The Spirit Comes to Washington… A Reflection on the DC/Richmond Regional Gathering

by Stephen Smith-Cobbs

We began out on the side porches of The Church of the Pilgrims with coffee, bagels, and a gentle but persistent breeze that was a portent of things to come in more ways than one. While we all were more than aware of the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Sandy and her high winds and heavy rains, I am not sure we were as aware of the coming of the Spirit. But the NEXT church leadership conference, “Dynamic Church in a Time of Change,” was one occasion when the Spirit came.

With song and a choral reading of the Pentecost story from Acts, pastors Jeff Krehbiel and Ashley Goff of the Pilgrims church welcomed the participants and shared the story of the worship life of their congregation. Just as the story of Pentecost came to us from all directions in the choral reading, the worship life of Pilgrims seeks to involve worshippers in multiple ways. Worship at Pilgrims strives to be EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-driven, and connectional). The Pilgrims congregation believes that God is calling them to be a community of transformation that engages newcomers, especially young adults, in the practices of Christian community. At this NEXT church event, the whole day was itself a reflection of this kind of worship experience … as the Spirit came.

Jud Hendrix

Jud Hendrix, Coordinator of the Ecclesia Project, a ministry of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, used images and poetry as he shared reflections on leadership. As we did throughout the day, participants broke into triads for sharing impressions and thoughts about what was presented. Judd used several poems that became the basis for examples of and lessons in leadership. He spoke of prototyping, which he defined as a short-term experiment for the purpose of learning – as opposed to the way some use the term “prototype” to speak of a kind of model for solving a problem. Jud closed the morning with the “Broken Toaster” game, in which we might take apart a toaster, and then, instead of trying to put it back together exactly as it was, we instead ask what the Spirit wants to do with all the component parts. What can the Spirit do or create with these parts? And the Spirit came …

During lunch we used an “Open Space” approach to breaking into small groups. Individuals who wished to lead a discussion were invited to share the topic they wished to discuss (like “Biblical Story Telling,” “How to Make Friends in Church” and “Creating Relationships and Community in Worship”). These leaders stationed themselves at various tables in the fellowship hall and participants brought their lunch to a tables according to their interest. Of course, some only wanted to share fellowship and conversation over lunch and several did just that.

We returned from lunch to hear Jud share the remarkable story of the Ecclesia Project and how God used some unlikely folks to help begin new communities of faith in Mid-Kentucky Presbytery. One important leadership distinction Jud mentioned was how, rather than funding one large project with one large set of funds, the Ecclesia Project used one large set of funds to make multiple small grants for wildly different initiatives, trusting the same Spirit of Christ that spoke in many different languages at Pentecost to work in many different ways in their presbytery. And the Spirit came …

The final theme for the day was mission. Andrew Foster-Connors and Jessica Tate shared their experiences of how community organizing had made a difference in the ministries of their congregations, as well as their own personal ministries. The very definition of the word “mission” was transformed for them through broad-based organizing in their congregations. Where mission had previously been defined as “helping the less fortunate,” mission now meant “sending.”

In their experience, broad-based organizing provided a framework for living into God’s mission as it shifted the church from a maintenance culture to a relational culture. They spoke of the changes organizing had brought as their churches shifted from groups to actions, to having a higher accountability to outcomes and results, and from doing one thing from eight different directions instead of doing eight different things superficially. They closed with a challenging question: What would need to happen in your church to begin to shift you from a culture of maintenance to a relational culture of action? I’m guessing one thing for sure would need to happen: the Spirit would need to come…

We concluded the day gathering around the table. Literally. Everyone got up and out of the pews and gathered (as Jeff Krehbiel put it, “by gather we mean crowd”) all around the Lord’s Table in the center of the sanctuary. There several elders from Pilgrims church, along with their pastors, led us in the communion liturgy of word and song and then shared the elements among us all. After sharing the communion, we all gathered in a large circle and held hands as we sang the John Bell hymn:

“Take, O take me as I am;
Summon out what I can be;
Set your strength upon my heart and live through me.”

Speaking for myself, it was a great and grand day to share with disciples of Jesus. I left refreshed, renewed, and fed – both body and soul. I left hopeful for the NEXT church. For, indeed, the Spirit had come. And I am confident that the Spirit, just as Jesus promised, will come again.

——

Stephen Smith-Cobbs is one of the pastors of Trinity Presbyterian in Herndon, VA. He is a native Texan and graduate of Austin College in Sherman, Texas and Princeton Theological Seminary. Before coming to Trinity in 1997, he pastored two congregations in Texas. His current ministry passions include “what unites us as followers of Jesus Christ and what it means for us to be the church in the 21st century.”

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Here is the Church, Here is the Steeple… Re-writing the Rhyme

by Ashley-Anne Masters

A little rhyme I learned as a child goes like this, “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” There are hand gestures to go along with it to up the dexterity ante: Face hands toward each other. Lock fingers together facing down. Hold both index fingers straight up against each other. Fold thumbs inward against each other. The index fingers make the steeple, thumbs the doors, and other fingers the people inside. When the thumbs separate they represent opening the church doors to look at the people inside.

