that this divine power is not just sacred agency but perhaps is profoundly equal to God’s love, grace, mercy, life, faith, resurrection, and self. God’s self can’t not love. God must create (make things new) always, so God’s Power is always regenerative, renewing, restoring. This may be the best way to understand the Word — the Logos, the imago dei, our Triune God. Dwelling in that Word is how we understand the purpose of God’s sacred power and our sacred agency.

Then, we must humbly embrace the responsibility of receiving this power to bring about right relationships under the authority of Christ Jesus. We must not abuse it, but neither should we reject it or recoil from it.

For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. Now and forever. Amen.


Eyde Mabanglo is an ordained PC(USA) pastor and ICF trained leadership coach. She is an experienced transitional pastor and is currently serving in a 260-member congregation in Tacoma, Washington. Eyde is driven by a profound hope in Christ Jesus and is devoted to helping church leaders fully participate in God’s mission of sacred restoration.

Power in Relationship, Community, Hope

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kathryn Johnston

My theology of power has three components:

  1. It is a power within and sustained by a community built on the foundational commandment: love one another.
  2. It is a power constantly aware of the inherent, sinful nature of humanity.
  3. It is a power thats driving force is hope based on resurrection; the assurance that justice and reconciliation will rise from brokenness.

These three components are illustrated in the telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25ff).

Kathryn and IAF organizer Kathleen O’Toole demonstrate a one-on-one meeting

1. It is a power within and sustained by a community built on the foundational commandment: love one another.
A man, presumably because of his occupation as lawyer, has individual power that he decides to use to test Jesus. He asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus turns the question back on him. The answer is: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself (NRSV).

The lawyer pushes: And who is my neighbor?

Jesus responds with what we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, Jesus builds a case for a community that cares for one another simply because everyone is part of the community – regardless of ethnicity, class, or religion. Real power is shown through mercy to one another and building community together.

2. It is a power constantly aware of the inherent, sinful nature of humanity.
The priest and the Levite are good examples of sin being humanity’s default. I don’t think the two men who didn’t help were two evil men, but rather were two humans who made a bad decision. Their reasons for doing so undergird the reasons for relying on #1 – power sustained by community. Each one made a decision not to help the man based on their own individual needs (fear? prejudice? time constraints?). In contrast, the Samaritan acts with mercy, but that doesn’t mean he is without sin throughout his life.

The theology of power must include recognition of temptation and sin, and rely on the community for accountability.

3. It is a power thats driving force is hope based on resurrection; the assurance that justice and reconciliation will rise from brokenness.
At the end of the story, Jesus challenges the lawyer to act mercifully. Jesus doesn’t offer guarantees that if he does it will mean that robbers will no longer roam the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.

Jesus also leaves the power with the man who asked the question. When asked by Jesus: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37, NRSV)

Whether we choose to engage with our neighbor or not – there is power in that choice. The Good Samaritan had to make a choice to engage with his neighbor. And then according to the NRSV, he made many more choices after that one (He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ vv. 34-35), each choice building the power of relationship with the man he was helping, and potentially between their two communities.

There is power in the choices the two passers-by made as well. Both the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side (v. 31, 32). A decision not to engage is still a decision. It’s still a choice, and there is power and fall-out from that choice. The two men didn’t just pass by on the other side. They made the decision not to stop.

Feeling powerless while ‘the world as it is’ sloshes around us is a normal reaction. Power comes from and is sustained by a hope that passes all understanding, a hope based on the power of the resurrection.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:1-6).

There is power in making the choice to stop and notice our neighbor.
There is power in recognizing that we are all broken, we all need mercy.
There is power in relationship, in community, and in hope.


Kathryn Johnston is pastor of Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsburg, PA. A graduate of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, Kathryn earned her M.Div. at Princeton Seminary. She and her wife have four children (3 ‘adulting’ out in the world, 1 in middle school), 2 cats and a lively lab mix named Teddy.

The Ability to Act

by Jessica Tate

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit be with you now and remain with you always. Alleluia! Amen.

I say these words almost every time I’m asked to offer a benediction. I’m struck that in church we talk a lot about grace and certainly about love, but I don’t hear too many conversations about power.

Power is, simply, the ability to act.

