What's NEXT for the PC(USA)?
Two weeks ago I traveled to Dallas for the 2012 Next Church Conference at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Dallas.
NEXT is an ongoing conversation among (mostly progressive) Presbyterians about the future of the Presbyterian Church. The organization (now a 501(C) 3) began a few years ago when several tall steeple pastors got together to ask what is next for the PC(USA) beyond the debates about sexuality. The denomination has been posturing itself around these debates for quite some time. Sooner or later the debate will end and we will need to figure out how to be church in the 21st century.
NEXT Church is not the only group having this kind of conversation. In many respects the newly formed Fellowship/ECO is asking similar questions from a different theological framework. Presbymergent began this conversation several years ago. Mid Councils Commission is engaging the conversation from the perspective of how our denomination is structured. Fourth Church Chicago pastor John Vest has written some thoughtful Blog posts about his work with this group. There are all kinds of conversations happening about what’s next for the PC(USA) and for the Church.
At NEXT, there are no policy papers or votes. Instead pastors and leaders connect around worship, shared experience, joint mission, and Christian fellowship.
It was a great conference. There was a lot of positive energy and conversation about emerging leadership and innovation that is already at work in our denomination and how we continue to nurture and grow those things in the church that is emerging. With each year the conference seems to adapt to feedback and to challenge itself to reflect the kind of church it wants to create. There is both progress made and much work still be done. These are important conversations and I am looking forward to next year’s gathering in Charlotte, N.C.
One or two thoughts from NEXT 2012:
We Are Not Dying
Looking at statistics and listening to conversations both inside and outside the denomination, there is a sense that the Church is dying. It is true that the PC(USA) works for a certain kind of culture and in the 21st century it finds itself a part of a culture for which that model is no longer working. The church needs to take seriously the conversation about reimagining itself. That being said, it is not the time to practice panic or to hold a funeral.
The truth is that for many churches the struggle to be relevant and to adapt to constantly changing realities is not a new idea but the normal everyday task of ministry.
I appreciated San Francisco pastor Theresa Cho’s perspective as she points out that as small church pastors she and her husband are faced with this task every day, every week, every year. “For smaller congregations,” she writes, “there isn’t the sense of perishing because the hey-day left over 50 years ago... The difference is that now not just the smaller churches are wandering in the wilderness. Now it’s the larger churches wondering what’s next.”
Trying to figure out how to adapt and stay relevant? Welcome to the ministry.
The PC(USA) and Church’s current wilderness is not a time to pull our hair out or indulge ourselves in the practices of panic or depression. It is an opportunity to collectively reimagine, recreate, and refocus together. Finding ourselves on the margins, rather than the center, is a profound opportunity.
We are not dying. We are just in need of re-imagining.
Not Just Technical Tinkering But Re-Imagining the Gospel
At NEXT, Princeton Seminary professor William Stacy Johnson gave a fantastic presentation on the Church’s need to engage this time of re-imagining not through technical fixes but through adaptive challenges. In an adaptive challenge, the solution is less easily identified and requires a discernment through which changes in values, beliefs, roles, relationships and approaches must be made.
Technical problems tend to lend themselves to cut and dry solutions that can be solved by an authority or an expert. People are often receptive to technical changes while resisting adaptive ones. An example of a technical vs. an adaptive challenge would be taking medication to lower blood pressure vs. changing lifestyle, exercise, and eating habits. Teaching on leadership will often argue that the single greatest failure of leadership is to treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.
The church is facing an adaptive challenge. We cannot just reshuffle the deck. We must confront the gospel itself.
“The real adaptive challenge," Johnson said, "is to go behind the doctrinal structure of Christendom to a deeper understanding of the gospel itself. We need to envision and re-envision the gospel and how we embody it. It’s not just that we need a better delivery system for the gospel. It’s that we need to understand the gospel to live it more clearly.”
Further, he added, “We always stand somewhere between reform and revolution. The Kingdom of God is about revolution. The revolution is God’s revolution. We’re not about bringing revolution. But our reform needs to be in service of God’s revolution."
Roughly 600 people attended the NEXT Church Conference. This is a good sign. These are important ongoing conversations.
Until NEXT time....