Last week a group of four McCormick students, including myself, got in a car and drove to Charlotte, NC. Not only were we hoping to escape the Chicago winter, we were also registered to attend the Next Church conference.
What is “Next Church?” Stated simply, Next Church is an organization of PC(USA) pastors and lay people who want to be in conversation about what the church and faith in Jesus Christ looks like in the present age, and with eyes to the future.
In theory it sounds great. I was so pumped for this trip. I went to college in Charlotte, so being back in one of my favorite cities in the country was a huge bonus. The future of the church plus college friends, nothing could be better!
But I was sorely disappointed.
Beginning with opening worship in the massive (and ultra “traditional”) 1st Presbyterian Church sanctuary, I began to feel like something was missing. The music used masculine and other alienating language for God. The service felt exactly like what is driving people away from mainline churches. Something was missing.
The theme for the conference was “born again.” One would think that such a theme could go one of two ways: either in the common fundamentalist sense or progressive reclaiming of the fundamentalist sense. Somehow it did neither. In reality it did nothing and went nowhere. Something was missing.
It didn’t take long for people to begin taking notice. Some noticed the age disparity – most attendees were older. Some noticed the racial disparity – almost all attendees were white. Some noticed that the ideas being shared were either old ideas in new packaging or great new ideas but provided no context for successful implementation. People were noticing. It was clear – the “next” church should not look like this conference.
There was one highlight on the first day – the presentation by Broad Street Ministries in Philadelphia, PA . This was the one time during the conference I wasn’t given a laundry list of the great things happening at other churches. With this lecture I was welcomed into a powerful discussion of how a ministry was established in a real context, I was told of the real problems the pastor faced and introduced to someone who could provide a second perspective, and then told how the pastor was able become successful. And they used real world examples to keep us engaged and to help us see how what they did could translate to different contexts. It was something I could use.
One of the main reasons I attended the conference was to get involved in a workshop entitled, “Get In the Game: Forming and Re-forming Faith Communities.” You see, I feel called to church planting, so it makes a lot of sense for me to participate in a workshop about forming faith communities. I entered the workshop tired and weary – I was already so disappointed, I only wanted this one thing to go well. But it wasn’t my lucky day. We started by being introduced to some folks who work for the PC(USA) in various capacities, including for the 1001 Worshiping Communities initiative. We then watched 4 videos of new worshiping communities. From the videos we could only get a sense of what those communities are about, nothing about how they began or what it took to launch. Nothing. The final part of the “workshop” was to break into small groups and share our visions and what we think we need to be successful, and what is standing in our way. This was partially interesting. I got to hear a couple of really intriguing ideas, and for that I am thankful. After the workshop I spoke to some of the leaders, some of whom I’d had previous encounters with that went very poorly. In my past experience with these leaders, when I attempted to share my vision, or at least the beginning of the formation of a vision, I was treated as though I wasn’t worth their time. They were condescending. This time was no different. Although I came with different questions, questions that I acknowledge could not have been answered right away, I was treated the same. I was made to feel like I was being a burden on them just for wanting to speak to them. I again left conversation very discouraged. The next church should not be one which provides such little support.
Day 2 provided one other highlight (besides good preaching). McCormick’s president, Frank Yamada, sat on a panel on leadership. The panel, and Frank in particular, challenged the attendees to rethink how they think about leadership in the church, about failure, and importantly, about race. Sadly, many of the attendees skipped out on this portion of the conference to eat lunch.
We left early in order to try and beat a snow storm, and had to miss out on what could have been one of the most rewarding parts of the conference – regional meetings to talk about what’s next in our own local contexts.
Part of my frustration with the conference may be that as a seminary student I’m already in discussion about many of these issues. McCormick, as a seminary, is also on the cutting edge of talking about what’s next, to the topic is something I’m comfortable with and already have a lot of ideas about. For those who’ve been out of seminary for longer the discussion might be totally new to them, and I’m sure it was a meaningful experience coming from that context.
I look forward to hearing what’s to come for Next Church in the next year. The future(s) of the church is an enormously important topic, and one that deserves more attention.