KANSAS CITY, Mo. (Outlook) It was a full three days. So full that Tom Are, pastor of Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, jokingly referred to it as “three weeks” during the closing plenary session on March 15.
About 550 Presbyterians attended the 2017 NEXT Church national conference, held March 13-15 in Kansas City, Missouri. NEXT describes itself as a “relational community of Presbyterian leaders,” and this gathering provided opportunities for learning and conversation about what a faithful, innovative church can and should be.
The national gathering offered participants a whirlwind chance to worship, learn and build relationships. Flat Dan (that would be a cardboard printout of Dan Saperstein, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Lake Huron) made appearances in photos throughout the week. Lunches offered opportunities to gather with friends – or sit in on organized discussions, such as one hosted by Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston, co-moderators of the 2016 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), on using the book “Waking Up White” to facilitate congregational conversations on race. Children darted through the halls on breaks from the provided childcare. Coffee and “healthy snack” breaks were an opportunity to catch up with colleagues or color on the posters provided by Illustrated Children’s Ministry.
Here are some of the core components of this year’s conference.
Worship: Meeting the woman at the well
All preachers drew from the story in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel of Jesus encountering the Samaritan woman at the well. Marci Glass, pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho, spoke about finding spaces to be honest and broken – and to know God’s grace. Glass said of the Samaritan woman: “How can [others] trust that Jesus will reach the parched and dry places of their life if they don’t know how he touched hers?”
Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Self Development of People program, preached about walls of separation and the God “who sees value and possibility in all of us.”
Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, urged conference participants to go home with action: “Now is not the time to be passive. … We came to NEXT to be active participants in what God is doing in the world.”
Art: Sharing the well with the world
Throughout worship and plenary sessions, artist Lisle Gwynn Garrity painted a well to correspond with the story of the woman at the well in John’s Gospel. Near the conclusion of the conference, she explained her painting process: “On Tuesday, I deepened the well” – it has history, depth, the capacity to hold “our life source throughout the ages. … I have been imagining what living water looks like.” She reminded participants that as they leave, they are to commit themselves to sharing their gifts as living waters in the world. Instead of an offering collecting money, the offering at the conference’s conclusion invited participants to intentionally offer one’s self and gifts to the world.
On the first day of the conference, participants had been invited to write prayers on strips of fabric. On the final day, Garrity invited participants to take someone else’s strip of fabric, read the prayer on it and contemplate how they might work toward the well-being of that person or place – through actions, influence, financial gifts. “Share the well with the world,” Garrity said.
Workshops: Wells of knowledge
Workshops – held during three time slots over two days – included a listening session that Anderson and Edmiston convened to provide feedback to the Way Forward Commission, and another discussion of the Way Forward process with Tom Hay, director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly.
Other sessions offered practical tools for ministry, including yoga in the context of a Christian community; paperless music leadership for worship; and using art in worship. Several workshops explored race – one used the Belhar Confession to facilitate a discussion of white supremacy; another focused on helping congregations better talk about race.
William Yoo, assistant professor of American religious and cultural history at Columbia Theological Seminary, and Betsy Lyles, the seminary’s director of admissions and financial aid, led a workshop on the challenges of creating younger and more colorful churches in the PC(USA).
“We want to be a faithful church and we want to be a diverse church,” Yoo said. But the grassroots church sometimes has difficulty breathing into life the kinds of changes that General Assembly proclaims as goals or tries to model.
The 2016 General Assembly, for example, elected two women as co-moderators – one black, one white – and chose J. Herbert Nelson as the PC(USA)’s first African-American stated clerk. But “how do you promote change from the top down that really sticks and works?” Yoo asked.
A woman of color recently told him of her struggles to find a congregation that would call her as a pastor, when many churches seem to be more comfortable with a white male. Often, Yoo said, the national church is “telling us to take a leap even before we’ve taken two steps” at the grass roots.
Lyles said that for her, church “is the least diverse space I’m in all week” and that she’s often seen as a unicorn – “here’s a young woman coming to church on her own.”
Ignite presentations: Quick draws from the well
The 7-minute Ignite presentations have become a hallmark of NEXT Church gatherings – giving a glimpse at God’s activity in a variety of churches and ministry settings. Here are a few featured at this year’s conference:
- Peace for Peoria: Building relationships among imams, rabbis and pastors in Illinois. “We believe that listening is so close to loving that you can hardly tell the difference,” said pastor and organizer Stephen McKinney-Whitaker.
- Hope for Life Chapel: Tamara John described her ministry at an RV camp in California. When she reaches out to the people there, she said, “It’s not just my hand they’re grabbing, it’s the full weight of the local church and the PC(USA) behind them.”
- Racial Awareness and Mindfulness Festival of the Arts: Therese Taylor-Stinson and Glenn Zuber shared how National Capital Presbytery organized an event using arts, media and education to help church leaders engage with the reality of racism in a new way.