A few weeks ago, I went to Dallas. Home of big hair, big steaks, cattle with big horns, and also a big gathering of Presbyterians trying to sustain and nurture the church. People trying to help breathe new life into the church; similar to the way that God breathes the breath of life (ruah) into the lungs of the first human in the second creation story in Genesis.
There were breaths, all right, Some were breaths of relief in seeing so many come together to work toward a common goal of helping the church thrive. Some were breaths of gasping for air when the traditional blue-book hymns were taken and sung by a performer along with the conference attendees and done with new tunes with lots of harmonizing and riffs. Some were breaths of delight at the new ways to worship. Some were breaths of excitement when we ran into old friends from 2005 that we never imagined of seeing. Some were bated breaths while listening to the speakers. Some were sighs of relief at realizing that seminary students (meaning the next generation of the church leaders), can actually worship and do it well.
I went to the NEXT Church conference, hosted by the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas. The hardest part about this conference is trying to figure out just what the hell you say about it, exactly. This is the second conference, the first being in Indianapolis last year.
To begin with, there were almost 600, mainly white Presbyterians in a sanctuary together. I say mainly because last year I could have counted the number of participants who were not white on one hand.Frank Yamada, president of McCormick Seminary talks alot about the year 2040. 2040 is the estimated year that there will no longer be a majority of any one type of people in the United States. This is by race, because let’s be honest, with the way things are going, the rich will still heavily under weigh those who are below the poverty line. This year at NEXT, there was a conscious effort to remember that not all Presbyterians are old, white, male, and heterosexual. Granted, they had their token people of color there, but still, thank you for listening to people when they were bothered by the fact that all you had was a sea of white last year.
Second, the conference worship was interesting. Part of the problem with the PCUSA today, is that no one wants to hand over control. Basically, no one is retiring. There was a recent article posted to Facebook about current pastors asking people to stop becoming pastors, and I have to wonder, does someone feel threatened? Are we realizing that things have to change? Are we worried about job security? Are we worried that the next generation of the church is going to screw it up royally? Are we worried that all the things we worked so hard for will be thrown out the window by those new comers who don’t appreciate it? Yes to all of those and more. But the fact is, that someone passed down the church to the generation of pastors before us, and now it’s time to pay it forward. We’re not saying “get lost.” In fact, were saying the opposite. We’re saying, “hey, what did you do and how can I do it and make it applicable to my generation like you did for yours?”
I say all this because the opening worship was a bit of a shit-show. (Yes. I swore. And I’m probably sure that Jesus did too at some point.) The point is, that taking old hymns that people already know and love and adding new tunes, a wailing musician who is really putting on a show for people, and a guitar is not going to make worship somehow more special, it’s going to be uncomfortable, annoying, and a bit insulting to those young people like me, who you are trying to “reach out” to. Really?
Third, the conference has defined its goals a little better but its still sort of muddy waters. Which I actually find good and refreshing. People are still finding their way through this and they are also claiming their own identities of what they want the Next Church to become.
Trying to find your place in the world as the church and as the body of Christ is hard, but we keep on doing it. We keep on working and growing and trying to listen for the spirit as much as possible; and maybe, just maybe, we will get it right one of these days.
Here’s to hoping that we’ll figure out what it will mean to become the next church.