How Will #nextchurch2015 Know If It Worked?

NEXT Church is next week!

I’ve enjoyed blogging about past NEXT Church gatherings, for examplehere,here, and here.

This week I’m sharing four questions I’m bringing with me to my favorite annual gathering of Presbyterians [full disclosure: I helped plan this one].

Here’s my first question:

Here’s my second question:

Here’s my third question:

And now my fourth question . . .

How will we know if NEXT Church 2015 was a success?

There will be over 600 people there. Is that success? There’s a program full of recognizable names–preachers, speakers, and workshop leaders who are considered “experts” at what they do. Is getting them success?

Maybe you only know if gatherings like this worked much later, when people who were there trace their transformation back to it as the moment they learned something new or started important relationships or made a vocational decision or encountered God’s grace. Maybe if enough people do that it worked on a church-wide scale.

Evaluations will tell you if your thing worked as a thing: was the food good? Did the content connect with peoples’ expectations and experience? Was your communication clear? But we want our thing to move the needle in ways that don’t show up on evaluations. How do we know if that’s happened/ing?

Where Is The Alternative To The Presbyterian Layman?

I keep thinking that Presbyterians need an alternative to the Layman, an advocacy operation dressed in journalistic garb that can’t see fit to perform the most basic functions of journalistic due diligence. The Layman is misleading and (more to the point) useless for constructive conversation about disputed matters in the Presbyterian Church.

We need an alternative.

(The Presbyterian Outlook is, in every respect, a superior product to The Layman; it’s a bi-weekly print magazine with strong convictions about a balanced rotation of commentary. Yet its news reporting resources are deployed mostly in Louisville and at national events.)

Here are two examples of why we need an alternative to the Layman.

1) A decade ago my colleague and I had a spirited disagreement about the state of things in the PC(USA). She expressed her views on a personal blog, and I believe I added comments. Mere days later The Layman published something in news story form that reported that this pastor, my colleague, had said all of these things as if a reported had spoken with her; the piece quoted her at length and added incisive editorial comment in support of her statements.

I, of course, recognized my colleagues comments as direct quotations of her blog posts. So I called her. “Did you know you’re in The Layman?” I asked. She did not. She was gobsmacked. Nobody from the Layman contacted her before printing a “news” article full of quotes from her blog.

2) Then last Friday The Layman published this piece about the presbytery I belong to threatening to “Renege” (sic) on a dismissal agreement it had made with a church (it hadn’t). The story’s sole source is an email from a party to the dismissal proceedings sent the previous day to multiple parties (myself included), and it shows zero evidence of even the most basic fact checking. No phone calls. No emails. Nothing. It simply dresses up an aggrieved individual’s email as a news story.

We need an alternative. The future of the church could be well served by a digital, broadly-distributed instrument of news and analysis. The only alternative now is to ignore The Layman. After years of dumping their unsolicited print piece in the recycle bin, that alternative is well-practiced. I think we need something else.

I think there could be real value in a digital source for news and information pertaining to the PC(USA) that has a progressive editorial agenda but takes seriously the conventions of ethical journalism?

Who’s with me?

Needs Help

specialofferings1_medium250The Presbyterian Church (USA) is taking a beating this week over the marketing materials it published for its campaign of special denominational offerings. Two images in particular have drawn widespread condemnation on social media and in statements by groups like the National Hispanic/Latino Caucus of the PC(USA).

The ads are being condemned as racist and insensitive to the struggles of addicts. They are being denounced as flashy and edgy attempts at relevance that achieve gross insensitivity instead.

More informed people than I can speak on the decision making that led to these ads, because I honestly don’t know any of the people involved and I don’t have any reason to doubt their integrity. But here’s what I’m tucking up under my own hat from this episode: as compelling as the justification may be for doing something unconventional and perhaps out of bounds–you’re trying to save lives; you’re trying to save souls–, if the product can’t pass the nose-crinkle test it isn’t worth doing.

We have a copy of this poster in our office. It came in the mail last week and has been sitting atop the office counter untouched for days. After spending the morning reading angry screeds on Facebook, I grabbed the above image and showed it to our church’s Office Manager, the sweetest conservative evangelical middle-aged white woman you’d ever want to meet who’s not even a member of our church.

specialofferings2_medium250“What do you think of that?” I asked her. She studied it for a moment and then–as if involuntarily–her nose crinkled up into an uncomfortable stance and she said, “Hmmm. That’s interesting.” Confident there was more there, I pressed her: “Say more.”

“It gives me a bad feeling.”

Not “offensive.” Not “insensitive.” Not “racist.”

“It gives me a bad feeling.”

Nose-crinkle test: failed. Done. Scrap the campaign. Go in another direction.

Perhaps these images were shown to focus groups before they were published and distributed. I don’t know. But “It gives me a bad feeling” is precisely the kind of thing a focus group will tell you. And that’s more than enough to guarantee that whatever kind of motivation or inspiration or compassion you’re trying to elicit is going to be harpooned by the icky feeling people get first and that the damage to your mission isn’t worth it.

