Next Church asks what’s next for the church

“We are not losing people to other churches” that are more glamorous or trendy, said Scott Black Johnston, pastor of Fifth Avenue Church in New York. “Our biggest competition is not the parish around the corner, but the New York Times and a nicely-toasted sesame bagel.”

What’s a little fuzzier is what will come next.

The folks who came to this conference were mostly from the progressive to moderate side of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – and they talked about hope and risk, about good ideas and initiatives already percolating in the church, about the value of staying in fellowship with Presbyterians who are more conservative than they are politically and theologically.

They also spoke of not being afraid – of racing around town, as a schoolteacher elder did in the first church where Lewis Galloway served as a pastor, in a station wagon filled with children from troubled families who she picked up and brought to church and to whom she demonstrated week after week the power of grace and faith and love. Another elder said to Galloway more recently of a carefully-crafted church strategic plan: “It says nothing about taking risks for the kingdom of God.”

Presbyterians at this conference said their desire is not to save a denomination some see as crumbling – but to listen and to follow where God is leading. Joe Clifford, pastor of First Church in Dallas, introduced the idea – gleaned from the book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, by Steven Johnson – of “the adjacent possible.”

That’s the concept, taken from prebiotic chemistry and the writings of scientist Stuart Kauffman, of all the molecular reactions that could possibly be achieved by the combinations of the molecules present in the planet’s development. As Johnson wrote: “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

So what’s the “adjacent possible” for the PC(USA)? The Next Church organizers tried to focus the discussion around the ideas of mission, vocation and connection, and to discuss best practices and good ideas, “so we will not leave overwhelmed,” as Agnes Norfleet, pastor of Shandon Church in Columbia, S.C., put it.

There was some criticism that this group was not as diverse as it needs to be – that it tilted too heavily towards clergy, and that people of color, immigrants, elders, and young people were not adequately represented. Some Twitter commentators pointed out that not everyone can afford to travel cross-country to a conference held on weekdays – that technology might provide interactive ways for others to get involved. The group did include about 70 seminary students, whose travel costs were paid for by a group of churches and contributions from the seminaries, said Galloway, pastor of the host church for the conference, Second Church in Indianapolis.

There were also at least two tangible subtexts of this conference. These subtexts may not have been discussed directly, but an awareness of them certainly colored the discussion

Deathly ill. One, this conference was not organized in response to the letter released Feb. 2 by a group of large-church pastors describing the denomination as “deathly ill;” the Next Church conference was in planning long before that. But there were periodic references here to that group of 45 evangelical pastors whose congregations have significant membership and resources, and some of whom are considering leaving the PC(USA), although they also are exploring possible new alignments within the denomination.

Jim Singleton, pastor of First Church in Colorado Springs and a member of the group that wrote the letter, attended the Next Church conference – sort of an emissary from those evangelicals. Repeatedly, Next Church attendees spoke of the value and importance of remaining in fellowship with those of differing views.

“The church has never been the church because we agree with one another,” said Tom Are Jr., pastor of Village Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. “The church has been the church because we love one another.”

During an open microphone session, one 26-year-old man said simply: “I don’t believe that our church is deathly ill,” describing the young people with whom he works as deeply passionate about justice, about the places where faith comes to life.

“Let’s continue to share these wonderful ideas,” he said. “Let’s focus on how good we are, and where we are doing some things that are right.”

Johnston, in his sermon, said he hears the pain of those who declare the PC(USA) is “deathly ill” or that, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University has suggested, that North American Protestantism is dying. He has another idea.

Maybe “God has sent us into exile,” Johnston said, because the denomination has spent most of the last 30 years “playing court politics” instead of caring for the most vulnerable.

At General Assembly, “we politicize everything,” he said, and “we have winners who declare God’s will has been done and losers who say God’s will has been thwarted.”

We say “our methods are necessary because our goals are so lofty, but all we have really done is sell our souls,” Johnston said. “Young Americans have been taking note. They have been watching,” with many young adults – part of the Sunday morning sesame-bagel crowd – concluding that churches are hypocritical.

“Is it any wonder,” Johnston said, “that God has chosen this moment in time to shake us up?”

Ordaining gays and lesbians. There was also not an overt focus at Next Church regarding the presbyteries’ vote on Amendment 10A – which would remove from the PC(USA)’s constitution the requirement that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are not.

That proposed amendment, which the General Assembly passed in July 2010, needs the approval of a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries in order to take effect. In recent weeks, momentum definitely seems to have swung in that direction, with an increasing number of presbyteries switching from voting “no” in the past to dropping the “fidelity and chastity” standard to “yes” this time around. Some are predicting this will be the year the PC(USA) will drop its opposition to ordaining sexually-active gays and lesbians.

While many in this crowd support such a change, they did not cheer publicly about that possibility. There was some effort to peer into the future – to see what might lie ahead as so many things in the denomination continue to change, and to set a conciliatory tone. Tom Are said that many at the conference were raised in a “Presbyterian ecosystem” of a much different time – and that entire world has changed.

Ordination standards are important, “but we are not here to continue the conversation about ordination,” Are said. “There are other things we need to talk about.”

For years, Presbyterians have shown up wearing their team jerseys on the ordination issue, he said – and Next Church is asking Presbyterians to put those jerseys aside. He said he saw that happen during the General Assembly’s discussion on the Middle East last summer, where alliances shifted and he found that people he had thought “were stupid and wrong and out to lunch – they’re on my team. And people who have been my friends for 15 years – they’re on the other team. I think that’s holy.”

Church in a new context. That was another focus of this discussion: the inevitability of continuing change.

As Are put it: “If you’ve got on your church sign, ‘Come on in, we’re exactly what we used to be’ – that’s not a good thing.”

Like the early church, Presbyterians today need to figure out what from the past is essential and what can be let go, said Christine Chakoian, pastor of First Church of Lake Forest, Ill. Instead of trying to control the message, they may need to listen to what the Spirit is saying through a chorus of voices, said Pendleton Peery, pastor of First Church in Shreveport, La.

And some argued that politics aren’t necessarily bad, that the PC(USA) should not be afraid to wade into calling for justice – and that people want an authentic and courageous church.

“Call has to be about more than tapping people with the most free time,” said Andrew Foster Connors, pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Church in Baltimore. Instead, find out “what keeps them up at night? What are they angry about?” – and create an intentionally diverse congregation where those conversations are cultivated, and those passions put creatively to work.

“Diversity is a gift from God, and more and more, young people expect to see it in the church,” Connors said.

“People are hungry to be part of a church that really believes what it says about the Lordship of Jesus Christ . . . that is willing to risk itself publicly, that is willing to lose or suffer because we really believe that in the shadow of the cross or the shadow of the empty tomb, there is nothing left to fear.”

The conversation continues. There was some comfort here that people could go home without figuring out all of the answers – while still raising some provocative questions.

It’s not true that “we have to figure out what’s next for the PC(USA) or it’s down the tubes with the denomination,” said Shannon Johnson Kershner, pastor of Black Mountain Church, in western N.C., preaching during one of the four worship services.

“We are not the saviors of the church. That is not our call. That is not our vocation. Frankly, we are not that important.”

Kershner described “our cracked-pot selves and our cracked-pot church,” broken and imperfect vessels through which God’s grace and light shine.

In the end, she said, “God is the only one who will decide the future of the church.”

The Next Church organizers hope the conversation will continue – online, through Facebook, and at a second Next Church gathering Feb. 27-28, 2012 in Dallas.

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