It only stands to reason that the 600 folks attending the third annual NEXTChurch Conference might be expecting the speakers and organizers to tell them what the church will look like in the near future. If so, they would have been disappointed. No architectural renderings were presented that could provide these church leaders – many of them Gen X-ers, Gen Y-ers and Millennials – a ministry planning guide to direct their steps as they shape the 21st century church.
Instead, speakers and participants at the two-day conference in March, held at First Church, Charlotte, N.C., played with new ideas, toyed with new concepts and gave witness to God’s workings among oddly constructed faith communities. And they improvised on-the-spot with worship forms and proclamation stylings.
The theme of the conference, “Be Born Again,” taken from Jesus’ admonition to Nicodemus, was introduced by Jessica Tate, the executive director of NEXTChurch. In the opening sermon she reintroduced the conferees to the familiar Christmas story. However, as she said, the story is all about the totally unfamiliar, the surprising in-breaking of God, and how Mary found the “gritty faith” to allow for “the unexpectedness of God” so that to all salvation could be born.
“How did Mary put down Martha Stewart’s wedding planner and take up ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting?’ ”
Tate carried Mary’s story to the present context. “We’re doing pretty good. Church is not objectionable,” she reassured in an un-reassuring way. “But friends,” she asked, “where is the space … to come alive?”
“Today a Savior is born,” she proclaimed. And then she added, “Prepare to be surprised.”
Charlene Han Powell, associate pastor at Fifth Avenue Church in New York City, welcomed conferees. As co-director of the conference, she reminded all that the “the unknown continues to unnerve and humble us.” However, she added that instead of being scared of what we don’t know we need to hold on to “what we do know: the Gospel.”
Keynote speaker Paul Roberts, the president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, wryly told that conferees that one of his big unknowns is whether he would embarrass himself by fumbling his presentation due to using, for the first time, a Prezi visual aid. But in the spirit of such experimentation, he declared from the start, “This presentation presumes that you and I are called to be co-creators with God.”
“Is there such a thing as passive Christianity?” he asked, and then asked again, “Can there be, should there be such a thing as a passive Christian?”
A theologian by training and trade, Roberts said, “We have lots of folks who love to hear about the grace of God, but don’t want to hear about the more challenging aspects of our faith.”
He cited Anne Frank as an inspiration for the active faith: “ ‘How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world,’ she wrote in ‘Diary of a Young Girl.’ ”
So how do you do that? “I don’t know,” he said with a shrug. The never-ending challenge for leaders is to seek answers to that question. However, he did offer some rules of thumb to follow. The first introduced a theme that was reprised often through the conference. This NEXTChurch movement, he said, “is rooted in listening.”
Steve Eason, pastor of the Myers Park Church in Charlotte, which hosted the evening meal and worship service, picked up on the theme of listening in his sermon for the evening.
His words, offered some reassurance. “We may be in the era of post-Christendom, but we’re not post-Christ,” he declared. “We’ve tried to kill the church, but you can’t do it.”
He spoke of the relentless cacophony of voices that impose themselves upon pastors and other leaders. “But do we hear the voice from heaven?” he asked. “That may be our question. Can we still hear the voice from heaven?” Our identity, he asserted, “is grounded in God who tells us who we are, and not in who we tell God who we want to be.”
Another rule of thumb introduced by Roberts was that of expectant, anticipatory waiting “not just chilling in a rocking chair” as if we have nothing to do, but being ready to spring into action as soon as the word comes.
Bill Golderer and Alysha Brooks Lytle offered an unusual angle on such waiting. As convening minister of Broad Street Ministry and pastor of Arch Street Church in Philadelphia, a congregation that had been notorious for wearing out their pastors while going nowhere, their presbytery assigned an administrative commission to oversee their work. Contrary to typical experience, the AC became a catalyst for inventive ministry, it helped expose shortcomings and opportunities they had lost sight of. “It’s my opinion that every church could use having an AC, because if you’re just doing what you and your congregation think it needs, you’re not really accountable,” Golderer said. The folks on the AC “could imagine the win that we could achieve.”
“We determined to get out of the familiar, even if it feels uncomfortable, causes some angst,” said Lytle, a member of that administrative commission and, presently, associate pastor of mission at the Wayne Church.
On the second day of the conference, Ashley Goff, minister for spiritual formation at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington tapped the spirit of improvisation – by actually teaching participants about how it works. She fell in love with the art of liturgy while studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York, which helped her to see that improvisation comes not by eschewing norms, but by “balanc[ing] structure, spontaneity, discipline, and freedom” and by collaborating with others.
Theresa Cho, pastor of St. John’s Church in San Francisco, underlined the ambiguity permeating the conference. “I hope that we’ve realized that we don’t know what’s next.” It’s not like Helvetica New, a new font, “and everybody is going to say, ‘Wow, that’s so next.’ ” In a panel discussion on leadership, Landon Whitsett, executive for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies and author of “The Open-Sourced Church,” pointed the newly inventive and improvisational Presbyterians back to the cross. “The role this church has to fulfill to launch the next church requires the same thing as it always used to have. It has to be willing to die. Our forebears did that. The question is whether we will be willing to do that for those who will follow.”
Closing worship leader Amos Disasa, organizing pastor of Downtown Church in Columbia, S.C., spoke of the model awakening, church-creating event, the first Christian Pentecost. He bemoaned the tendency to formulate and thereby weaken it – the way that MP3 players diminish the power of live music. He also warned that innovation always is accompanied by sneering, “snarky cynics.” Reflecting on the opening words of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost morning, he said, “many were amazed but many others carried breathalizers.”
What stands as the ultimate hope for the NEXTChurch? he asked. “It means you’ve got to be born again.”