Woven together: NEXT Church conference knits together stories of people and place

SEATTLE — The story of Ruth served as the backdrop for three days of discussion on story, community, lament, displacement and God’s provision. The 2019 NEXT Church national gatheringhad as its theme “Woven Together: Stories of Dissonance, Sacrifice and Liberation,” as the conference held Mar. 11-13 at Seattle First Presbyterian Church invited participants to consider how God weaves individual stories together to shape community and live out the church’s call to freedom and faith.

About 575 people – about half of them pastors serving churches and the rest ruling elders, Christian educators, youth leaders, entrepreneurs and people serving in other ministry contexts – attended the conference. NEXT describes itself as a network of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders “who believe the church of the future will be more relational, more diverse, more collaborative, more hopeful and more agile,” and the gathering attempted to live into that vision by providing opportunities for worship, learning and conversation about issues facing the church.

The threads of these concepts were knitted together through workshops covering everything from inclusivity in worship music to preaching in a tense political climate to intergenerational ministry; through preaching that showed God’s presence and call in the midst of displacement experienced by Ruth and Naomi; through testimonies of Presbyterians who shared their own displacement stories and how God has used their experiences to reach others; and through times of fellowship and networking that allowed for idea-sharing and collaboration.

Here are some pieces that made up the fabric of this year’s conference.

Worship: Displacement explored through the story of Ruth

Mary Ellen Azada

“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”  These words Ruth spoke to Naomi in Ruth 1, were woven throughout all sermons (and several keynotes, testimonies and workshops), as preachers shared stories about displacement and God’s call to the church in current times.

On the first day, Mary Ellen Azada, of Fuller Seminary, used the story of Ruth to invite worshippers to consider the complexity of communities that are so tightly-knit that it becomes difficult for others to enter. Worshippers ripped pieces of fabric into strips that were then tied together to create long, knotted ropes that adorned the sanctuary and served as the backdrop for worship the rest of the conference.

All photos by Jodi Craiglow
Kelle Brown

Kelle Brown, pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ in downtown Seattle – and ordained in the PC(USA) – focused on the motifs of lament and despair in the story of Ruth. People’s lives need dissonance for God to do God’s work, she said, claiming that the church sometimes is filled with “joy junkies” who fail to spend time with God in lament and sorrow. She encouraged worshippers to have eyes open to God’s activity in the work of truth-telling and reconciliation. “We can’t get to resurrection if we keep trying to resuscitate what’s already dead,” she explained.

Eliana Maxim, associate executive presbyter for Seattle Presbytery, connected Ruth’s displacement story to her own immigrant childhood during closing worship. “My name has been diagnosed as having too many vowels by English-speakers,” she recalled.

Connecting her message to the baptismal waters that claim the lives of believers, she noted that baptism can also unite people of faith in their displacement, and through that “dislocation can become reorientation.” After decades or living in the U.S., “I still walk into a room as a Latina,” Maxim said, but at the baptismal font, “it is here that I am claimed.”

She acknowledged that her story may not weave well with others in the room — threads may clash or may even bleed on each other’s fabrics. “I don’t need the church to affirm my story. Christ already did that for me already,” Maxim preached.  But the church is called to lament with those who have been displaced or marginalized. That may be uncomfortable, but it’s part of the holy calling to stop cycles of creating “Naomis” – people displaced by larger unjust systems.

Eliana Maxim

Workshops: Weaving knowledge, faith and practice

Twenty-seven workshops offered a chance to consider topics in-depth.

For example, “Transforming Elders for Adaptive Leadership” led by Jesse and Eyde Mabanglo (both transitional pastors at different churches in the Pacific Northwest) explored how building a culture of listening within a session will make elders more receptive when times of transition come along.

“We live and die by our sessions,” Jesse Mabanglo said, asking: How do those elders get there? The nominating committee. “The nominating team is thestarting place for the overall health of the whole congregation,” Edye Mabanglo said. Listening elders lead to listening congregations, which leads to listening to neighborhoods, she said.

Outlook editor Jill Duffield co-led “Preaching and Politics,” on navigating a tense political climate and leading diverse congregations. And General Assembly co-moderator Cindy Kohlmann introduced the new “One church, one book” offering that she and Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri selected earlier this year.

Lunch talks: 2020 Vision Team

Karen Sapio, a pastor from California and member of the 2020 Vision Team, led a lunch discussion to gather feedback on the vision team’s draft guiding statement. That statement, approved by the 2018 General Assembly, statesthat “God calls the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to be Prayerful, Courageous, United, Serving, Alive” – with first letters of those words spelling out the PC(USA) acronym.

Sapio acknowledged that when the 2016 General Assembly created the Vision Team, “there was some ambiguity baked into the whole process” as to what the team was supposed to accomplish. She introducedsome of the approaches and tools the vision team hopes congregations and mid councils will use to interact with the vision statement — asking the participants to spend some time in small groups discussing these questions on the “Prayerful” part of the draft statement:

  • How has your community been prayerful?
  • How have those ways effective or not?
  • How might God be inviting you to be prayerful moving ahead?

Some in the room discussed the struggles their congregations have had moving from intellectual, analytical understandings to being led by prayer. “We’re really good at words and writing statements,” said Eric Koenig-Reinke.

Another participant said she’s a cradle Presbyterian who’s encountered Pentecostals through her work in the Pacific Northwest, describing her emerging understanding that “oh my gosh, this Holy Spirit thing is more than what we read about.”

