A year or so ago I attended the NEXTchurch conference in Dallas. This year, the national conference is in my hometown, Charlotte, NC. I write this after the first full day, with another half-day to follow tomorrow, and I have already found a number of points of resonance and inspiration in the conference. I continue to be encouraged that across the Presbyterian Church there is movement out of our inward-focused, attractional, and traditional models of DOING church toward a more embodied, outward-focused, missional, and malleable (by the Spirit) model of BEING church. I am hearing teaching and testimony to that effect in healthy doses here at NEXT.
I participate from what may be an unusual position in that I also attended the national meeting of the Fellowship of Presbyterians in Orlando, FL, in January of this year. (I have been participating in both the Fellowship and NEXT meetings since the second meeting of both.) A year ago I wrote about the number of shared values and emphases between NEXT and the Fellowship, ruminating that many in each group would find great collegiality and shared vision with the other group (and indeed there has been some overlap at the national meetings). I also noted what I think are forces pulling each away from the theological center (and each other).
This year, if anything, I have heard MORE overlap between the groups, particularly in two areas (so far):
- Emphasis on Leadership - both groups had several keynotes emphasizing the need to develop leadership in the church... leadership gifts, strategies, competencies, etc...
- Value on Accountability - I heard a new note at NEXT this year, picked up by two different sets of keynoters. Bill Golderer and Aisha Brooks Lytle shared about the positive role administrative commissions had played in bringing helpful accountability and outside wisdom to two different church situations in which they were involved (to the point of even inviting one in intentionally!) Another speaker (Andrew Foster Conners, maybe?) later picked back up on that theme and highlighted the value of outside evaluation as a form of accountability. This theme jumped out at me as one that the Fellowship has strongly emphasized in the form of small clusters of accountability between congregations, sessions, and pastors - this is what they call "covenanted order" and involves inviting pairing up to four sessions and pastors for similar roles of sharing and accountability.
I do so because I continue to hear so much in common between two groups of Presbyterians that more or less run in different circles. We still live in the shadow (if not the direct glare) of our liberal/conservative (or progressive/evangelical) and other polarities. And yet there is so much we can do and share and be in common. The folks that can't are already withdrawing (on both sides). My question is what will the folks who remain in the broad center of the PCUSA do? Will we keep DOING church as usual and form new polarities to debate and fight and debilitate? Or can we find enough common ground and common grace to work together on the many things we can share?
I should add this... I've appreciated all the speakers today. Aisha Brooks Lytle and Bill Golderer were excellent on sharing what God has done in their midst, but over and above that Rev. Brooks Lytle hit it out of the park in terms of being able to speak to race issues in a way that a predominantly white audience could hear and receive... masterful... effortless. I know she is a blessing to every community of which she is a part. And Steve Eason, pastor at one of the local host churches, Myers Park Pres., preached a profoundly disarming, witty, and poignant sermon about listening to the voice of the One who called us, despite all the voices clamoring to be heard instead. He could have preached that at the Fellowship, at General Assembly, in my congregation, and any other number of places; we were blessed to hear it here tonight. We can't manufacture "what is next" - God already knows; but we can listen and follow.