When I was growing up, our tiny, rural Presbyterian church looked forward to Revival, a four night series of worship services that took place the first week of August each year. There was no air conditioning in those days, so all the church windows and doors were open wide, allowing the breeze to blow through. Since the church was wide open, critters other than the human kind could find their way in. Once, during a hymn, a snake slithered through a side front door and crawled up on the back of an unoccupied pew. One of my uncles matter-of-factly walked to the front, picked up the snake, carried it out into the woods, and let it go.
During Revival we visited with old friends and made a few new ones. We sang more than usual and had special music many nights. The congregation even welcomed a child’s solo rendition of “How Great Thou Art.” It was her first experience of leading worship. Visiting preachers, usually from other churches in the presbytery, brought the good news to us in a different voice. Revival lifted us up as a congregation, and the memory of Revival still lifts me up.
For me the Next Church Conference in Dallas was a twenty-first century Revival, complete with singing and praying and preaching, fruitful conversation, celebrating old friendships and beginning new ones. We nurtured the future of the church by welcoming the leadership of our younger folk. We even sang “How Great Thou Art”! I heard and appreciated the longing of many to open the church’s doors and windows wide. The Spirit blew through, and I came home to Rocky Mount, North Carolina inspired and encouraged.
As a pastor with a passion for small church ministry, I admit that I went to Dallas wondering whether there would be many others like me there, and how small congregations might be viewed. Would we be seen as a problem to be fixed, stereotyped as candidates for redevelopment, or would we be respected? I am glad to report that I felt respected. I met a few folks from small congregations, and a few folks from larger congregations who appreciate what small churches do. I would have liked to have talked with more of them. Does anyone know how large our contingent was?
It cheered me to hear the speakers envisioning that small, healthy congregations of various kinds are part of what God has in store for the Next Church. Hearing positive discussion of creative ways of doing pastoral ministry with small communities of faith, such as tentmaking, made me feel less alone in what I do. It sounds like our tribe of small church leaders is going to increase. It is wonderfully encouraging to hear from seminary students who sense a call to ministry in small faith communities. Here’s a question that I have for the whole church: why can’t we find some way to move money around so that ALL our seminarians graduate debt-free? I don’t think that’s an impossible dream. Or as folks around here might say, “You don’t never say never around God!”
I found Jud Hendrix’s and Theresa Cho’s stories of new initiatives in their presbyteries especially helpful. For example, Theresa described the San Francisco Urban Legacy project that links twenty-two mostly small congregations in mission, and I can envision similar projects in the rural, suburban, and urban contexts of my home presbytery, New Hope, in North Carolina. When we gather nationally, regionally and locally, we need to continue sharing stories of hope like these. God is indeed doing many new things.
In my regional group meeting one participant, Robert Austell, pointed out something that slipped into the Next Church Conference here and there: the temptation to define what Next Church is by pointing to what it is not, setting up an “us vs. them” dichotomy. That concerned me, too. He expresses it well in a blogpost here. When critters of that sort start slithering into our conversations, and they will, since we are human and sinful, we can matter-of-factly recognize them, “pick them up, take them outside, let them go” and then refocus our attention on the God who is going before us all. This is the God whose love and mercy for us all is beyond understanding or describing.
I am looking forward to digging deep into the gospel again with my congregation, and I can hardly wait to preach on 1 Corinthians 1, and to reflect together on the logic of the cross, following up on Stacy Johnson’s presentation and proclamation. We really can live as people “who are being saved.” Stacy asked, “How far down are we willing to let reform go?” I believe that the answer is that the church is called to die and rise with Christ. That’s how far down reform must go: down into death, and up into resurrection.
Stay tuned for more reflections later. For now I’ll just say that I am really looking forward to the next Revival!