The denomination has issued a statement to the effect that the campaign will be redone. Unfortunately, the bad feelings it has already created won’t go away as easily as paper.

Highland Park Has Reached A Settlement Over Its Property

After voting last year to leave the PC(USA) for ECO, Highland Park Presbyterian Church (HPPC) in Dallas sued Grace Presbytery over ownership of its property. A trial date was set for next month.

But this week HPPC’s session approved a $7.8 million settlement with Grace to end the dispute. Pastor Bryan Dunagan–mere months into his call–explained the decision to the congregation in a video:

HPPC is one of the largest churches to leave the PC(USA) for ECO, the 18 month-old denomination formed in response to the former’s allowance of ordination for openly gay men and women. We wrote about their departure here.

The (Former) Moderator’s Colloquium on Ecclesiology Videos Are Up!

Several months ago I was invited to take part in (then) Moderator Neal Presa’s thrid Colloquium on Ecclesiology held at Fuller Theological Seminary. I was asked to respond to a paper presented by Dr. Jennifer Lord of Austin Theological Seminary entitled, “Preaching for Liturgical-Missional Congregations,” and I posted a piece of my response here.

All of the videos from the colloquium are now online, and Dr. Lord’s presentation is below. It’s well worth watching. Scrub ahead to the 32 minute mark for the start of Dr. Lord’s presentation, and then to the 120 minute mark for the thrilling response of my co-panelist (and seminary classmate and Shook Foil Books publisher) Erik Dailey.

For what it’s worth, my response begins at 128:45. Some demonic trickery must have caused the marvelous Chineta Goodjoin’s response to Dr. Lord to be omitted. I’ll see if I can find a copy that has it, ’cause she’s that good.

Preaching And Mission: A Response to Dr. Jennifer Lord

This week I participated in PC (USA) Moderator Neal Presa’s third Colloquium on Ecclesiology. It was held at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, and I was invited to respond to a paper given by Dr. Jennifer Lord called, “Preaching To Upbuild And Equip Liturgical-Missional Congregations” (read it here).

It’s a complex paper which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ll be thinking about it for awhile. Here’s just one intriguing assertion from it, followed by a small piece of my response.

Preaching to the church is different than preaching to an aggregate of individuals. When preachers do the work to prepare the sermon they keep the identity of church at the forefront of their preparations rather than individual persons or even the “bottom line” of shared humanity. This means to be mindful that our gathering as church is really the thing, and preaching serves (among other things) to remind us who we are and whose we are and to calls us again to faith. This requires that preachers think with baptismal sensibilities: we preach to the local manifestation of the body of Christ and also, perhaps, to those not yet incorporated into the body through the sign and seal of baptism

My response:

I’m wondering about the public function of preaching and worship here. Preachers are frequently enough faced with occasions where our sermons need to say something to the world beyond the church, to the culture or to the community. How do we do that missionally? If we can’t assume a shared immersion in a common sacred story in those instances–and we can’t–then how do we understand what we’re doing.

My full response is here.

I found Dr. Lord to be a very gracious conversation partner, and I was honored to interact with her.

What do you think? Is the church the primary audience of preaching?

ECO and the Mainline Tradition (continued)

Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown offer a definition of the Mainline Tradition in their book, “Religion And Politics In The United States” :

“Stressing Jesus’ role as prophet of social justice, the Mainline Tradition sanctifies altruism and regards selfishness as the cardinal sin. In this tradition, which extends membership to all and understands religious duty in terms of sharing abundance, the Bible is treated as a book with deep truths that have to be discerned amidst myth and archaic stories. “

So my question to those who identity with the” Mainline”: does this sound like what you’re into?

View on Path

ECO And The Mainline Tradition

In the introduction to Elesha J. Coffman’s The Christian Century And The Rise of The Protestant Mainline the author proposes that “the mainline”–that cluster of protestant denominations that includes Methodist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran, Episcopalian, Disciples of Christ, and the United Church of Christ–be understood as a tradition in the Alisdair MacIntyre sense of that word.

According to MacIntryre’s signature work After Virtue, a tradition is “an historically extended, socially embodied argument.” Coffman extemporizes on that definition for the mainline:

“the mainline has an extended history–it originated somewhere and developed over time. It was, and is, embodied by individuals whose social locations predisposed them to see some things and miss others. And it is definitely an argument–a normative argument about the mission of the church, the nature of humanity, the ordering of society, and the measuring of life. A study of the mainline as a tradition reveals the ways in which personal and organizational history, social location, and the interplay of ideas created not just a network of linked institutions but also the presumption that they were central and powerful. More practically, the focus on argument also helps explain why the mainline has experiences so much conflict, despite its aspirations of building consensus.

Coffman’s book chronicles how a magazine, The Christian Century, profoundly shaped the mainline tradition for the first half of the 2oth century. The book ends at the dawn of the evangelical movement in America, embodied most completely by Billy Graham, a figure, Coffman explains, whose ideas and methods the Century fought vehemently.

Is it helpful for digesting the flight of congregations from the PC(USA) to ECO to view it as a conflict of traditions? Not a conflict of a tradition; not a conflict within a tradition. But a conflict between two different traditions.

