J. Herbert Nelson addresses Next Church Conference

MINNEAPOLIS – “No community of faith can be silent while people suffer.”

J. Herbert Nelson II, who leads the Office of Public Witness for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), does not buy the popular arguments some folks make about whether churches should meddle in justice issues.

J. Herbert Nelson (Next)“I’m struggling with the rhetoric of doom” surrounding the PC(USA) – the litany of declining numbers and shrinking influence – and the idea that “justice is an aside to the gospel and not a central theme,” Nelson said, preaching April 1 to about 400 people at the NEXT Church national gathering in Minneapolis. What does it mean for a church to be low in importance, but high in anxiety?

“I am convinced the consistent message for us today is that the church belongs to the Lord,” he said. “This is really a challenge of our faith experience in life and culture. What does it mean to surrender our whole selves to the Lord?”

Preaching from the 29th chapter of Jeremiah, Nelson read that God tells the people of Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile; and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.”

For the church, Nelson said, the message should be that “I will follow wherever you lead me . . . I’m afraid of the journey, but I’ll go anywhere because you have called me there, because you will transform me on the journey.” The message: Surrender, surrender.

He also suggested that there’s no one right way forward for congregations, no one-size solution. People of faith must “live where the good Lord has placed them,” Nelson said. “There is no perfect church, even the next church . . . Each context is different,” and will require leaders who will serve with energy and love, “who will abandon selfish desires to serve the common good.”

His first call as a pastor was to church in a college-town, ministering to a congregation with a commitment to social justice. He expected his ministry to focus on justice work, and that “I can recline and shine for a few years.” What happened instead is that he performed 52 funerals in two years of ministry – “all they had to do was call me, 1-800-Funeral-Service” – and found himself depleted. “This was not what I had in mind; however, it was the hand I was dealt,” Nelson said.

In speaking to the Israelites, “the Lord did not ask them to relocate, but to grind it out where they have been sent.”

He also pushed back against those who warn that Presbyterian advocacy on social justice issues – including such things as immigration and inclusion of gays and lesbians – could serve to divide the church. “I am amazed at Presbyterians who claim we should not be involved in matters of justice because it is too controversial,” that it might split the PC(USA), Nelson said.

“Are we not stronger than that? Are we not more faithful than that? Are we not better than that? Are we not more trusting of God than that?”

The church needs not only to evangelize – to grow churches in numbers – but to grow people in wholeness, to make sure they have food and clothing and shelter, and to figure out “what put them in jeopardy in the first place.”

The church should stand in places of darkness and brokenness “and declare there is a word from the Lord . . . We ought to be a daring example of going to the places others do not want to go.”

He told a story, of serving a congregation of low-income people in Memphis, and looking up early one morning to see a man standing outside, an addict who had tried rehabilitation and found the church, who had relapsed, who had walked the streets all night, out of money and out of drugs, with no place to go.

“I waited for somebody to come to the church, because I knew this was a place I could come,” the man told Nelson.  “That’s the church we have to be – the church where those who are outcast everywhere else out in the world can find acceptance.”

In his benediction, Nelson said this:

“You go. Don’t fax. Don’t tweet. Don’t text . . . You go and shake up the world.”