CHICAGO – The NEXT Church 2015 national gathering kicked off by talking not about politics (church or secular) but about Jesus – by asking the question Jesus asked his disciples in the gospel of Matthew, “Who do you say that I am?”
Speaking to a crowd of more than 600 gathered at Fourth Presbyterian Church in the heart of downtown Chicago, just steps away from some of the city’s glitziest meccas of shopping, Charlene Han Powell, associate pastor for education and engagement at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, preached about what it means to be a Christian. “What is it really that makes someone a Christian?” Powell asked during opening worship. “What is it that makes us the church?”
Is it belief? Behavior? Being “pretty sure that everyone’s going to heaven or I’m pretty sure everyone’s going to hell?”
When she posted the question on Facebook – a question that a young adult named Abby from her church had posed after an uncomfortable encounter on the subway with someone who was assertively “Christian” – Powell got dozens of responses. She also looked to Scripture – to the answer that the disciple Peter gave to Jesus’ question. Peter, who had seen Jesus walk on water, whom Jesus had saved from drowning when Peter tried to follow him and walk too, blurts out in response to Jesus’ question that “you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And that, “this very act of confession, is actually what marks someone a Christian and us the church,” Powell preached.
Although the challenges to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are many, “all that matters is who . . . who is going to guide us into the future,” she said. Who will heal the divisions, lead church members to go outside their own walls in service and to build relationships, “who has already saved us from drowning? The answer, my friends, is Jesus the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
For the past five years, Powell said, she’s worked with young adults in their 20s and 30s (often considered to be unicorns, she said, in the mainline church world). In her congregation, those young adults attend worship each week, volunteer, give of their time and energy and money. By being with them, she realized that most of them could not answer the “who is Jesus?” question very well despite some of them having spent years in church.
No one had ever asked these articulate, confident, independent young adults that question, Powell said, “so they assumed their answers didn’t matter.”
Abby, the young woman who was unsure of what to say after her encounter on the subway, was one of them. About a year ago, Abby began emotionally to drown, Powell said. Some important relationships broke up, her job and other responsibilities overwhelmed her. “As far as she was concerned, she was out on the water alone,” Powell said.
The young adult group began to explore during Lent the question that Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am” – considering both the answers of others in history (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Calvin and more) and from their own hearts and experience. Abby responded that “I honestly can’t tell you anything about my faith beyond the Apostles’ Creed.”
They kept talking, “I kept asking the question, pushing the group to look for God in the mundane, talk to God on their commute, reach for God in moments of darkness,” Powell said.
In time, “Abby’s Jesus became less and less a historical figure and became more and more of a living God.”
Abby recently wrote that Jesus is her savior and redeemer, that “it’s pretty incredible when I think about it. I don’t talk to him as much as I should,” but when she does “I am certain Jesus knows me just as I know him.
The NEXT Church gathering continues through March 18.