by Stephen Smith-Cobbs
We began out on the side porches of The Church of the Pilgrims with coffee, bagels, and a gentle but persistent breeze that was a portent of things to come in more ways than one. While we all were more than aware of the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Sandy and her high winds and heavy rains, I am not sure we were as aware of the coming of the Spirit. But the NEXT church leadership conference, “Dynamic Church in a Time of Change,” was one occasion when the Spirit came.
With song and a choral reading of the Pentecost story from Acts, pastors Jeff Krehbiel and Ashley Goff of the Pilgrims church welcomed the participants and shared the story of the worship life of their congregation. Just as the story of Pentecost came to us from all directions in the choral reading, the worship life of Pilgrims seeks to involve worshippers in multiple ways. Worship at Pilgrims strives to be EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-driven, and connectional). The Pilgrims congregation believes that God is calling them to be a community of transformation that engages newcomers, especially young adults, in the practices of Christian community. At this NEXT church event, the whole day was itself a reflection of this kind of worship experience … as the Spirit came.
Jud Hendrix, Coordinator of the Ecclesia Project, a ministry of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, used images and poetry as he shared reflections on leadership. As we did throughout the day, participants broke into triads for sharing impressions and thoughts about what was presented. Judd used several poems that became the basis for examples of and lessons in leadership. He spoke of prototyping, which he defined as a short-term experiment for the purpose of learning – as opposed to the way some use the term “prototype” to speak of a kind of model for solving a problem. Jud closed the morning with the “Broken Toaster” game, in which we might take apart a toaster, and then, instead of trying to put it back together exactly as it was, we instead ask what the Spirit wants to do with all the component parts. What can the Spirit do or create with these parts? And the Spirit came …
During lunch we used an “Open Space” approach to breaking into small groups. Individuals who wished to lead a discussion were invited to share the topic they wished to discuss (like “Biblical Story Telling,” “How to Make Friends in Church” and “Creating Relationships and Community in Worship”). These leaders stationed themselves at various tables in the fellowship hall and participants brought their lunch to a tables according to their interest. Of course, some only wanted to share fellowship and conversation over lunch and several did just that.
We returned from lunch to hear Jud share the remarkable story of the Ecclesia Project and how God used some unlikely folks to help begin new communities of faith in Mid-Kentucky Presbytery. One important leadership distinction Jud mentioned was how, rather than funding one large project with one large set of funds, the Ecclesia Project used one large set of funds to make multiple small grants for wildly different initiatives, trusting the same Spirit of Christ that spoke in many different languages at Pentecost to work in many different ways in their presbytery. And the Spirit came …
The final theme for the day was mission. Andrew Foster-Connors and Jessica Tate shared their experiences of how community organizing had made a difference in the ministries of their congregations, as well as their own personal ministries. The very definition of the word “mission” was transformed for them through broad-based organizing in their congregations. Where mission had previously been defined as “helping the less fortunate,” mission now meant “sending.”
In their experience, broad-based organizing provided a framework for living into God’s mission as it shifted the church from a maintenance culture to a relational culture. They spoke of the changes organizing had brought as their churches shifted from groups to actions, to having a higher accountability to outcomes and results, and from doing one thing from eight different directions instead of doing eight different things superficially. They closed with a challenging question: What would need to happen in your church to begin to shift you from a culture of maintenance to a relational culture of action? I’m guessing one thing for sure would need to happen: the Spirit would need to come…
We concluded the day gathering around the table. Literally. Everyone got up and out of the pews and gathered (as Jeff Krehbiel put it, “by gather we mean crowd”) all around the Lord’s Table in the center of the sanctuary. There several elders from Pilgrims church, along with their pastors, led us in the communion liturgy of word and song and then shared the elements among us all. After sharing the communion, we all gathered in a large circle and held hands as we sang the John Bell hymn:
“Take, O take me as I am;
Summon out what I can be;
Set your strength upon my heart and live through me.”
Speaking for myself, it was a great and grand day to share with disciples of Jesus. I left refreshed, renewed, and fed – both body and soul. I left hopeful for the NEXT church. For, indeed, the Spirit had come. And I am confident that the Spirit, just as Jesus promised, will come again.
Stephen Smith-Cobbs is one of the pastors of Trinity Presbyterian in Herndon, VA. He is a native Texan and graduate of Austin College in Sherman, Texas and Princeton Theological Seminary. Before coming to Trinity in 1997, he pastored two congregations in Texas. His current ministry passions include “what unites us as followers of Jesus Christ and what it means for us to be the church in the 21st century.”