Participants in the 2018 community organizing cohort are taught about power

The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the oldest faith-based organizing network in the US, teaches leaders about power – what it is, how it works, how to build it and use it for the aims of justice. A key teaching from the IAF is that in order to make change in the world as it is, on behalf of the world as it should be, you have to build more power.

As people of faith, we dwell in the world as it should be. We are charged with sharing the promises of God where justice rolls down like water. Where mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Where love reigns.

As people of faith, we are confronted with the world as it is. Where people are suffering. Where we harm one another and are victims of harm. Where we forget our interconnectedness and become isolated. Where power reigns.

Again this key teaching: in order to make change in the world as it is, on behalf of the world as it should be, you have to build more power.

The kind of power we’re building matters. The IAF (and I would argue they borrowed this from Jesus) argues for building power with people. Not power over them or power for others, but power with people. This is the kind of power that is engaged, reciprocal, dynamic, expansive, open, and accountable, based on respect and trust. It is the kind of power Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described when he said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

The church at its best builds power with people in order to alleviate suffering and move us ever closer to the promised world as it should be. I have watched as congregations –

  • built up trusted relationships between adults and teenagers and engaged in education around mental health, anxiety, and depression as suicide rates rose in the community;
  • worked together to lobby the county for a new bus line so that folks can get to and from the Department for Health and Human Services more easily;
  • came together in the wake of blatant racism on the part of elected officials to examine the legacy of racism and forge new ways of leading together; and
  • developed a strong enough coalition to demand that banks reinvest $250 million in principal reduction and loan modifications to keep thousands of families from losing their homes in one of the counties hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.

There are countless other examples of congregations building their power to act in the world as it is on behalf of the world as it should be.

This month our blog will explore power through the reflections and experiences of members of the 2018 community organizing cohort. The reflections will range from scripture to theology to experiences with power and the lack of power to using power in ministry settings. Our hope is that their reflections will give shape and texture and nuance to the concept and use of power in the life of ministry.

People around us are suffering. As Christians, we claim good news. I am convinced that for this good news to be more than a nice idea, church leaders need to understand how power works and claim our own power to bring these values to life.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21)


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

Ecclesiology Informed by Organizing

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Ian Burch

I remember a chaplain supervisor years ago saying to our intern group, “I am a powerful person; it took me a long time to claim that.” He reflected that some people have charisma or passion that allows them to influence others. Power, in that sense, is related to charm and hopefully tempered by integrity. Our supervisor’s confidence and self-possession were a kind of power. His place higher than us in the organization gave him another kind of power. As baby chaplains, we were encouraged to think about the places where we have personal power — our gifts in ministry and our connections with others — and places where we have professional power — the collar, the title, the place in the institution.

That early introduction to personal and professional power has served me well in my ministry. I know that my ability to connect with others, my integrity, and my charm let me act persuasively in groups. I also know that my role in the church — as a priest, a senior pastor, a boss, a mentor — give me a place of power in the institution. From this position, I can influence policy, hire and fire, and release funds for projects I care about.

When we use the word power in community organizing circles, we’re talking about something different than the personal and professional power dialectic I was taught as a chaplain intern. The community organizer’s power can’t rest on charisma, and it certainly can’t rest on institutional position. To parrot back a common organizing mantra: power is organized money and organized people. Put another way, one person — no matter how gifted and no matter how well placed in an institution — simply cannot amass enough power for real change without first organizing money and people.

You might say that we’re not really talking about theology as classically understood — creation, sin, redemption, eschaton — rather, a discussion of an organizer’s power is really a kind of ecclesiology. What is the nature of the church? How is the Body of Christ organizing itself to be the hands of God in the world? In my Episcopal tradition, ecclesiology concerns itself with the proper roles and powers of bishops, priests, deacons, and the laity. It creates dioceses and provinces and calls councils to discuss pretty boring stuff. This is the inheritance of the church after Nicaea, with its mimicry of Roman hierarchies and state structures.

What if we looked at the pre-Nicene church for our inspiration to create an ecclesiology informed by organized people and money? I’m thinking about the book of Acts where Lydia is so moved by the preaching she hears that she brings her entire household — and her not insignificant checkbook — down to the river to be baptized (Acts 16). I’m thinking about the letter of Paul to the people of Philippi when he thanks them for their gift of money while at the same time sending them new co-workers for the building up of their church (Philippians 4). It seems that our pre-Nicene ancestors knew quite a lot about organizing money and organizing people to create change in the Mediterranean. Our ancestors created an archipelago of churches all over the world by connecting people and connecting money. That is a powerful witness that can inspire us today.

