“We have traveled from near and far together as a community, bringing with us a commitment to serve and a love for God’s people, we open ourselves to God, who makes all things new.”
The conference was planned especially for clergy under age 40, many leading congregations with a membership in a much older demographic. The conference theme was “The Power at work within us.”
Reyes-Chow, who recently turned 40 himself, spoke from his experiences as a pastor. He is pastor of Mission Bay Community Church in San Francisco, Calif. “We are trained to believe that (preaching) is a dialogue, yet what we often end up practicing is a monologue,” he said, leading conference participants in just such a dialogue.
“I think that our denomination is in an interesting time,” he shared. “We are in a great time of tension that can yield many things. … What does it mean for a denomination to elect somebody who is younger, talks about the church differently yet comes out of the church?” he asked. “It could just be that the church is open to talking about things differently.
“There have to be people within the church to figure out what is next, to step into being the church that we’ve been called into.”
Reyes-Chow asked participants, most of whom are within their first or second call as pastors, what is different about their current call than they had expected. “I never thought I’d be in a small church,” “I never thought I’d be in Kentucky,” “I never thought I’d be preaching in Spanish more than in English,” were some of the responses.
“The reality of the day is shifting,” he asserted, adding, “There is something about being called to helping others connect to God that is moving and powerful.” The challenge, he suggested, is for those gathered, those who are sensing these new ways, to, as Ephesians says, “grow up into being worthy of the calling” no matter how difficult or different it might be.
“Ten Easy Steps” to 21st century churches
Jan Edmiston, pastor of Fairlington Church in the Washington, D.C., area and member of Presbymergent, opened her session entitled “Moving a Traditional Church into the 21st Century (in ten easy steps)” by admitting “I am a church addict. I love the church.” The veteran pastor cautioned the younger clergy that bringing change to the church takes time — lots of time.
“Most of our churches that are dying are obsessed with the ABCs: Attendance, Building and Cash,” she said. “Let me tell you right now, when you focus on those three, you are sabotaging yourself.”
Edmiston offered those who wished to foster healthy, vibrant churches an alternative to the traditional focus on the ABCs of church: Neighbors, Organization, and a Paradigm Shift. “Meet the neighbors, send people out into the neighborhood and have them observe — what do they see?” asked Edmiston.
Rethink your organization, she challenged. “Our elders don’t run anything. They are literally the spiritual leaders in the church,” said Edmiston, who sees her role as training them to be ministers. “Think of all of the important moments to share with people that we have as pastors — we should not be the only ones who get to share them,” she suggested. This teaching is a key component of being the church. “This is what makes a church a church instead of just another club that has some spiritual component,” she said. The paradigm shift needed is to begin to ask whether the church exists for those already in the congregation, or those who are not yet there.
Edmiston encouraged the clergy gathered to get into the world. “Don’t write your sermon in a library — write it at a coffee shop.”
After Edmiston prepared sermons at a local Starbucks for several weeks, staff members began to ask her if she was a counselor without an office. “They kept seeing people come up to me and talk to me, so they wanted to know why,” she explained. These were not people from her church, but simply those who saw her there writing, with her Bible, and approached her to strike up conversation.
Many churches say they want change, but do not embrace it when it comes. Her encouragement to the young clergy was to be ready, and willing, even when it can be difficult, to invest for the long term.
You are the artwork, the artist, the art
“You are artwork. You are artists. You are curators,” Troy Bronsink, pastor of an emerging church new church development in Atlanta, told the Alt7 gathering of clergy under 40 at Montreat Conference Center on June 10.
Participants sat around tables circling a potter’s wheel alongside a baptismal font as Bronsink lead the group in what was called an “emergent worship” evening.
The interactive worship together hearing the word, tasting of the bread and the cup, watching as a potter formed a lump of clay into a vase, listening to music, and joining in the chorus.
“When you are being thrown (as pottery on a wheel) it is not worth leveraging everything trying to be thrown into another form,” said Bronsink. “The center is found and you are formed. It is an effortlessness that takes more effort than anything else.”
He cited the importance of even everyday routine. “When (Saint) Patrick went into Ireland he would infuse the practice of the people with meaning,” shared Bronsink. If banking the fire was a regular part of life, then Patrick would teach them to pray, “Bank the fires of my heart.”
“A regular practice means saying let’s be intentional about the things we do regularly, and that’s not traditional or contemporary,” he continued.
“We often talk about a church service as if folks get serviced and then they are free to go,” he pointed out. What is needed instead is to invite those who participate in worship to be co-creators, part of the process. In this way, they come to worship, to something that has not already been created for them, and they are contributing to what is formed.
After watching Aaron Doll, a participant who is pastor of First Church in Brockport, N.Y., at work on the potter’s wheel, participants in the emergent worship experience were invited to take a chunk of clay from the center of the table and create their own ebenezer, their own symbol of how they had seen God at work.
‘“Is our worship pre-formed or reformed?” Bronsink asked. “A potter will sit at the wheel and begins to listen to the clay — a good potter listens to what the clay can become.”
Listening is essential, according to Bronsink. In discussing the idea of being curators of God’s art, he cautioned against jumping to easy conclusions before realizing that there may be much more to a situation than one might understand. “Something about being an artist and God’s artwork can get us a little big-headed at times,” he admitted. “But remembering that we are also called to be curators of God’s art means that God might just be doing something far greater than we can know or understand.”