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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.

Intent

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Michael McNamara

Intent. All prayer starts with intent.

In the beginning the intent might be a selfish desire to get something or achieve something. The intent might be to satisfy an elder or even a loved one. The intent might be to look good in public amongst peers; the intent might be to show off, as Jesus accused the scribes and the Pharisees of doing.
If one prays enough though, those original intents can begin to melt away. There is another intent that begins to emerge. At first, it is quiet and subtle, buried deep below the surface. It might start with the thought that one should not ask for things in prayer; it might be a desire to pray in solitude even if one has only ever prayed in public; it might come in a moment of seeking prayer apart from the person that has always been present before.

Over time this shift becomes greater. One might feel a need to pray, but is unable to find words; one might feel a necessity for silence; one might find themselves unable to make it through a day without stopping and giving themselves to something larger than themselves, deeper than their own capacity of experience.

Over time, one may begin to deeply understand that the intent of prayer is to simply be present to God.

I have come to appreciate this through the help of contemplatives like Gerald May, Thomas Keating, and Tilden Edwards. And as I have come to appreciate this, I have started to realize that with this intent, nearly all things can become prayer. That an intent to be in the simple presence of God is something that can guide one’s whole being,. One’s life can be intent to be present to God. When a person is intentionally present to God, simply and in still, patient awareness of the freely given Love of God, there exists the capacity to be transformed into the hands and feet of God, to exist as the body of Christ in the world.

One of the hopes of the NEXT Chuch blog this month is to share with the mainline church lessons garnered from contemplative practice. This lesson of intent is powerful. It is simple, yet in it is the capacity to “be reformed.”

What is your intent in worship? What is your intent with mission and outreach? What is your intent with leadership? What is your intent with stewardship? What is your intent as a congregation? The contemplatives offer a simple answer: to be present to God.

And even more than that, what if worship on Sunday morning was an intentional space to practice this intention? To practice it so one can live it out the rest of the week? What if the intent of worship was to practice presence in and awareness of God so that in the rest of one’s life they can more confidently live into this intent? In this scenario worship is not an end in itself; it is a means to God becoming actualized in more places. It is a means to God’s love in one’s community beyond the walls of the church.

Contemplation, then, is not something a person does for themselves; rather, it is something that is done for the community, for the world, because contemplation is the practice of letting God in, and by letting God in, God goes out.

It is with the intent to be present to God and to deepen awareness of God that the Love of God becomes manifest.

What is your intent?


Mike McNamara is a Presbyterian pastor serving Adelphi Presbyterian Church in Adelphi, MD, as well as forming a New Worshipping Community rooted in contemplative practice in Silver Spring, MD. Mike has a beautiful wife and two young boys ages 2 and 4. He has a particularly strong love of rock climbing and good coffee. Catch him at RevMcNamara.com and on instagram: @a_contemplative_life.

A New Vision of the Old, Old Story

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 Jonathan Coppedge-Henley

On Maundy Thursday, I sat in the chapel of a seminary with about nine other people to remember Jesus’ last night before he was killed. The ten of us represented things that past generations of church might not have envisioned. I, a straight United Methodist pastor, shared leadership with a gay Presbyterian pastor. Our group was diverse in age, gender identity, denominational histories, and ethnicity, paying no mind to the old discriminations of too much of church life in America. We needed this service to demonstrate that we all belong to God. My friend made that real for me in a way that made me feel like we were part of something beyond just us.

The old “triumphal” version of Christianity was nowhere to be found as we tried to embody Jesus’ commandment to his disciples: love one another. Instead of getting a liturgy from a publishing house, I put the liturgy together myself, combining high doses of introspection and accountability with the Gospel readings and the Communion and foot/hand washing rituals. The guitar player from my friend’s congregation played music he had written, music that set the tone for something intimate and real, nothing packaged, nothing made for sale. We were small and decidedly not worried about attendance numbers or finances. I think we saw a new vision of the old, old story of Jesus.

In the late 1990s at the first parish I served, the postmaster in that town told me that she always asked new residents which denomination they claimed so that she could both give them directions to the church and also — get this! — send their contact information to the pastor of the “church of their choice.” That violation of privacy actually seemed normal to her! To her, churches still had a vague belief that newborns were the “future of the church,” that churches held a foundational part of the community, and that new folks were just out looking for a church to attend.

