CHICAGO – Think of NEXT Church 2015 like a popcorn machine of ideas: creativity popping up, energy swirling through the air, the bowl of possibilities filling to the rim. Then think of those 660 Presbyterians heading home, where the real work begins: turning those ideas, that enthusiasm, those possibilities into reality.
“How will you live what you learn?” conference co-director Carla Pratt Keyes, pastor of Ginter Park Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, challenged those in attendance. “What will you start practicing at home in response to your experience here?”
While conference organizers spoke of “an ethos of experimentation” and NEXT Church offered ideas galore, the reality of what life is like in many Presbyterian congregations (small, mostly white, aging) needs to be reckoned with as well. If congregations are focused on the ABCs (attendance, buildings and cash), then “our churches are dying. There are no exceptions,” said Jan Edmiston, associate executive presbytery for ministry for the Presbytery of Chicago, while leading one of the workshops.
“Are we going to be a pilgrim church?” asked Diana Butler Bass, the author and scholar of religious history, who spoke to the NEXT Church crowd the evening the word came in that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had decided to change its constitution to make room for same-sex marriages. “Or will we just be one more overbuilt denomination that has to sell off a lot of real estate?”
Those at NEXT Church came with enthusiasm, energy and ideas to share — how to use storytelling, improvisation and collaborative art in worship; how to be a church without a building; how a congregation can connect with the neighborhood around it; how to raise money for ministry in creative ways; and much more. There also was discussion of the challenges and some of the ways that churches seem stuck.
Kathryn Stenta, pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York, wrote this on Twitter in response to the question “What is NEXT Church 2015?”: “organic and practical ideas via the holy spirit for where the church is going next.”
Stephen McKinney-Whitaker, pastor of United Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, wrote this in a blog post shortly after NEXT adjourned: “I was in a place filled with people who have hope for the church. There were leaders of every kind: diverse races, sexualities, communities, proclivities, and preferences. The sanctuary was a diverse tapestry of hope. We were so different, and yet we were one. There was a sense that our diversity brought together was better than going at it within our own little comfortable group and tradition.”
Here’s a taste of what that conversation involved.
One priority for NEXT is how the PC(USA) and NEXT itself — a networking group of Presbyterians sharing ideas for the future of the church — can become more diverse, more intentional about sharing leadership and more committed to having difficult conversations about racial injustice.
“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is too white,” said Andrew Foster Connors, senior pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore and a NEXT Church co-chair. That reality — a denomination more than 90 percent white — “doesn’t reflect the world to which we have been sent.”
Another reality: “A disproportionately white church means minority leaders are disproportionately asked to serve, which doesn’t always feel good,” he said. At NEXT’s conference in 2014, some criticized the organization “for practicing racial tokenism… We have made mistakes. We continue to make them,” Foster Connors said.
Another place of disproportionality: Most who attended the national gathering, held March 16-18 at Fourth Church in Chicago, were Presbyterian ministers, although some seminarians, church educators and ruling elders showed up too. It’s important that NEXT “isn’t just a conference where all the cool pastors get together” once a year, Foster Connors said. During one session, he asked ruling elders to raise their hands, and a smattering did. “We are really, really glad you’re here,” he said. “But it has to be at least half the room.”
Why bother about diversity? That’s one question asked by two of the NEXT speakers, Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman, who lead TMI Consulting, a consulting firm from Richmond, Virginia, that works to help businesses and other organizations become more inclusive and innovative. They’re also a mixed- race couple who attend Ginter Park Presbyterian Church.
Why bother? For one, Jesus cared about inclusion, Freeman said. And research shows that a group that is diverse in all ways — including gender, race, age, class and sexual orientation — brings a broader range of ideas and experience to bear on complex problems. “Inclusion can really drive creativity and innovation,” Freeman said.
Diversity means not just bringing a variety of voices to the table, but making space for all to really be heard, he said. To talk about the injustices and impact of poverty, “we have to have people at the table who have experienced it,” he said. To talk about racial healing, “how are we going to do it if it’s a bunch of people who look like me sitting around the table? The Presbyterian church is 90 percent white.”
For congregations, Jana spoke of the importance both of being welcoming and of building real relationships. Think about your closest circle of relationships — your circle of trust, the people you’d call first when things really matter, she instructed those in the crowd. “How diverse is that group?” she asked. “What does that group look like?”
Conversations across racial lines can be difficult and uncomfortable, but need to happen, Jana said. “Millennials are aware of this conversation. That’s one of the things that puts them off from church. Their expectation is this would be a place where these things would be wrestled with in an authentic way.”
Some presentations were quick — seven-minute chunks of ideas — and others longer explorations of possibilities, glimpses of things Presbyterians are trying in local communities. In California, a Presbyterian church partners with an elementary school to provide music education. Other conversations: How can congregations partner together for more effective youth ministry? How can Presbyterians do effective community organizing? What’s the value of intergenerational ministry?
“It matters what we do,” said Joy Douglas Strome, pastor of Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago, preaching during one of the worship services. “It matters that you’re willing to try new things and to fail at it too … It matters that you hold steady. It matters that you hold steady in the wake of all this death talk.” You may be afraid, but “the ministry of Jesus Christ is alive and kicking.”
In one workshop, Edmiston offered practical ideas for how congregations can kick-start change. Assign church officers to go out into the community in teams of two – to the playground or sports field, to the coffee shop, to the bus stop – and ask them to spend some time observing. Then have them report back about what they’ve seen and learned about the neighborhood.
Always have at least one person on the church staff (volunteer or paid) who’s under 25 years old. Give those young adults responsibility and include them in important discussions.
Focus on mission, ministry and outreach, not infrastructure. “The hardest part is a paradigm shift or a culture shift,” Edmiston said. “To realize that not all buildings with steeples are churches and that some churches don’t have steeples at all.” Some Presbyterians want everything at the church to be attractive — the landscaping, the building, the programs — but “instead we need to change our culture and deploy people.” A congregation should be more like a slingshot, she said, than a magnet.
Ask whether the congregation feels like a safe community — a place, for example, for people to be honest and vulnerable in sharing prayer concerns. She recalled one meeting where, when asked whether they had any need of prayer, all of the 70-somethings kept saying, “Everything’s fine, everything’s fine.” The young adults — yearning for authenticity — said things like: “My brother just got arrested for making meth” and “My dad retired and my parents are fighting, and I’m afraid they’ll separate.”
Ask directly, “Why does this church exist?” The right answer is not, “Because we have an historic building” or “Because my family’s always been here,” Edmiston said.
Better answers, she suggested: Faith formation. To love our neighbors and ourselves. “Broken people in the neighborhood need the news of Jesus, and I’m kind of broken too.”