BALTIMORE — The desert is not a static or one-dimensional place – and a church in transition isn’t either.
The theme of the 2018 NEXT Church national gathering, being held Feb. 26-28 in Baltimore, is “The Desert in Bloom: Living, Dying, and Rising in a Wilderness Church.” The evening worship service on Feb. 27 focused on “rising.” Following the conference motif, each worship service was designed to focus on a different word: living, dying, rising, living again.
Soulful Revue, a men’s gospel group at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, sang “My City of Ruins,” a song by Bruce Springsteen with the words, “Young men on the corner, Like scattered leaves, The boarded up windows, The empty streets, My city of ruins … Come on, rise up!”
The call to worship proclaimed: “And sometime dying is rising. … This is the death that we encounter in the parched, desert landscape that erupts with blossoms of magenta and yellow and crimson.”
The prayer of confession was done is small groups with worshippers discussing answers to questions including: What feels dead in the church, in the denomination or in your life? Where do you long for resurrection? Where do you resist it?
Jennifer Barchi, pastor of Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church and an Outlook blogger, preached using the text of Isaiah 35, as all preachers at this gathering are using in worship. However, in addition to chapter 35 she also wove the words of terror in the wildness recalled in chapter 34 of Isaiah. Barchi remembered reading terrifying stories of people lost in the wilderness when she was young. There were two kinds of people she recalled from those stories: those who get creative and live, and those who become afraid and die.
However, she noted, Scripture gives other stories. For example, these words to the displaced exiles in Jeremiah: Seek the welfare of the city where you are.
Scripture offers many such contrasts, she noted. Isaiah 34 shows terror — there is even a goat-demon. But, Isaiah 35 is hopeful. “Hope is what transforms the landscape” of the wilderness, Barchi preached.
The two contrasting chapters in Isaiah appear together, Barchi said. “It’s almost as if the narrative is saying: You get to choose how you frame how the wilderness shapes your experience.”
So, she challenged, “what if we decided to reframe the death in the wilderness experiences that we face?”
What should be said to those who say that the church is dying? Barchi said the response should not be: “No, it’s not!” But rather, “Thanks be to God!” She admitted that it was almost as though she had been conditioned to think that those words were sacrilegious and against the gospel. But, she continued, what if such reframing brought freedom? She challenged worshipped to consider “death as the transformative pivot that brought something new.”
“When the church is dying, ‘Thanks be to God!’ becomes our refrain,” she said. “Ask a different set of questions: What does death offer us the opportunity to walk away from? … What is the Holy Spirit doing among us to fashion us anew?”
Questioning and reframing is an integral part of each annual NEXT Church gathering, Barchi said. These questions asked at the conference “allow the church to try something completely different. “ And she said: “Approaching this wilderness period with excitement and creativity allows us to ask some interesting questions.” At the congregation she serves, she said some of these interesting questions have been: What if we brought in the circus arts? What if we started an after school program? What if we invited summer camp kids to worship?
“Facing wilderness with creativity has given us the freedom to say, ‘The church is dying – thanks be to God.’”
Because of the resurrection, “we approach dying with hope,” she said. “The promise of the resurrection frees us to reframe death in the wilderness” and dying to new life.
“Do not be afraid. Here is your God. Christ is coming with resurrection. … The church is dying. Thanks be to God. For that means that a new church is rising.”
Students in grades 2-4 from the Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School choir from West Baltimore sang a “Song of Peace” including the words: “Shalom my friends … May we all live in peace. Shalom. … Let justice roll down like a mighty stream.”
As the youth choir sang, worshippers were invited into a visual prayer. As the children sang words of peace, images were projected onto large screens and worshippers were encourage to pray for “those who are experiencing dying and rising in our communities, in our churches, in our nation and in our world.”