Denominations trusted these time-tested theories, so they built their new churches in high development suburbs having only slightly adapted to new cultural circumstances, believing that church was like cereal to people — everyone bought it so the only question was which one. Because those emerging generations had lots of questions, we created “seeker sensitive” worship services intended to address those questions by still funneling people towards the “right” answers. Church leadership learned to measure success by the numbers: attendance, contributions, staff size, square footage, number of programs, and the number of those who participated in programs.

By those standards, the Maundy Thursday service my friends and I put together would have been considered a failure, partly because it would have been desperately confusing to know which church got to claim the attendance numbers, and partly because in my misguided denomination my partner in leadership would not be allowed to fully respond to how grace has called him as a husband or as a minister.

Perhaps denominational fiefdoms, standardization of doctrine, segregation of worshipping communities, and the straightness, whiteness, and maleness of mainline Protestantism served some purpose (God only knows what). But while God has always been up to something new, the institutional American church has generally shown little capacity to do anything more than repackage the product — a product that in practice has often had little to do with Jesus the deliverer and more to do with Jesus the logo.

We are now learning that what we were doing, particularly in terms of our funding model, isn’t sustainable. We find ourselves staring at a different situation with less certain paths. This new frontier has the potential to reform the ways in which the people of Jesus practice what he taught, but it is clearly scary to many in the pews and many in the institutional offices. Hopefully the loss of our privileged stature in society will remind us to repent of how we’ve let go of our essential mission to love God, love everybody, and teach others to do the same. Jesus still speaks to people. People still need the love, accountability, honesty, and grace that Jesus expects and that Jesus people are called to offer. The difference is that people are now emboldened to admit that they don’t find those things in the institutional church any more. This is a chance for the church to recalibrate and let go of some idols.

For us the question now is what we should have been asking all along: what is God doing and how can we be part of it? From simply talking to people, you realize pretty quickly that many folks didn’t wait for the permission or vision of the church before setting out to meet the real needs of the world: caring for the poor and the migrants, actively combating racist systems, caring for the environment, searching for solutions to everything from homelessness to the re-segregation of schools to the cruelty of gentrification to the economic injustices that define too many workplaces. Many who don’t attend church long ago embraced that same-sex couples deserve the human dignity of a marriage ceremony. God didn’t wait on the church to get things done. In fact, I’ve come to believe that many of my non-church friends are better doers of the Word than the people who read it every Sunday morning.

People need what we’ve always needed: spiritual and physical safety and nourishment; we’ve always needed places to belong. That Maundy Thursday service sure felt close to what God is doing, close to the kingdom Jesus dreamed about. We know he likes to challenge our assumptions about what it means to follow him — a service led by a gay pastor and a straight pastor, a Presbyterian and a United Methodist, might challenge some assumptions. But what I know is that the willingness to belong to one another in that one hour helped us belong to Jesus in ways previously unimagined. God did and is doing a brand new thing.


Having grown up in the North Carolina mountains, Jonathan Coppedge-Henley has a deep appreciation for folks whose voices are ignored, under represented, or misunderstood. He has been a United Methodist pastor for 23 years in urban, suburban, and rural churches, He has been a church planter and has served historic congregations. He has some extraordinary worship experiences and tripped all over himself in some others. He has held numerous leadership positions in the United Methodist Church, particularly in campus ministry, but he also has an extensive background in community development. For five years he was the host of the Road Signs radio show on the alternative rock station in Charlotte in which he highlighted alternative rock songs as ways to make sense of life. He is a clergy coach to residents in ordained ministry and he writes weekly columns for the Morganton News Herald. As his current side gig, he is preparing to launch Neighborhood Table, a non-profit coffee shop, pub, and co-working space that will host community-building story-telling, artist collaboration, conversation, and peacemaking. Jonathan and his wife Elizabeth, also a United Methodist pastor, have two wonderfully sarcastic children, Owen and Lora, and vicious watch dog, their Berne-doodle, Homer.

2019 National Gathering Tuesday Worship

Call to Worship

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

Hymn: Lead Me, Guide Me

Prayer of Confession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assurance of Grace

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

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

Scripture: Matthew 15:21-28 (MSG)

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

Contemporary Voice: Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon

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

Scripture: Ruth 1: 19-22 (MSG)

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

Anthem: Total Praise

Sermon: Bitter

Song: Joyful Joyful

Communion

Invitation to the Table

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

Words of Institution

Sharing of the Bread and Cup

Prayer of Thanksgiving

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

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

Closing Song: Great Is Your Faithfulness

2019 National Gathering Monday Worship Kriah

Led by Rev. Tasha Hicks McCray.

