NEXT Church national gathering explores “crossroads” identity

What does it mean to be a church (or an organization) at the crossroads?

Such as: We are at a crossroads of racism, homophobia, church splits and church decline, Shavon Starling-Louis, one of the co-chairs of the NEXT Church strategy team, said during the opening session of the group’s 2016 national gathering, being held Feb. 22-24 in Atlanta.

Shavon Starling-Lewis (left) and Karen Sapio (right) spoke of NEXT Church being at a crossroads.
Shavon Starling-Louis (left) and Karen Sapio (right) spoke of NEXT Church being at a crossroads.

NEXT Church is “at a crossroads of our identity,” Starling-Louis said, in transition from being a start-up organization to becoming something else.

Or this: Crossroads are “places we must make important choices” of how to be leaders in an extraordinarily divisive political season, said Mark Douglas, a professor of Christian ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, preaching during opening worship. Signs of the crossroads he cited include rising religious radicalism, the international refugee crisis, complex race relations, polarized politics in the nation and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a cataclysmic loss of biodiversity and increased climatological chaos.

Mark Douglas preached at opening worship
Mark Douglas preached at opening worship

This sense of a world in transition is in the news and the culture too – “a culture that sees Armageddon as something that happens in a Taylor Swift video,” Douglas said, and in which much of the best theology is being written by poets and novelists such as Marilynne Robinson or by “the black male feminist atheist” Ta-Nehisi Coates.

This year, 579 people registered for NEXT’s national gathering. Filling the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, church leaders came for inspiration and ideas to a conference built around the theme of “Faith at the Crossroads.” Among those in the pews: Heath Rada, moderator of the 2016 General Assembly, and Tony De La Rosa, interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

So what comes next?

Karen Sapio, co-chair of the NEXT strategy team, spoke of crossroads as being thin places, “where mysterious things happen” – both wondrous and a little frightening.

Transformation on this scale causes pain, Douglas said – as churches committed to new ways of ministry are filled with people for whom the old ways are working just fine.

Rise up if you’re willing to do the work of transformation, Douglas told these Presbyterians.

Stand up in solidarity with one another. Rise up, because “nobody can stand alone.”

And that’s not enough. “It still leaves us clinging to each other for support,” Douglas said. “Well, I have met us. We’ll need more support than that,” the help of God. “Together we rise because we are raised,” knowing that Jesus’ resurrection was the start of a transformation.

Theresa Latini at NEXT
Theresa Latini at NEXT

Theresa Latini, associate dean of diversity and cultural competency and professor of practical theology and pastoral care at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan, spoke of the dangers of “enemy images” – judgments people make that diminish or dehumanize those we perceive as “other” – her list included illegal immigrants, evangelicals, Islamists, helicopter parents, angry black men. When we do that, “we can disconnect from them, render them invisible” – because we don’t see them or listen to them, we judge them.

Who is considered "other"?
Who is considered “other”?

“I can’t honestly remember a political season that was more infused with enemy images,” Latini said.

So what’s next? New ways of looking and listening, of considering the “other.”

The questions for NEXT and for the PC(USA) may not be about the unknown future, but “trusting the providential work of a powerful God” to show new ways, Douglas said “We live in faith, we grow in hope, we learn to love,” he said. “NEXT, who has you? Jesus has you. That’ll be more than enough.”