NEXT Church and the church that is next

John Wilkinson, who helped to found NEXT Church, shares some of the history of the organization and why there is a constant need for the church to look forward.

“And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.”

 T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?”

(Isaiah 43:19)

It began with a conversation — a simple, pleasant lunch between colleagues at the 2008 General Assembly in San Jose, California. There was no agenda, no business plan. There was certainly no design to launch any kind of organization, let alone one that would last more than a decade, one that would connect thousands of Presbyterian leaders, one that would – by grace – make a useful contribution to the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

That conversation was the spark that started NEXT Church, a network of leaders from the PC(USA) and beyond that desire a relational, diverse church, and who want to work collaboratively to bring it about. More than a decade after that initial conversation, NEXT is an organization that has made a useful contribution but has also faced growing pains, especially surrounding structural racism. As it faces a new generation in its life, NEXT Church is asking many of the same questions congregations and presbyteries and Presbyterians are asking: what is next for the church, and how will whatever is next face the crucial questions of race and racism and equity?

But it began as a conversation. Two Presbyterian leaders invited two Presbyterian leaders for lunch. The Presbyterian Church had changed its mind on the question of ordination and human sexuality. The matter was settled constitutionally but was not yet settled in the life of the church. For more than 30 years, this “debate,” with ancillary debates about Christology and biblical authority, had been the focus of the church’s energy. What was next?

Denominational membership statistics reflected a steady decline. That was concerning. But thinking about the future was about more than numbers. The conversation included our next mission, our next vision. Just as we would not go back on ordination, we knew the church couldn’t move backwards. This was not about nostalgia. Things had changed, including our ecclesial and educational institutions, our place in the culture, our sense of connection, perhaps even our sense of mission and calling.

That lunch conversation between four Presbyterians turned into a small gathering of 13 later that fall including 7 men and 6 women: all pastors of medium and large Presbyterian congregations, all identifying as White. We did not all know each other, but we certainly reflected a “one degree of separation” reality that can be familiar, and a potential hindrance, within Presbyterian circles.

When we gathered in Kansas City, what was most apparent was a sense of energy for this conversation. Again, we had no plan. There was, however, a common sense of shared concerns, coupled with an equally strong common sense of possibility.

This small group gathered several more times. We then expanded the circle. Several hundred of us gathered in Indianapolis. We worshiped together. We focused on three themes – mission, leadership and connection.

Interest grew. We grew. Our leadership team expanded. We identified a leader, a director, Jessica Tate. We established a budget and an organizational structure.

We struggled somewhat with self-identification. As we adopted structure and organization, we really couldn’t identify ourselves as merely a conversation anymore. Yet we resisted, a bit, the organizational impulses. The church didn’t really need more organizations, and, besides, we were all serving contentedly in our congregations. Plus, as many will remember in that time immediately following the church’s change in its approach to ordination, other Presbyterians were re-considering their relationship to the denomination. The Fellowship of Presbyterians formed in 2011 within the denomination. In 2012, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians was formed as a new denomination.

Whatever NEXT Church was, it was not a new denomination nor an affinity group within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Our purpose was not to offer a critique of the denomination or its structures. At the same time, our mission was not to maintain, sustain or transform denominational structures. That was important work (and some of us were involved in that work). But it was not NEXT Church’s calling. Our calling focused on congregations and their leaders.

We grew and evolved. Our national gatherings expanded to welcome 500 or 600 or 700. We began by meeting in congregations but eventually expanded to hotel settings in urban centers that could accommodate us. These national gatherings featured creative worship, engaging keynote presentations and workshops led by practitioners. More so, they provided opportunities for people across the church to connect. And they did. Some found those opportunities energizing, the chance to meet new people in a setting committed to innovation. Some found those opportunities less than helpful, reflecting perceptions of an “insider” dynamic.

As the national gatherings grew and evolved. NEXT Church sought to evolve as well. As important as those gatherings were, we knew we needed to be more than an annual event. So, we tried new things.

We organized several regional gatherings designed for people who were not able to travel to our national gatherings. They also recognized that ministry is local, that relationships are best nurtured over time and often within geographical proximity.

We held a series of elder symposia, focusing particularly on ruling elders. These symposia gathered elders from a region or a presbytery – often on a Saturday – to build relationships and offer resources in support of this office
of leadership.

We offered community organizing training for several years in conjunction with Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and BUILD, a Baltimore-based community organization. From the outset, NEXT Church has been compelled by the principles and practices of community organizing. Community organizing, we believe, can transform the communities in which congregations are situated. Community organizing – with its focus on relationship building and power – can also transform the lives of congregations themselves. Participants in our community organizing training reported positive experiences. As we move through our organizational transitions, we hope to be able to offer this training again.

In 2017, we released what we called the Sarasota Statement, a contemporary theological affirmation sponsored through a partnership with the Presbyterian Foundation. We issued a prologue to the statement in 2020.

We developed the Cultivated Ministry resources for congregational life. We recognized the inadequacy of the ways that congregations often assess ministry and programs — membership figures, finances, worship or class attendance. Cultivated Ministry offers an alternative model of assessment and evaluation.

As I mentioned, our initial gathering of 13 leaders included 6 women and 7 men. These were friends and colleagues, of course, but in retrospect, the flaw is obvious and deep: we were an exclusively White gathering. That remains for me a cause for lamentation and confession. While the impulse to gather was the right one, and the vision for thinking about the future of the church was on point, our initial years could not help but reflect the culture of White supremacy and privilege that gave them shape.

In our 2015 Strategy Team (board) meeting, following discussion, we committed to having 50% of our Strategy Team be reflective of communities of color. That was an important, if not imperfect and incomplete, move for us. This commitment led us to think in different ways about how we identify leadership and engage in our ministry.

In 2018, several instances involving White Strategy Team members led us to a more comprehensive commitment to anti-racism. (You can learn more about that in an online presentation from our 2021 virtual gathering.) We contracted with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training to help us conduct a racism audit, including a survey of our constituencies and an interrogation of many of our habits and perspectives. After receiving the final audit report a year ago, we have formed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) team to help us process and implement the audit. We are committed to seeking to embody the values and practices represented in the audit in all of our work.

As with the whole church, the last few years have reflected intense periods of transition, challenge and opportunity for NEXT Church. We concluded our national gathering in Cincinnati on March 4, 2020, just days before the COVID pandemic changed everything. In 2021, our founding director Jessica Tate, along with several other staff, moved on to new ministry opportunities. We remain grateful for their faithful, committed work.

We gathered virtually in 2021. Earlier this summer, we returned to an in-person national gathering. What had been our traditional model – a large gathering in a hotel conference setting – was transformed into a smaller, COVID-sensitive gathering at Montreat Conference Center to think about the theme of “Rest, Resist, Restore.”

We are living into our threshold season. We are finalizing transitional leadership. We are exploring antiracism coaching, coaching cohorts and webinars as new ways of gathering, thinking and being. We are looking, as we always have been, for the new work God is creating.

In other words, we are looking to what is next. That is, after all, where we get our name. “Next” indicates forward movement. We aren’t “this church.” We certainly aren’t “previous church,” although that remains a real temptation. We are “next church.”

We are all next church, members of the church that is next, whether we are part of this particular organization or not. We have been grateful for this calling to support the church and its leaders as they seek to perceive God’s new thing, in the surprising ways and directions the Spirit leads us.