Kriah is a Hebrew word meaning “tearing.” It refers to the act of tearing one’s clothes or cutting a black ribbon worn on one’s clothes. This rending is a striking expression of grief and anger at the loss of a loved one. Kriah is an ancient tradition.

Sent Out into the World

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

by Andy Kort

The benediction. It is usually the last spoken piece in worship and is spared the distinction of being the last piece only by the inclusion of a postlude. The benediction is perhaps the shortest element in the worship service, usually only a few seconds to complete. Maybe that’s why people often love it. It is a blessing offered at the end, a simple and wonderful way to remember that God’s help, guidance, and grace goes with us as we leave the sanctuary. I hope that’s actually the real reason why people love it. But in my mind, the benediction and the accompanying charge serves as more than a blessing. I also see it as a line of demarcation, with a before and an after.

What happens before shapes what comes after. Think about the typical Sunday morning and all that happens before the benediction. There is an education hour complete with Bible studies, conversations about faith, kids in Sunday school, prayer in the chapel, and people catching up about their lives from the last week. Before the benediction there are all the other elements of a worship service. We are called together, we praise God, we confess our sins and hear we are forgiven, we pass the peace, and we read God’s Word and then proclaim it in sermon and song. We share our gifts as we are called to generosity, we pray, we sing, and on really good days we celebrate the sacraments. In all of this we hear about God’s reconciling and liberating work in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. We hear about love, justice, mercy, compassion, and more. We cannot help but be shaped by this. And in turn this shapes what happens after the benediction.

What usually happens after the benediction? In the congregation I serve, the pastors recess from the chancel and position themselves to greet worshipers at the doors. The worshipers either stay seated for the postlude or get up and begin to disperse. Eventually we all go into our fellowship hall for coffee hour. Then what? Do we all just go home until next week? No. We go into the world as people shaped by all that happens before the benediction, ready to do the work after the benediction. For many of us, that involves mission activity that has been informed and interpreted through our worship, Christian education, fellowship, and even committee meetings during the week.

Many of us love to quote St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body on earth now but yours, no hands…no feet…no eyes…but yours.” To that I would also add ears. Maybe even before we are the hands and feet, we are the eyes and ears, looking and listening, witnessing and watching what is going on in worship, but also in our neighborhood, community, and world. Once we learn more about what is going on around us, we are in a better position to engage while responding to being sent into our communities to work with our neighbors. This can also save us from imposing on our neighbors what we assume they need, or helping them with things they don’t really need or even want.

I recently spent time listening to church members through surveys and ethnographic interviews to understand what is important to them as it relates to mission, how they understand mission, and feelings on what we have been doing. I also listened to community agencies to hear more about their needs. The results were informative and led us to adjust what we were doing. Some things changed, others were dropped, and a few new things began. One example of a new initiative is our “pop up missions” where we learn of an immediate need and try to help. But we also strengthened relationships with existing mission partners like Montgomery, West Virginia (15 years), a Catholic church in Nicaragua (20 years), and many local groups.

After the benediction we don’t just get coffee in fellowship hall. We are sent out into the world, our neighborhoods, our communities, and our homes to participate in what God is doing. What is God doing? A whole lot. Christian education, the elements of worship help us to understand “who is our neighbor?” it informs our understanding and biblical best practices. We get a reminder that we are called, equipped, and sent out by God. And as we are sent out, we receive a blessing to send us on our way. It’s absolutely beautiful.


Andy Kort is senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, Indiana.

Stewardship in Today’s Culture

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

by Larissa Kwong Abazia

Let’s be honest: It’s either stewardship season or the congregation’s own sustainability that get our fiscal attention in the church. The act has been expanded to include “time, talent, and treasure” but is this simply a strategy to make people give more, feel good about what they decided to give, or calm anxieties about “the ask” rather than embrace a fuller understanding of what offering is meant to be?

I’m just going to cut to the chase and share these knowledgeable words from Walter Brueggemann: “We live in a society that would like to bracket out money and possessions (politics and economics) from ultimate questions. The Bible insists otherwise. It insists that the issues of ultimacy are questions about money and possessions. Biblical testimony invites a serious reconsideration of the ways in which our society engages or does not engage questions of money and possessions as carriers of social possibility.” As long as we continue to engage in the offering as merely a financial ask for the church’s vitality, we disregard the call to discipleship that requires us to see money and possessions as a disruptive force for change in ourselves and the world.