Church planters, by the way, know all this stuff. They meet, one-on-one, with people in the community to hear about their stories and share their own. Before you know it, four people are meeting in a living room and reading scripture. Those four meet four more. Now they are eight. Their concern is the connection between people. Those eight people each give ten bucks. Now you have some power to make some kind of change in the world. Eight Christians and $80 can do a lot, and not one of them has a fancy title. Organized people, and organized money — just like our sisters and brothers in the New Testament.

My modest proposal is this: our generation of theologians ought to look to the inspiration of the pre-Nicene church and their successes in organizing people and money as a blueprint for a new ecclesiology — one less concerned with rank and tradition and more concerned with being the Body of Christ as healing for a hurting world.


Ian Burch is an Episcopal priest and serves a medium-sized parish in Milwaukee. He is deeply interested in supporting and sustaining the growth of congregations and believes that community organizing principles have a lot to say about how to foster growth and vitality. The Presbyterians were very kind to let him crash the week-long community organizing training in Baltimore last Fall.

Engaging the Sarasota Statement

by Linda Kurtz

Back in March 2017, NEXT Church released the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. At the time, this is what Sarasota Statement facilitator Glen Bell had to say about it:

We believe in times of need or crisis, we are called to turn to the biblical and theological roots of our Christian faith to remember our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ and say anew what we believe.

Since then, the Sarasota Statement has given me words to say when I had none. In the aftermath of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA (just an hour across the state from me in Richmond), I quoted Part I of the Sarasota Statement because it was the only thing I could possibly do.

To the people we ignore, reject, or demonize for living outside the tribes we claim:We trust our Lord and Savior who…

Posted by NEXT Church on Saturday, August 12, 2017

When our national discourse conflates patriotism with anti-immigration or safety with fear of the “other,” I remember the Statement: “We commit to welcome and protect refugees and immigrants…. We denounce a culture of violence that brutalizes or alienates bodies on the basis of ability, sexual or gender identity, ethnicity, or color of skin.”

But the Sarasota Statement speaks in times of hopeful anticipation, too — like in Advent. Each Sunday this past Advent, I posted excerpts from the statement that spoke to that week’s theme, because the statement speaks of hope, peace, joy, and love.

On this third Sunday of #Advent, we recognize our joy comes from God – and that it compels us to act. #SarasotaStatement https://nextchurch.net/sarasota-statement-text/

Posted by NEXT Church on Sunday, December 17, 2017

I am grateful for all of the ways this document, written by a small representation of the PC(USA), has led me and challenged me throughout the past (almost) year.

And now, I’m excited about a new way to engage the Sarasota Statement and look more deeply into its core convictions. The writers of the Sarasota Statement just published a study guide so that you and me and communities of Christians all over can faithfully engage with the statement, scripture, our confessional heritage, and one another. The guide is broken down into five parts: Preamble, Part I, Part II, Part III, and Closing. With the exception of Closing, each part contains multiple questions about biblical themes, theological themes, and contextual themes, drawing upon scripture, our confessions, and our contemporary context to engage each part of the Sarasota Statement.

Their prayer — and mine — is that this study guide will  encourage each of us to examine our own faiths and core convictions, moving towards the development of faith statements across the Church. May the Sarasota Statement continue to be a resource in your own ministry, a reminder of the light of Christ, and a call to justice and radical love.


Linda Kurtz is the communications specialist for NEXT Church and a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. 

Seeing the Cross Again and Again for the First Time

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. The majority of blog posts this month will share stories from church leaders who participated in a pilot coaching cohort in 2017. They will share the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Roger J. Gench

I have a quandary. My quandary involves the cross — the central symbol of the Christian faith. We profess the centrality of the cross, but a critical dimension of it has virtually disappeared from ecclesial faith and practice: the cross as a public or political symbol that exposes not just the brokenness in our individual lives, but also the corresponding social and political brokenness in our world, for the two are intimately connected. This public dimension of the cross is, in my view, essential to the life of the church, but it is absent from too much of our life and faith.

