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‘In Christ you are ambassadors for vitality’


1001 New Worshiping Communities, Vital Congregations meet in Kansas City

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Those attending the national gathering for 1001 New Worshiping Communities and Vital Congregations give thanks before their meal Monday. (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

KANSAS CITY, Missouri — The national gathering for 1001 New Worshiping Communities and Vital Congregations opened on Monday with a welcome reception in the Century Ballroom of the Westin Hotel.

At Perspectives: The Church … Then … Now …Beyond, those engaged in starting new worshiping communities and working to transform existing congregations will worship and learn together from a pair of keynote speakers, the Rev. Dr. Gregory Ellison and the Rev. Becca Stevens.

Ellison, the founder of Fearless Dialogues, will create space for attendees to have hard conversations with unlikely partners. The goal is for people to see the gifts in the other and to hear the value of their stories, so that they can work for change and positive transformation in self and others.

Stevens, the founder of Thistle Farms, a residential community for women who have survived trafficking, prostitution and addictions, will be joined by her executive assistant, Kristen McWilliams. Both Stevens and McWilliams are survivors of trauma and will share how healing occurred at Thistle Farms.

“People need hope to do this kind of work we are called to do,” Stevens said. “At this kind of event we can always end up being part of each other’s healing story in new ways.”

Some 220 attendees at the gathering are seeking new perspectives on the mission of the church in the world at the gathering.  As they do this together and in their 1001 tracks and VC workshops, the coordinators for both ministries, both in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, believe good things will happen.

Through cross-pollination and encouragement of one another, 1001 New Worshiping Communities coordinator the Rev. Nikki Collins said that attendees “can envision the future of the church together.”

Joining in conversation Monday were the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill, Vital Congregations director, and Dr. Leanne Van Dyk, president of Columbia Theological Seminary, at right. (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

“So that we can become a more vital denomination,” said the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill, Vital Congregations director.

During Monday night’s opening worship, the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People — preaching from 2 Cor. 5:16-20 — said that vitality is oozing out of the passage that calls people of faith “to not be for Christ, but to be in Christ.”

“For in Christ all things will be made new,” Johnson said, “in contrast to all the things that are passing away.”

Saying we are called to let go of the past and live conformed to the cross of Jesus Christ, Johnson said he remembers as a young boy wanting one of those plastic watches that were dispensed out of a vending machine. He didn’t have 50 cents, so he stuck his arm up inside the machine and grabbed a watch. But his arm got stuck.

When his mother found out, she came running to him, saying, “Pull your arm out.”

“Mom, I can’t,” Johnson responded.

After this exchange went on a couple of times, his mom shouted, “Stop holding onto the watch! Let it go.”

That’s how Johnson extricated himself.

“People of Christ,” Johnson said, “open your hands and fist, for God is coming to do something new. For the sake of Jesus Christ, let go of your scarcity, your atrophy, your racism and your sexism.”

The Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, delivers the benediction to close worship Monday. (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

As people become new and experience God, their perspective changes, he said. Church, salvation, and Christ are no longer about us.

Instead, it is about taking our experience of God into a world full of division, fear, chaos and trauma, “representing and re-presenting Christ,” Johnson said, “as his ambassadors entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation.”

Being an ambassador and working for reconciliation, Johnson said, is about “seeing, healing and telling the truth” about significant problems including poverty and racism.

“Go ahead — say her name,” Johnson said, referring to Atatiana Jefferson, the 28-year-black woman fatally shot over the weekend by a white police officer in Fort Worth, Texas, while she played video games in her home with her nephew. The officer, who has resigned, has been charged with murder.

And speak up about suicide, which is on the rise among the nation’s veterans, Johnson noted.

“We should tell the truth about how we take care of them,” he said, “and how we treat our alien folks like garbage.”

“People of faith,” he concluded, “represent who you are. In Christ you are ambassadors for vitality.”

The 1001/VC gathering wraps up on Wednesday night. It’ll be followed by two post conference events on Thursday morning. 

The Office of Vital Congregations is now accepting letters of interest from presbyteries interested in participating in the next wave of the VC initiative. Applications are due Nov. 1.  Click here for more information.

The work of Self-Development of People is made possible thanks to your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

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