Mainline Christianity and evangelical Christianity are two different traditions within American Christianity. Their histories overlap but feature strikingly divergent heroes. They pay homage to separate institutions, from Princeton to Fuller. Their postures toward American culture are almost irreconcilable.

Forgive these broad strokes, but while the mainline tradition celebrates an institutionally unified expression of the church, a graduate level-educated class of clergy who employ modern scholarship in their preaching, and constant engagement with the world’s political struggles, the evangelical tradition prizes the congregation reaching the lost of the world, led by preaching that is less lecture than revival, and an engagement with the political realm that is heavily conservative.

Which points up two problems churches leaving for ECO hope to solve: leadership recruitment and congregational flexibility (I’ve also written about this here).

Take John Ortberg’s address to the congregation of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church informing it of an upcoming vote to switch denominational affiliation. After laying out that congregation’s ambitious desires to reach out to the Bay Area and launch new church sites over the next five years, Ortberg explained,

“To do that we believe we gotta be in a denominational setting that will help us attract great young Christ-following leaders. We gotta have a governance structure that will allow us to launch and create new sites. We believe it will be really helpful to have clear possession of this campus . . . to not have a shadow hanging over our heads about trust clauses or property ownership or a common understanding of the gospel.”

What Ortberg and fellow evangelicals in the PC(USA) have been fighting these past several years is the evangelical tradition’s battle against the core assumptions of the mainline tradition. Because the mainline tradition doesn’t serve their sense of call to ministry well anymore. And given a conflict between the unity of the institutional church and the flexibility of a congregation to call the leaders it wants to [trained in decidedly non-mainline seminaries]  and to do with its property what it wants to, the evangelical tradition cares less about the former than the latter.

For those of us who identify with the mainline tradition, then, what is the inheritance we most value for the future mission of the church? Is it still the unified institutional church? Is it still standards of education for clergy? Or is it something else, something that has emerged on its own since the era of American mainline hegemony ended?

As Though We Are Being Saved

A summary of last night’s presbytery meeting:

The money’s nearly gone.

The Executive is gone.

Two churches are gone and three more are trying to get gone.

Two pastors are gone, one to a disciplinary action and the other to resignation forced by illness.

Gone, baby, gone.

The gathering diminished throughout the evening, an apparent microcosm of our life as a presbytery. Indeed, of Presbyterianism itself.


Those churches leaving for greener pastures may be kidding themselves, but it’s really easy on nights like this to understand the impulse.

Jump ship.


Screw this.

The best thing that’s ever happened at a NEXT Church gathering was Stacy Johnson’s address in Dallas (embedded below–and made into a clever NEXT promo video here). “There are two ways of living that we know of as Christians,” Johnson said, drawing on 1 Corinthians 1:18. “We can live as those who are perishing or as those who are being saved.”

As those who are perishing . . .

Signs of our perishing are everywhere, perhaps no more evident than at a presbytery meeting like last night’s. Those signs are intrusive and disruptive. They provoke an anxious response, perhaps even a hopeless one.

Yet the message of the gospel is that what looks like perishing can be God’s salvation in disguise. The challenge we face, Johnson said in Dallas, is not first and foremost a cultural or demographic or organizational challenge. As versed as church leaders have become in the language of “adaptive challenges,” the real challenge is the gospel. The real adaptive change we face comes from the good news of life and salvation emerging from death.

So we live as though we are being saved. We invest heavily in a partnership with Presbyterians in Peru. We build networks for collaborative youth ministry. We validate a church’s work with refugees and share it’s costs. All while every outward sign condemns those efforts as futile.

And we gather. Our being saved is evident in our gathering, though these days not as evident as our perishing. Clearly not.

This is how it’s supposed to be, though. Following Jesus is not a strategy for vitality and success. Look at the cross. The hope we have is that our salvation will never be as present as when all signs are pointing to perishing.

This Hurts (A Reader Responds)

A good friend and colleague replied to yesterday’s post about the many churches leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA). Not wanting to focus attention on himself, he replied in a private email message, but he’s given me permission to share his response here. I’m sharing it because it brought me comfort and encouragement, and I hope it will you as well.

As a brother in Christ I feel impelled to affirm you in your call to be a minister of the Gospel. Your search for truth is a proclamation of the Good News. Hear this: Who is in a position to condemn? Nelson Bell? Highland Park? ECO? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone; a new life has begun. Your search for truth, an earnest search, is not a capitulation to culture (whatever that means), but a testament to what the best Pastors have done for centuries: proclaim the Good News to the people God has given to you as your flock (emphasis mine).

Obviously the decisions that are going on in the PC (USA) right now are more complicated than that, and your own journey contains a lot more nuance, but I believe that people like you need to hear that others, outside your community, denomination, even country, are praying for you and view you as a witness to a God greater than schism. I have much more that I could say about the current controversy but I won’t because I want to affirm you basic insight – that the journey to life leads through death and is not just something we can blithely invoke without also recognizing that we experience the pain, despair, and hurt of death. While I feel your hurt, know that you are on the path to life.

Go in peace.