In mid-March, I spent three days in Seattle at the NEXT church gathering of the Presbyterian Church (USA). This event brings people together from across the country to participate in worship, listen to speakers, and attend workshops dealing with various concerns as we discern how God is calling the church into the future. According to the organization’s website, NEXT Church is a network of church leaders who believe the church of the future will be more relational, more diverse, more collaborative, more hopeful and more agile. It is a movement seeking to strengthen the relational fabric of the PC(USA) so that our congregations are strong and healthy enough to be a sustained, effective, faithful and moral voice that is engaged in the transformation of our communities toward the common good.
What I most appreciated about the gathering was that NEXT church sought to embody this self-description. Instead of just talking about diversity, the NEXT church leadership made a commitment to being at least 50% minority and they held themselves to that, so that the leadership board is a vibrant mix of races and genders and backgrounds. The keynote speakers included a Native American mission worker, an African-American church leader, and a white lesbian Baptist sociologist. During the closing worship service, three women of color stood at the communion table, celebrating the sacrament. That image spoke more powerfully than any slogans about diversity ever could.
Instead of just talking about an agile church, the conference modeled agility, adjusting to meet needs as they occurred, such as when food ran out for lunches on the first day of the event! We heard from the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where the gathering was held, about how their congregation is finding new ways to do ministry in a building which used to hold 500 people that now finds fewer than 40 in worship - half of the facility is currently used as transitional housing for those seeking to escape homelessness, while the long-term plan is to sell the building and use the funds to develop sustainable ministry.
I share the hope that NEXT Church proclaims that the future of the church will be “more relational, more diverse, more collaborative, more hopeful and more agile.” I long for that church to come to fruition, and I saw a glimpse of it at this gathering. I also glimpse it on many Sundays at Immanuel, when I look out over a congregation of young and old, black and white, gay and straight, and everything in between, all worshipping God together. I pray that as a congregation, we can find ways – such as making use of the resources offered by NEXT church – to be an “effective, faithful and moral voice that is engaged in the transformation of our community” for the good of God’s world.