At the NEXT conferences in Indianapolis and Dallas I heard much talk of wanting what’s next for the church to include hospitality, people of all ages, and sustaining life instead of attempting to prevent death. I’m in favor of all those, and have learned about the impact of all three from sitting in the pews instead of standing the pulpit lately.

One of the realities I’ve come to appreciate about not currently receiving a paycheck from a church is that do not have to arrive early on Sundays. As part of my self-guided continuing education while seeking a call, I intentionally show up 5-10 minutes late to worship services at various churches.  I do this to experience how visitors and/or latecomers are treated. In some churches I’ve been pleasantly surprised and in others I’ve been offended when I did not receive a bulletin and nobody passed me any peace.  As clergy, I happen to know insider language and cues, but if I didn’t, I might feel awkward even in the friendliest congregations.

A few Sundays ago I arrived at my scheduled 11:06 to the church I most frequently attend. I walked up the steps with two women whom I did not know. We entered the narthex and were greeted by closed doors to the sanctuary. The women looked at me and said, “This is our first time here. Do you think it’s alright to open the doors or are we too late?” I jokingly made a comment about how people come to this service up until 11:45 and opened the doors for them. Once inside we were given bulletins, and I walked with them to an open pew so they wouldn’t feel alone walking down the long aisle.

The doors of the sanctuary were likely closed because it was a crisp, breezy, fall day and someone didn’t want the sanctuary to get drafty. For all practical purposes that makes perfect sense, too. But I can’t help but wonder if those two women would have turned away had someone more familiar with that congregation not been there when they arrived. Would they have opened the doors? Would they have tried again another Sunday? Who knows, but I do know that closed doors, even for good reasons, do not send the message that this is a gateway into life, hope, and hospitality.

As I settled in to my seat next to the two women, the childhood rhyme was on repeat in my head. Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people. The problem with that is not that the church is a building with a steeple, doors, and people. It’s that someone on the outside of the potentially intimidating sanctuary has to open the doors to see the people inside.

I’d like to receive a paycheck from a church again, and I live in a city with a serious winter season, so I’m not about to suggest we remove all doors from all church buildings. I say we rotate the hinges, leave the sanctuary doors open, and let the Spirit blow where it will. I realize that practically speaking it may mean leaving our light jackets on while seated in the pews, but I consider that a small price to pay for hospitality. Let’s just make sure we aren’t layered in Members Only jackets, as insider language is not welcoming, nor are we the church of the 1980’s.

While we’re at it, let’s tweak the rhymes we teach our children. “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. The doors are wide open to welcome all people.”

Ashley-Anne Masters is a freelance writer and pediatric chaplain in Chicago, IL. She is the author of Holding Hope: Grieving Pregnancy Loss During Advent and co-authored Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergywoman with Stacy Smith. She blogs at revaam.org. 

What’s NEXT: From the Pew to the Pulpit

This summer, we are inviting leaders and participants from the 2012 gathering to share what they’ve been thinking about or working on since Dallas. Where are we seeing seeds of the NEXT Church? What ideas are taking root?

The following was submitted by Andrew Taylor-Troutman:

Emily, one of the elders at the church I serve, took it upon herself to design new and updated welcome cards to be placed in the pews for the benefit of Sunday morning visitors. These stylish index cards included a picture of our small sanctuary nestled in the middle of farmland and listed a few of our activities. But Emily did not stop there. For everyone in attendance, there is a “Pew to the Pulpit” card that serves as a means to alert the pastor and elders about pastoral care needs, such as hospitalizations and deaths. There is also space to indicate a desire to volunteer for a committee or request a pastoral visitation. Finally, there are blanks spaces to ask questions about the service and indicate preferences for worship, including sermon topics and hymn selections.

In Dallas, I led a workshop about best worship practices based upon what I’ve learned from the input of my congregation. Through our discussion, we moved beyond the tired, old “worship wars” and shared ways to make the experience of worship reverent, joyful, inspirational, and thought-provoking. The key discovery was that changes in the service should come from the bottom up, rather than from the top down–from the pew to the pulpit. As preachers and worship leaders, we fill our sanctuaries with words week after week. But it is also instructive to listen: to let the people speak and be intentional about offering opportunities for feedback. It seems to me that the NEXT movement is about promoting such investment by congregations into the daily life of their worshipping community.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is a teaching elder at New Dublin Presbyterian Church, a congregation founded in 1769 in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia. He has written a book about his first year as their pastor, Take My Hand: A Theological Memoir. More information about the church and the book, including his blog, can be found at www.takemyhandmemoir.com.

Do you have views to share of “What’s NEXT”? We want to hear from you! E-mail our volunteer editor MaryAnn McKibben Dana at maryannmcdana (at) gmail (dot) com.