Todd Peterson, from Woodland Park Presbyterian Church in Seattle, said that after praying about how to show hospitality, his congregation hung an “Immigrants Welcome” sign on a main road by the church. “Then one day a Salvadoran woman walked in our front door and said effectively, ‘I saw your sign,’ ” Peterson said. The woman told of family members who were in danger of being deported and needed help. So the congregation got involved.

“We were praying for this thing that was answered not in the way we thought at all,” Peterson said. “It was amazing.”

Sapio described how Presbyterians could use other parts of the guiding statement for discussions – for example:

  • How have we been courageous?
  • When has the congregation been brave?
  • What would courage look like right now?
  • Who might we want to be united with in the future?

Keynote addresses: Theology & practice

Tali Hairston. “Theway the story is told matters,” W. Tali Hairston, senior advisor for community engagement for Seattle Presbytery, stressed. He spoke about transformation and reconciliation, and made the argument that transformational change needs to make people uncomfortable; that it involves advocating for the disenfranchised and marginalized; that it involves a sense of mutuality, not charity; and that transformational relationships subvert oppressive systems.

Jennifer Harvey. A professor and author from Iowa, Jennifer Harvey asked NEXT Church, “Who are your people?” in her keynote. “If there was ever a time to be praying and agitating and creating on the question of what it means to be church, this is it,” Harvey said. She traced the involvement of white churches in perpetuating systems of injustice – saying that when repair and reparation became the focus of many black leaders, white Christians withdrew their support. “Race sits at this question of peoplehood” – at the bedrock question of “Who are my people?” she said.

Testimonies: Stories woven together

Native American testimony. Corey Greaves, whose heritage includes Blackfeet, Klickitat and Irish ancestry, lives on the Yakima Reservation in Washington state, and leads the work of Mending Wings, a nonprofit ministry program that works with Native American young people to develop spirituality, leadership and cultural awareness.

Corey Greaves

Greaves described for the NEXT Church gathering some of the realities of being a Native person and Christian – for example, that he was baptized at age 7, but later discovered that the white church was not willing to accept an expression of faith that incorporated elements of Native American culture and spirituality.

While Jesus “found me at the age of seven, the church began to lose me at age 19,” Greaves said. “Christianity has never really been good news to us as native people.”

Native Christians were told to give up their language and culture to be part of the church. Ethnic cleansing of indigenous people took place “with the blessing of the church,” Greaves said.

He encountered replacement-oriented theology from whites. “Pastors and missionaries have said and say – because it’s present tense too – that ‘We are Christians, you are not,’ ” Greaves said. “To be a Christian all that you are (as a Native American) must be replaced with what we are” as whites.

At one church, a Native American youth group he was leading was told that sacred drumming could not be a part of worship, even though the white worship service included a drum kit. “When missionaries and churches treat us like that, it screams to us loud and clear that they don’t value us,” Greaves said.

Through Mending Wings, Greaves and his team try to show young Native people new ways of thinking about faith – including through a program called Dancing Our Prayers. And on S.L.A.M. trips (Students Learning About Mission), white youth are invited to the reservation to learn about Yakama Nation culture.

“We are so tired of being the perpetual mission field,” Greaves said. “We have been on the receiving end of mission since Columbus got lost.”

When Native Christians share their own sense of faith and spirituality with white Christians, “we get a bigger picture of the Creator,” Greaves said. “We can learn from each other.”

Resurrection. Many of the speakers and worship leaders came from the Pacific Northwest – including Heidi Husted Armstrong, transitional pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where the gathering was held. Armstrong traced the history of the downtown congregation – which at one point had 9,000 congregants and a session of 110 members, and now, after conflict and litigation and an effort by former church leaders to lead the church out of the PC(USA), draws 20 to 30 people to worship each week.

Heidi Armstrong

The congregation in any given week is diverse – a mix of regulars, homeless people, and tourists who think they are coming to worship at an impressive tall steeple church. “It’s a beautiful sneak preview of the kingdom of God,” Armstrong said.

The administrative commission formed after the church experienced what Armstrong called “a devastating schism” has determined that the next step is to sell the property – a valuable city block in downtown Seattle – but not to dissolve the congregation. So the NEXT gathering filled the sanctuary to worship in a space that, before long, won’t be a church at all.

Armstrong explained why she stays at First Presbyterian in the midst of so much uncertainty.

First, “I have never been more free to say I do not know what I’m doing.” She practices “solvitur ambulando,” attributed to Saint Augustine – the idea that “it is solved by walking.” So “just take the next step and the next step and God will show the way,” Armstrong said.

Second, she prays, “Lord, let me be present for what you have for us today. Let me show up.” What she finds can be people showing up in worship with dogs, “and it’s not just homeless people. … Sometimes our folks are a little out of it. Intoxicated, stoned, struggling with mental illness.”

She asked one man, during the passing of the peace, “What’s your name? And he said ‘Jesus Christ.’ ” She thought of Matthew 25 – “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” – and looked at the man and said, “Good morning, Jesus.”

Third, she remembers that God is the God of resurrection. For a congregation and a denomination on the precipice of change, “there’s lots of room for God to show up here.”

What’s next?

Videos from worship, keynotes and testimonies are available on the NEXT Church website.

NEXT Church encouraged participants to continue exploring stories of resurrection and displacement at regional gatherings over the next year.

The 2020 NEXT Church national gathering will be held March 2-4 in Cincinnati.

Reporting by Leslie Scanlon and Jana Blazek