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NEXT leaders map out next steps

DALLAS, Feb. 28

Is it a movement, an organization or just a conference? The 600 participants in the second NEXT Church Conference held at First Church, Dallas, shared the common curiosity. Leaders mapped out a few of the steps ahead but left many details to be determined. One thing for certain: they intend for it to have a future.

Conference leaders, most of whom are in their 30s and 40s, acknowledged in the event guide that they were “honoring and celebrating the past,” but that “the Spirit is calling a new church into being.” The church of the future, they said, “will be more relational, move diverse, more collaborative, more hopeful, and more agile.”

Early on in the conference Shannon Kershner, pastor of Black Mountain Church in western North Carolina, and Tom Are, pastor of the Village Church in Prairie Village, Kan., introduced themselves as co-chairs of the Strategy Team, thereby revealing that they are up to something, but they only hinted at the time what that strategy would entail. Gradually over the two days’ time they pulled away the curtain.

NEXT is a conversation,” asserted Are. “We are not a structure, an institution, but rather an expression of hope in the power of relationships.” He also assured that NEXT will not set up alternative mission projects. “We are not seeking to be a programming agency.”

However, they did announce plans for a third NEXT conference to be held March 4-5, 2013, in Charlotte, N.C. They also spoke of upcoming regional gatherings for opportunities for future-minded teaching elders, ruling elders and members to gather to collaborate and mutually support creative approaches to ministry. “We do wish to be a conduit through which innovative, creative and emerging ministry can be shared, encouraged, explored,” added Are.

He also unveiled plans to provide a first-class, open-source website for the purpose of sharing ideas and resources for all kinds of innovative ministry.

On the second day Theresa Cho, associate pastor at St. John’s Church in San Francisco and moderator of the presbytery, and Jud Hendrix, pastor of Covenant Community Church, Louisville, Ky., and director of the Ecclesia Project with Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, together introduced and invited participants to engage in “Open Sourcing Time.”

They gave witness of successful efforts within their respective presbyteries that have helped members to overcome long-held distrust and inertia by an open process of brainstorming creative ideas for building relationships, reviving hope and initiating new mission

They then invited conference participants to shout out ideas for small group conversations on any subject they’d like. Ideas ranged from training for multicultural communities to moving from hierarchical leadership to empowering leadership; from reaching out to artists and writers to finding ways to be gracious in dismissing churches to other denominations; from discussing wonderful things God is doing in small faith communities to considering needed adaptive processes in presbyteries. About 20 discussion groups were formed on the spot.

While promoting such spontaneity, leaders acknowledged that implementation requires some organization — as little as necessary. Accordingly, they also announced plans to incorporate as a non-profit corporation and to hire a coordinator/director to help facilitate upcoming national and regional conferences as well as the website. They’ve set a first year budget of $150,000, about 40 percent of which has been pledged.

While resisting the temptation to pass judgment, platform speakers did allude to the drama of division playing out among conservatives in the PC(USA). “We have heard those folks who have said that the PC(USA) could die and that its death would not matter to God,” said Kershner. “We do not believe that,” she retorted. “God has poured too much love into this church to be apathetic about its future.”

Tim Hart-Anderson, pastor of Westminster Church in Minneapolis, said in his closing sermon that his presbytery, “like most, is in the midst of trying to keep things from flying apart.” Sadly, he added, “the looming schism in the church in our presbytery is consuming enormous energy.”

But contrary to assertions of those talking of leaving, he declared that “An ecosystem that is mono-cultural is not sustainable,” seemingly hinting at ECO, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, the newest denomination presently spinning off of the mainline Presbyterian Church. When introducing the ECO abbreviation at its Orlando conference this past January, John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Church in California, spoke of it as a new ecosystem.