Report from 2015 NEXT Church Conference Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago, March 16-18
What is the NEXT Church?
It’s a movement within the PC(USA) that—in the midst of severe drops in giving, worship attendance and controversial issues like gay rights and Israel-Palestine conflict—shows that the denomination (and it’s churches) aren’t dead. But instead the PC(USA) is changing, expanding and transforming into the body of Christ that God calls it to be. Here’s how the NEXT Church expresses it on their website.
For me, what truly nourishes my heart and soul at the NEXT Church Conferences is morning and evening worship, connecting with friends and colleagues (as well as making new ones), the presentations on new ways of doing ministry/cultural trends/justice and societal issues, and workshops.
While the conference doesn’t explicitly talk about Christian Education ministry, it is faithfully educating Christians about what it means to be the body of Christ and to do God’s work in the world—to (according to this year’s theme) go “beyond our walls, our fears and ourselves” to be Christ’s hands and feet.
Also, Christian Education is about being creative and the practice of imagination and sharing of ideas is the essence of the NEXT Church conference and movement. Worship in particular is so moving (with liturgy, prayers, music, preaching and visual art) that it is impossible not to remove your shoes because you are standing on holy ground like Moses.
For closing worship on Wednesday, the representation of a bird was hung from the ceiling of the sanctuary—made mostly of strips of paper (taken from old hymnals) where we wrote our prayers earlier in the week. And then during the service, these words were offered:
Grounded in the grace of God Our love takes flight Not beyond one another But beyond ourselves Beyond our fears Beyond our own limitations God’s blessing infuses us God’s spirit blows us God’s strength emboldens us God’s beauty beckons us Out into the day and the night Out into the world beyond these walls To be the people of God In the world God created. (by Shawna Bowman, used with permission)
This poetic and prophetic piece reflected a profound statement made the previous evening by writer/dreamer/theologian Diana Butler Bass who said:
“The best part about being human is that history is ours to make and we make that history with God.”
The questions that immediately came to mind regarding CE were:
- What does Christian Education look like when it’s beyond ourselves, our fears and walls?
- What does Christian Education look like out in the world God created as opposed to being in a church building or classroom?
- What is God’s strength and beauty moving us to do differently, unexpectedly, creatively, and imaginatively with Christian Education?
- What kind of history are we making with Christian Education and what stories are we telling that feed people’s hunger to know about their faith and beliefs?
- What cultural shifts are we willing to make to keep Christian Education relevant and viable ministry that nurtures and emboldens others to be the body of Christ? (this particular question and subset of inquiries were adapted from a workshop taught by the Rev. Jan Edmiston called “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”)
- What does Christian Education look like if we focus less on attendance at events, the building to house classes and the cash it takes to run programs? What does CE look like if we focus on doing the ministry in the surrounding culture and neighborhood of the church?
- What if we move a church school class or youth adviser training from the church parlor to a coffee shop?
- What if we move from doing CE events at the church to attract people (like VBS or a Fall Festival) and send people out into neighborhoods to do VBS or host a Fall Festival in the town square or community center?
- What if we ask more questions about our purpose for doing a certain CE program and event and whether people are passionate about participating or comfortable with failing or afraid of trying something new?
- Who is being spiritually nourished and what relationships are being nurtured by CE? Who is being transformed to become more faithful? Who is being impacted?
- How can CE better nurture faith and discipleship that carries over into every aspect of our week and lives, beyond Sunday mornings and the Wednesday evening supper and Bible study?
These questions must be wrestled with and answered so that the people of God can faithfully educate Christians on how to live fully in Christ, so that we can all take flight into the wild imagination of what God has for us next.
The Rev. Andy Acton Associate Pastor for Youth and Mission & Outreach at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, Duluth, GA (Greater Atlanta Presbytery)