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NEXT Church National Gathering attendees explore ministry to ‘nones’ and ‘dones’

Workshops and keynote speaker give insights to church’s role in the current cultural context

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Paul Vasile leads the “Sing God a New Song” workshop at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

KANSAS CITY – The 550 attendees of the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering this week were treated to inspiring testimonies, over a dozen workshops, worship opportunities and a discussion on the “spiritual but not religious” research of the Rev. Dr. Linda Mercadante as the conference concluded its first day and began the second.

Jen Kottler and Leslie Mott presented their work on “Transformative Learning” as the first segment of yesterday afternoon’s opening plenary. Looking at how spiritual practices inform personal and pastoral work, they encouraged a model that included learning, reflection and action.

Saying people are often driven to react quickly to new information, they encouraged the use of spiritual disciplines to allow time for reflection and adaptation, rather than gut-level responses, to better inform a response based on Christian teaching and the “yearnings of the Spirit.”

Chaplains Glenn McCray and Charlie Scoma speak to the realities of police/community relations in Seattle. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

A joint testimony by Charlie Scoma and Glenn McCray challenged attendees to rethink presuppositions about police and community relations. Several years ago, the two began conversations in Seattle in an effort to work through these issues of mistrust and to build bridges in communities where the presence of police was seen as a threat.

Scoma, a chaplain with the Seattle Police Department, explained his role as counselor to police involved in shootings and the families of those injured or killed by police. McCray, director of community development with Urban Impact, reflected on the perception of police within minority communities, who often see the police as an enemy rather than an ally.

Two of the gathering’s five Ignite Presentations showed attendees the possibilities found in organizing around race and justice issues. Rebecca Davis, professor of Christian education and religion at Presbyterian College, was joined by students Jacob Kennedy and Joaquin Ross to discuss their work on the campus. John Wilkinson spoke to the work of “Peace for Peoria.”

Jenny Warner and Steven Koski of First Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon, lead the “Spacious Christianity” at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Fourteen workshops allowed attendees to explore a variety of topics throughout the afternoon. They included a conversation on “Spacious Christianity: Church in the None and Done of the Pacific Northwest” led by Steven Koski and Jenny Warner of First Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon.

The terms “none” and “done” are applied to those who have grown up with no religious exposure and those who have made a conscious decision to leave organized religious experience. The duo discussed the cultural context of the Pacific Northwest, where the move toward these expressions, part of the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) movement, has been more rapid than in other parts of the country.

Referring to a first-time church attendee’s request to be baptized, Warner said, “We found that the church needs to say ‘yes’ more often. ‘Yes’ has become a model for how we do ministry.” She said this response isn’t always comfortable for those who are lifelong church members, but it is one way in which the church can continue to be a place of welcome.

Linda Mercadante. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

The discussion on the “nones” and “dones” parlayed into the evening keynote address by Mercadante, Straker Professor of Theology at Methodist Theological School of Ohio, who cited research from her book Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.

Mercadante showed the rapid rise of the religiously unaffiliated that has mushroomed from 36.6 percent in 2007 to 55.8 percent in 2014. She invited attendees to explore the current reality of the religiously unaffiliated. She said the theory that young adults fall away from the church during college and return once they get married and have children is false. Unaffiliated young adults have risen from 10 percent in 1986 to at least 39 percent in 2016.

“People feel it implicitly that we are at a historic turning point,” she said of this trend. “If the church doesn’t respond to this, we’re going to be in a lot more trouble than we are now.”

Mercadante said two pervasive false assumptions have generally guided the discussion about SBNRs: that they believe the church has behaved badly, as seen in sex and financial scandals; and that SBNR individuals are lazy, self-centered, shallow and anti-intellectual.

However, Mercadante noted, key attitudes and behaviors persist in her SBNR interviewees that don’t always mesh well with key concepts of institutional religion. These attitudes and behaviors include:

  • the view that all institutions are tainted by wrong values and self-interest;
  • trouble finding institutions that mesh with their spiritual beliefs;
  • the belief that righteousness means resisting religious enclosure and supporting progressive values;
  • less joining, affiliating and committing;
  • more experimentation, exploration and choices.

Furthermore, the definitions that those who identified as SBNR gave to the terms “spiritual” and “religious” are telling. For those surveyed, religion is equated with the words institution, dogmatic, exterior and unessential. Spiritual was defined as personal, private, open, individualistic and core.

To them, Mercadante said, these spiritual values “seem more reasonable, praiseworthy, courageous, necessary and acceptable.” There is no shame, she said, in being disaffiliated with a religious institution; rather, it is esteemed as a higher goal.

In the SBNR search for fullness and fulfillment, she proposed, apologists for Christianity need to take current worldviews, culture and philosophy as starting points to begin a discussion on common ground.

NEXT Church defines itself as “a purposeful relational community of Presbyterian leaders whose mission is to strengthen a vibrant and thriving PC(USA) that shares the good news of Jesus Christ in ways that matter to and have impact on God’s evolving world.” The 2017 National Gathering continues through Wednesday.

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