To remedy this absence, for the last ten years or so I have been teaching, preaching and practicing a public theology of the cross, but it has not been easy! Thus, my quandary. I often find myself floundering as I’ve struggled to help folk understand it. However, my NEXT Church coaching cohort group is helping me to gain perspective on these struggles, perceived or real. To paraphrase Marcus Borg, I am seeing the cross again and again for the first time. Let me explain.

In the scholarly world, the theology of the cross has undergone significant change over the past 50 years, resulting in a recovery of more biblical understandings of the cross — for the New Testament presents a broader and richer range of perspectives on the cross than traditionally acknowledged, including what I am calling a public or political theology of the cross. From this perspective, the cross of Jesus represents the humiliating, dehumanizing abuse of power anywhere and everywhere it is exercised — on however large or small a scale. The cross is a place where all such abuse is exposed as not the way of God in the world, and also as a place where God seeks to bring life, healing, and justice in the midst of brokenness.

A public (or political) theology of the cross is grounded in our earliest biblical witnesses. The apostle Paul berated the Galatians with these words: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!” (Gal 3:1). As Pauline scholar Davina Lopez astutely observes, “Paul’s Galatians . . . did not see Jesus’ crucifixion, but they did not have to. There were plenty of examples before everyone’s eyes (in real life, in stone, on coins) of capture, torture, bondage, and execution of the others in the name of affirming Rome’s universal sovereignty through domination.”1 This quote represents a quintessential expression of public or political theology that sees the cross of Jesus as exposing other crosses, large and small all around us.

Theologian Ted Jennings puts it succinctly when he says that the cross represents a collision between the way of Jesus and the politics of domination.2 Kelly Brown Douglas is even more concrete and contemporary when she speaks about the crucified Jesus’ complete identification with the Trayvon Martins of our world. Moreover, she insists that this identification “with the lynched/ crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day.”3

A public or political theology of the cross has profound implications for every aspect of ministry — whether discernment about pastoral care, children’s ministry, budget allocations, staffing, committee configurations, and membership, to social witness and action — for our own wounds (marks of the cross) are deeply connected to the wounds of others in our community and world. Recognizing these interconnections can profoundly affect the way we do ministry.

My intentional focus on a public theology of the cross for the ministry of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church has included invitations to the session and other groups within the church to engage readings on the subject. I have also preached on the cross ad nauseum! I am even considered inviting the session to rewrite our twenty-year-old mission statement based on a discernment process that engages the spirituality of the cross. But the work has not been easy; indeed, at times I pondered giving it up! Yet the question my NEXT Church cohort group posed to me helped put all of this in perspective. Their question was this: “How would you know if this understanding of the cross was reflected in your ministry?” How would I know?

Buddhism teaches that every symbol is a finger pointing to the moon. In other words, a symbol points to a reality not completely captured in the symbol. So a symbol like the cross needs to be “light on its toes” — it can be reflected in varied and expansive ways. Compassion, for example, is a sign of the cross when it moves beyond patronization into real interrelation with others who are suffering. When Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:19), he is intensely identifying with the crucified of the earth. It seems to me that Paul’s theology of the cross resonates with statements by the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh — “killing someone is killing yourself”4 — and James Cone — “When whites lynched blacks, they were literally lynching themselves – their sons, daughters, cousins.”5

So how would I know if a political understanding of the cross was reflected in my ministry? I suppose the truth is that I will never completely know, because the cross is a finger pointing to the moon. But there are intimations of it in every act of compassion — even an act that begins in patronization can, by the power of the Spirit, open us to the possibility of identification with the crucified, of seeing our wounds in the wounds of others. By the power of the Spirit, there are also intimations of the cross every time someone rails against an abuse, because harm of any one person harms all of us — as Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”6 Indeed, I’ve come to realize that intimations of the cross are present everywhere in the ministry of the church because the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ is present there too. It’s like learning to see the cross again and again for the first time.

Davina Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 163.
Theodore Jennings, Transforming Atonement: A Political Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 61
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (New York: Orbis, 2015), 174.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society (Berkeley CA: Parallax Press, 2012), 109.
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 165.
Letter From the Birmingham Jail.


Roger Gench is pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC and author of the book Theology from the Trenches: Reflections on Urban Ministry.

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 Cultivated 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.


Editor’s note: The full field guide is now available for free download! Check it out —

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.