We must rid ourselves of a few myths:

Myth #1: What you possess is due to the success of the work of your own hands. Need we be reminded who created each one of us, who claimed us in our mother’s womb before we drew our first breaths? We cannot celebrate being created and called by God, yet avoid the required response to give back what was never ours in the first place.

Myth #2: Offering and stewardship are primarily about maintaining, sustaining, or building a legacy. A budget should neither define the life of the church nor its endowments or investments be solely about its own future. It ultimately reflects what we value and where we place our trust (consider looking at the church budget through this lens at the next meeting!). Withholding the money and possessions of the congregation risks keeping us from the exact neighborhoods in which our faith communities reside. We must stop utilizing the first fruits of what we collect for the church, giving only scraps out after our needs are determined.

Myth #3: Offering is what we give inside the walls of the church. We need to act as though what we do inside the church has the power to transform how we live outside of the walls; the concept of giving does not stop at the offering plate but involves every way that we choose to use or cling to our money and possessions.

Myth #4: Offering is just about money and finances. Racism, sexism, other-ing, assumptions, and hierarchies impact our engagement with and participation in Christian life together. We are called to a different kind of community: a diverse gathering of people who create a new lifestyle together. So when our churches say, “All are welcome,” it means that the visitor and stranger transform us, not the other way around. It also means that those who have power, privilege, and authority must share and/or utilize these possessions for the good of the whole.

What would happen if money and possessions were seen as disruptive forces of change for the church and people of faith? We would see Christ in every face and respond with hospitality, generosity, and love. We would acknowledge the truth that, if the marginalized remain in our midst, our money and possessions continue to oppress the exact neighbors we are called to care for and love.

American culture encourages us to clench our fists, take care of ourselves and those we love for first, and celebrate the freedom of individualism. Instead, our faith calls us to challenge these assumptions and live in a community where everyone’s needs are met and all contributions are celebrated, no matter the size. We need to witness to and embody Christian communities where the binary structures of this world (insider/outsider, foreigner/citizen, us/them, have/have nots) are replaced with a true reflection of the body of Christ.


Larissa Kwong Abazia is a pastor, speaker, writer, and consultant with the Vandersall Collective. She is also the project manager and a team member for the Collective Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting research into fundraising practices in Christian communities of color. Larissa was the Vice Moderator of the 221st General Assembly and has served churches in Chicago, New York City, and throughout New Jersey.

Contemplation in a Status Quo World

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

by Mary Beene

Yesterday was a very busy day. I had several projects with looming deadlines and an evening gathering at my office. At 8:30 am I still had parts and pieces of an unfinished DIY bookshelf scattered across the office floor and little bits of Styrofoam packing stuck to every surface in the room. So I settled into my still cold room, sat on the hard floor screwdriver in hand, and finished the bookcase. Then I gathered my cleaning supplies, ran the vacuum and by 10:30 am everything was ready for the night’s event.

That’s when I sat on the couch in the corner of the now cozy office and admired my handiwork. I read a psalm and pondered the Lord’s judgment and the Earth’s joy. And then I sat for a few minutes more. Of course, the urgency of the day fell upon my spirit once my hands and mind were free to wander. I almost jumped up to begin the next phase of the day’s work.

But something stilled me, and I sat for many minutes more in silence, admiring the room, marveling at how God has guided me and uplifted me as I started my own spiritual direction practice, and thanking the Spirit for this blissful moment of quiet before the next thing.

When was the last time you let yourself take a moment of stillness in the midst of a busy day and a busy life? We are taught to admire people who rush through the day, accomplishing so much more than seems humanly possible. If we are wage workers, we know that there is no grace from our employers if we are caught staring into space, even if we know that in our hearts we are glorifying God.

Sometimes I even deny myself stillness at the end of a long day. I try to get in that last bit of housework, watch that program everyone is watching, catch up on Facebook, or even play a game on my phone. If I sit there doing “nothing” someone is bound to come and fill that time for me; but no one bothers me if I am still “busy” with anything that looks demanding.

As a spiritual director I teach contemplative prayer. And it is very important, because quieting our minds and opening our hearts to God is a skill that must be learned. It sounds like it should be simple, but even if I close my eyes right now, I can feel the urge well up to run in circles.

