The fourth NEXT Church national gathering ended yesterday, so here are my takeaways.

I said in some posts leading up to the gathering that I was looking for NEXT to articulate some ideals for leadership, to share prototypes of new ministries, and to continue its trajectory of constructive, infrastructure-heavy work of building the next iteration of the Presbyterian church in the United States.

  • Leadership: This was a strong emphasis of the gathering and was carried largely by a presentation and workshop led by Mark Ramsey and Kristy Farber of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church of Asheville. The two drew a very helpful distinction between leaders who invest in strategic planning and those who invest in strategic thinking. The former wants to produce a plan, a course for the future that will ensure viability through the following of articulated steps. The latter wants only to develop the capacity for the church to evaluate the present moment and its opportunities in light of its shared mission, values, and commitments. You accomplish the former with a committee and a document. You accomplish the latter by, in Mark’s great phrase, “funding the theological imagination” of the church. The opportunity is not to set a course for all to follow, but rather to invest in the people of God’s ability to discern which way God is turning us in our day-to-day reality.
  • Leadership (II): Jim Kitchens and Deborah Wright said something that stopped me in my tracks. Best practices are dumb. At least in an adaptive challenge, best practices won’t help you. Because best practices are other peoples’ methods for successfully accomplishing defined aims and solving technical problems. But we, they argued, are in a situation where the aims aren’t clear and the problems aren’t technical. We shouldn’t waste another minute coming up with best practices for being the church today.
  • Prototypes: Ignite presentations gave participants seven minutes each to pitch something. Some pitches were mini sermons, while others really were descriptions of prototypes. Rob Ater described the Presbytery of Milwaukee’s new relational meeting format: prototype. Leanne Masters of Southern Heights Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, described the food forest their church is starting: prototype. And Landon Whitsitt, the Executive and Stated Clerk of the Synod of Mid-America presented Theocademy, a completely free, completely online video curriculum for officers and members going live next month: prototype.
  • Infrastructure: I doubt NEXT’s leadership envisioned it this way, but Casey Wait Fitzgerald’s Biblical storytelling in the event’s worship services and her testimony about the role it plays in her ministry and in her life was all about infrastructure. Casey has completed a certification in Biblical storytelling through an academy run by the Network of Biblical Storytellers.┬áNow she’s got a repertoire of stories that she tells in worship, at conferences, on retreats, and even at home, to share the good news. It’s narrative infrastructure, perhaps the most important kind for a church swimming in a pluralistic postmodern setting.

Two and half days is a long time, and you can cram a wagon full of content in there. NEXT’s organizers did just that. For a more complete picture of what went out, read up on Leslie Scanlon’s articles in The Presbyterian Outlook, which are always artful and informative. John Vest has posted a really thorough reflection on it too. Also, you can spend some time with the event’s hashtag.

NEXT 2014 was reflective, challenging, and hopeful. I’m certainly looking forward to the next NEXT gathering (in Chicago!), but more than that I’m eager to start experimenting with the insights and ideas I got at this one.

Were you there? What’s the biggest thing you got out of it? Were you hoping to get something out of it but didn’t?