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A time to tear, a time to mend: Next Church national gathering opens with worship

SEATTLE (Outlook) — What does it mean to be woven together as a community of faith?  Participants in the 2019 Next Church national gathering, meeting in Seattle Mar. 11-13, considered this during opening worship. Worship demonstrated the conference theme, “Woven together stories of dissonance, sacrifice and liberation,” weaving between multiple languages, various leaders, sung and spoken word, preaching and invitations to reflect through sound, sight and touch.

About 575 people are congregated at First Presbyterian Church of Seattle for national gathering. According to Next Church’s director Jessica Tate. She said that about 50 percent are pastors, 20 percent ruling elders and the rest from various ministry contexts (including youth leaders, Christian educators, entrepreneurs, volunteers and others).  About half of conference participants are first time attendees.

Mary Ellen Azada (All photos by Jodi Craiglow)

The gathering began with opening worship crafted around Ruth 1:1-19. Preacher Mary Ellen Azada, executive director of Fuller Careers and Personal Development at Fuller Seminary, noted that questions of navigating between an individualistic and collectivist culture are fraught with tension and are not theoretical to her, an Asian-American woman.

Being an immigrant often is “a harsh reality filled with difficulties and anxieties,” and “your status in the land can be provisional,” filled with hostility and vulnerability, Azada said. 

Preaching on the story of Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, Azada invited worshippers to wrestle with notions of personal identity, communal responsibility and the open or closedness of identity, churches and the circles in which Christians move.

Tasha Hicks-McCray

Sometimes communities – in congregations, among families or groups of friends – become so tight-knit it’s difficult for others to enter. Groups become so “tightly woven in our circles that we miss seeing the people and the stories around us,” said Tasha Hicks-McCray of Mount View Presbyterian Church in Seattle, a liturgy leader.

Worshippers were given pieces of fabric upon entering the sanctuary. During Azada’s sermon, listeners were  and invited to hold their piece of fabric and contemplate questions including:

  • What does it mean to be woven into community? Into God’s family?
  • Where are we too tightly woven to allow God to work?
  • Where do we need to be unbound?
  • Where are our communities so tightly woven that they are closed to others?
  • Where do we need to be torn in order for there to be space in us and within us for God to work?

The theme of tearing and mending continued throughout the service as pieces of cloth were audibly torn, knotted together and then tied to connect to the fabric of one another in pews. The strands of fabric were collected and incorporated into the large scaffolding of colorful string on the chancel. Azada noted, “Building of community is a volitional choice, chosen daily.” As Christians, then, “How do we become the beloved community for the world?”

In closing, Azada called on participants not to focus on ask, “Who is my neighbor?” — but rather to choose to live the more important question: “To whom will we be neighbors?”