I recently learned of a Presbyterian church in Colorado that started an experiment 20 years ago to do contemplative/centering prayer as a part of their everyday church life. Now, two decades later, spiritual practices are a part of every dimension of the congregation’s life: time for deep prayer in worship, session meetings, Bible study, fellowship and mission. It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but it grew organically from the mustard seed of an experiment: what would happen if we took time for stillness?

This morning my office is in a shambles again. It’s not just the glasses and plates that need washing, the regular remains of a lovely party. Unfortunately, one leg of my cute but ancient loveseat choose last night to shatter and crash my poor guests to the floor.

Though I smiled, apologized for the unexpected dumping, and assured everyone that it was no big deal, my heart sank and my mind started racing again. I really love that couch, though it looks this morning like last night was its final party. It helped make the office cozy. And, of course, there’s no money in the budget to replace it.

After the guests left, I jumped into action. The computer came out – how much would it cost to replace a loveseat; is there any money in the bank, are there local stores I can visit in the morning, is there any chance at all there’s a youtube video on fixing ancient couch legs that are probably well past the “fixing” stage?

But this morning I realize there’s one thing I need to do before I rush into action, before the dishes are cleared, the floor is swept again, and the arduous process of replacing the loveseat begins. I am going to sit in the corner of my still cozy office, read a psalm, ponder the wonder of God’s grace and stay for as long as the Lord can hold me fast in a strong embrace. But I suppose today I’ll do it from a chair.


Mary Beene is a spiritual director, retreat leader and facilitator in Savannah, GA for Openings: Let the Spirit In (www.letthespiritin.com). She has her Masters in Public Administration from American University, her M.Div. from Boston University and is a graduate of the Shalem Institute’s Spiritual Direction Program. Her special interests include contemplative discernment for individuals and congregations and writing spiritual memoir as a tool for resiliency.

What Do We Bring From the Table?

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

by Barb Hedges-Goettl

It’s commonplace to talk about what one person or another “brings to the table” as a reflection of the desire increase the available gifts and skills. However, since at the Lord’s Table, God does most of the bringing and we partake of and participate in what God gives, the question could be turned around to ask: what do we receive and take from the Table?

Historic practices of the Lord’s Supper have attended to the past actions of Christ Jesus in the crucifixion; to the spiritual more than to the physical; to fencing rather than opening. While they have not clearly signified bounty, the loaf is bigger, the cup deeper, and the Table wider than these practices would imply.

Our past, present, and future lie in God. We celebrate what — by the power of the Holy Spirit — God has done, is doing, and will do. The Supper signals not only Jesus’ crucifixion but his resurrected presence today. Christ Jesus is present, incarnate in and for the world, not imprisoned in the past or in the rite. Thus, from the Table we receive and take the present presence of Christ Jesus.

The Supper forecasts our eternal presence together with Christ Jesus in the joyful feast, the great banquet, the marriage supper of the Lamb. It participates in the “Not Yet” as well as in the “Now.” From the Table, we receive and take part in God’s ongoing work in the world, proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and love.

The meal is not ours. It doesn’t belong to this particular church, this particular community, or this denomination. Since it belongs to Christ Jesus, the lost, the suffering, the different, the “Other,” and sinners (even Judas!) are at the Table. Everyone brings who they are and what they have, and from this God makes a potluck dinner party. And so from the Table we receive and take being present with and for one another.

At this Table, we are offered what is central to life. In Jesus’ time, this was bread. As a Korean friend of mine has suggested, in Asian countries it could be rice. In the USA, it might be meat and potatoes. From the Table we receive and take the “meat” of life: God incarnate shared with all people as made in God’s image.

From the Table we receive and take the sanctification of the physical stuff of life. Going beyond even the best language for worship (as described by the Directory for Worship), what we receive and take is more expressive than rationalistic; a matter of affect rather than just thought; a building up and persuading as well as an informing and describing; ardor as well as order. It is an expressing of the whole community’s utterance, as well as the individual’s devotion. This eucharistic experience of faith is visceral as well as intellectual; active as well as contemplative; embodied as well as inspirited; enacted as well as verbalized. (Like Calvin, we experience it more than we understand it.) And so from the Table we receive and take an experience of faith that encompasses all that we are and have.

The Lord’s Supper is not to be scarfed up by those who get to the Table first so that others have nothing. That’s not how the body of Christ works. The koinonia, the body of Christ, is shared. It includes weak and strong, prominent and lowly, not just as distinct categories, but as the mixture found within each person. And so from this Table of koinonia, we receive and take the body of Christ for all of us.

