NEXT Church conferences inspires imagination and hope

MINNEAPOLIS –Imagination and hope.

For the roughly 400 people who attended the NEXT Church national gathering in Minneapolis, that’s likely what they carted back home, along with their suitcases. A vision of a church they want to make real – including art, storytelling, silence, collaboration, the acceptance of failure as a natural byproduct of trying something new.

Erin Dunigan
Erin Dunigan

When you ask people, “Hey, what do you think of when you think of Presbyterians? They will say `Oh, they’re awesome.  They’re creative. They’re risk-takers. They think outside the box; they are so welcoming and inclusive. They’re not stuck in the old ways.’ ” That’s how Erin Dunigan, a photographer and pastor who leads the Not Church gathering in Baja California, in northern Mexico, described how the folks she ministers to (including agnostics, atheists and “a lot of formers”) have come to think of Presbyterians – because, through her work, that’s what they’ve known. Not Church gathers once a month to discuss themes such as forgiveness; life after death; meditation; and questions about faith and life many are afraid to ask.

Although Dunigan (who sometimes writes for the Outlook) is a teaching elder from the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, this is far from the traditional church. There is no church building, for example. “We need to go where the people are,” Dunigan said. “And stay there.”

Or this: some years back, the congregation of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis was dwindling and aging, as are so many congregations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The remaining folks prayed hard and decided, in the words of pastor Kara Root, that “we are not finished; we don’t know what’s next but we know God has something for us.”

Kara Root
Kara Root

From that came the willingness to try new things, built around three themes – worship, hospitality and Sabbath. Hospitality “is not like Martha Stewart cooking some fancy meal,” but the challenging work of reaching out and showing real welcome, Root said.

The congregation switched to a new worship schedule, gathering on Sunday mornings the first and third weeks of each month and on Saturday evenings for worship and a meal on the second and fourth weeks, taking Sunday as a day of rest. If there’s a fifth Sunday, the congregation worships at St. Joseph’s Home for Children.

The Sabbath rule for those Sunday mornings when the congregation doesn’t meet is this: “Don’t do anything out of obligation,” Root said. People told of taking walks and visiting a garden, of napping and reading, of lingering over a meal with a sister-in-law too-rarely seen. The congregation began to measure success not in traditional ways – by how many people sat in the pews – but in responding to needs, such as driving a friend to chemotherapy; cooking a meal for a new mother; lacing up their shoes for the community AIDS walk.

They also became more intentional about where they put their energy. “Whatever we do, let’s do it on purpose,” Root said.

These ideas and more circulated like butterflies through the air as NEXT Church held its fourth national meeting March 31-April 2 at Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis – drawing a crowd that was predominantly white (like the denomination) and made up mostly of ministers, including a sizeable number of younger leaders. NEXT is a network of congregational leaders, many of them progressive, who use online resources and in-person meetings to share ideas for innovation and leadership.

Along with ideas, participants heard challenges – such as this from J. Herbert Nelson II, who leads the PC(USA)’S Office of Public Witness, and who does not buy the idea that churches shouldn’t meddle in social justice issue. “No community of faith can be silent while people suffer,” Nelson preached.

PC(USA) ministers Jim Kitchens and Deborah Wright are partners in PneuMatrix – a consulting group in northern California working with congregations, mid-councils and others seeking change in the church.

They spoke of searching for the “positive deviants” – the folks intentionally doing something different, something that works.  Great ideas can come from folks in the pews, from those outside organized religion, from the community itself. “Let’s start hanging out with folks on the fringe,” Wright said.

The NEXT conference provided an avalanche of ideas – some presented in quick 7-minute chunks. Such as: Bring bagels and coffee to the soccer fields on Sunday morning. Instead of rushing back for an 11 a.m. service, stay to cheer on the kids. Instead of trying to do everything well, pick a few things and do them well.

Before coming to Minneapolis, Dunigan asked some Not Church regulars to write a message for the church folks. One said this: “I would remind them to frolic in the beauty of God’s creation, to feed and clothe the poor, to protect the weak and heal the sick; all the rest, as Rabbi Hillel and Jesus said, is commentary.”