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NEXT Church names the reality of death and dying

BALTIMORE – The second day of the NEXT Church National Gathering, being held Feb. 26-28 in Baltimore, started with a time of mourning, worship and testimony.

The wilderness of death and dying
Opening worship built on the conference theme, “The Desert in Bloom: Living, Dying, and Rising in a Wilderness Church” in a service focused on the reality of death and dying and God’s presence and power at work within those spaces of grief and loss.

Psalm 27 shaped the service as a common refrain through prayer, testimony, litany and ritual.

Three speakers shared “testimonies of death and dying” that spoke of the death of a parent, the need to pronounce dead “zombie” church programs and the necessary death of the “polite white church lady within me.”

Jess Cook

Speakers shared their own experiences of death and the resurrection power that comes only after real grief, suffering and loss.

Jess Cook, program and communications manager for More Light Presbyterians, shared a poignant story of their father’s last days. Cook’s father’s request for toast and grape juice became a powerful communion, which revealed that “at the end of the day, the eucharist is about sharing a meal with our family, however that may be defined … and asking to be remembered.”

John Molina Moore

John Molina Moore, community life pastor for Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., noted that the gift he gave a previous church he served was not killing off a beloved music program, but naming that it was already dead – a “zombie” – and then honoring and grieving it so as to create space for a new, vibrant music ministry to be born. He said this was a demonstration of the truth that “if you let go, you make room for something new to grow and flourish.”

Erin Counihan, pastor of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, said, “It was not until recently I got to know this radical Jesus guy.” Counihan shared that she’d been taught “a feltboard polite version of God’s love.” She talked about her process of putting to death the polite white lady within her. The Holy Spirit “burst forth, this wild Spirit, in the shouts of my neighbors for justice.” But “this nice, polite church lady thinks she is Lazarus because she keeps rising from the dead.” Only the “radical Holy Spirit keeps her down.”

Erin Counihan

A conference participant across the room shouted, “Slay her!”

Counihan concluded with a call to “let our old ways die so that the kingdom may be born.”

Following a reading of John 13:1-17 (which shares the account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet) and a litany of remembrance marked by the refrain, “Holy One, in washing and remembering, call us to love,” worshippers were invited to participate by placing their words and drawings of remembrance on altars throughout the worship space and participate in a communal hand-washing practice. Those gathered were invited “to hold each other as God holds us in stories of dying.” Some sat silently in prayer or sang quietly while hugs were exchanged and comfort was offered to those visibly moved by the experience.

The service concluded with these words: “Let us embrace death in the knowledge that in Scripture God did not remove death, but the sting of death, that something new might be born.”

NEXT Church looks forward
Following worship, Lori Raible, Shavon Starling-Louis and Adam Fronczek (the co-chairs of this gathering) unpacked some strategic initiatives of NEXT: to support and equip congregations; develop leaders; and strengthen connections across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The congregational work includes having monthly blog themes on the NEXT Church website to provide ideas and resources; forming regional networks; and a new “Cultivated Ministry” field guide – a resource to show church leaders new ways of measuring progress and accountability in creative congregational work that goes beyond traditional metrics of membership, giving and worship attendance.

Shavon Starling-Louis and Adam Fronczek

NEXT has begun to offer training in community organizing – having conducted one cohort in 2017 and with another planned in Baltimore in fall 2018.

It’s started NEXT Steps Coaching – either one-on-one for ministry leaders or in groups, and with some subsidies available for people who might not be able to afford it otherwise.

Lori Raible

NEXT has released a study guide for the Sarasota Statement it released in 2017.

And it announced that the NEXT’s 2019 gathering will be held March 11-13, 2019 in Seattle.

Reporting by Jill Duffield and Leslie Scanlon; photos by Jodi Craiglow.

Participants placed words and drawings of remembrance on altars throughout the worship space.