Like at the meals Jesus shared with the thousands for whom he also “blessed, broke, and gave” bread, there is more than enough for all. All eat their fill with basketsful leftover. Maybe the Table should bear a cornucopia. Maybe the cup — whether little individual cups or the large communal cup — should sometimes overflow, brimming over in wild abandon, for from the Table we receive and take plentitude, wild provisioning, Abundanza, God’s uncontainable overflowingness.

[Receive.]
Take.
Eat.
This is Christ’s body, broken for you.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.


Barb Hedges-Goettl is a Presbyterian pastor and worship geek who loves delving into the Word to find words for work of liturgy. She live in the Philadelphia area and currently uses her writing and teaching (and pastoring) skills with inner-city middle school special ed students.

Youth and the Lord’s Table in the Real World

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

by Cheryl Carson

How enthusiastic are you about coming to the Lord’s Table for communion? That was a question I posed to 16 high school students as part of my recent doctoral research. What emerged was an interesting tension between their passion for the sacrament and their boredom with the ritual.

The good news was that nearly two-thirds said they were very or extremely enthusiastic. John, an 18-year old high school senior, who was one of two who were extremely enthusiastic said, “It’s a way of connecting to God… I’m more of a hands-on person (rather) than just listening, so I think that’s part of what I enjoy.” Matt, a 15-year-old 10th grader said he was moderately to very enthusiastic “because I realize it’s important, and it’s necessary to take part in. But, I’ve done it a lot and it’s special but not very exciting.”

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a practice of corporate worship where we join with the risen Christ in a meal of remembrance and thanksgiving. But as the youth discovered during our focus group discussions, there are many additional meanings that are rarely lifted up.

In the book, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, the authors proclaim that youth are trying to answer three questions: “Who am I? Where do I fit? What difference do I make?” Where can students better explore and discover their identity, belonging, and purpose as disciples of Christ than through the celebration of the Lord’s Supper?

The youth shared stories of their most memorable experiences of communion. They also, in two focus group discussions, offered their suggestions for making the Lord’s Supper more meaningful. They watched a video available through the PC(USA) entitled, “Communion: A Feast of Grace.” As they watched, they wrote down meanings of communion they heard. The one meaning upon which both groups wanted to build their Lord’s Supper liturgy was the theme of all being welcome. It was important to them to convey that everyone has a place at the table.

The scripture passage both groups selected, unbeknownst to one another, was the feeding of the 5,000. It spoke powerfully to them of the welcome offered by all being fed. They chose to follow the basic liturgical ritual found in the Book of Common Worship. They did not want to dispose of tradition. They wanted to build on it by making communion a full-bodied, sensory experience within that liturgical structure. We need not simply stick to a rote recitation of the Invitation, Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, and Words of Institution. The youth want to engage all the senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. And when we offer a multi-sensory experience, research tells us the memory of the experience is more lasting.

Here is a sampling of the students’ liturgical ideas:

Intinction was identified as a more intimate experience for a number of youth. They felt a greater sense of Christ’s presence by coming forward to be served. And they got a deeper feeling of Christ’s love when the server said, “The body of Christ given for you,” as they pulled a piece of bread from the loaf.

Adding visual elements was suggested by a student based on an experience at a youth conference. Everyone had placed their handprints on a cloth. The cloth was later used on the communion table to symbolize the community gathered at the Table.

One person recalled World Communion Sunday at their church when a variety of breads were served. The different breads provided a representational nod to people around the world who were also participating in communion that day.

It requires some creative thought and extra planning to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with more verve. But, it is effort well spent in order to engage our youth in communion and to potentially reveal Christ in new ways.

If you would like the article length summary of the research project which includes the Lord’s Supper liturgy developed by the youth, please email me at ccarson@cfpresbytery.org.


Cheryl Carson is the Associate Executive Presbyter for Central Florida Presbytery. She advises the Presbytery’s Youth Council, serves as staff liaison to the Leadership Development Committee, resources congregations and their members, and oversees the presbytery’s communications. Cheryl has a Doctor of Educational Ministries degree from Columbia Theological Seminary. She also has her Masters of Christian Education from Union-PSCE (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) in Richmond and a Masters of Mass Communication from the University of Florida. (Go Gators!) She is also a Certified Christian Educator in the PC(USA). Cheryl and her husband, Bill, live in Merritt Island, FL with their dog and four cats.