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NEXT Church National Gathering ends with the challenge to ‘make America America again’

Paul Roberts encourages a ‘redirect’ toward God’s goodness

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Paul Roberts delivers the benediction at the close of the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering in Kansas City. (Photo by Robyn Davis Sekula)

KANSAS CITY – The 2017 gathering of NEXT Church concluded today with worship and a sermon by the Rev. Paul Roberts Sr., president of Johnson C. Smith Seminary in Atlanta. In its seventh year, the three-day conference was attended by 550 people under the theme of “Wells & Walls: Well-Being in a Thirsty World.”

Preaching on John 4:19-26, the interaction between Jesus and the woman at the well, Roberts’ sermon “The Power of the Redirect” reminded those gathered that worship liturgy is defined as the “work of the people.”

“We didn’t come to NEXT to usher in what has already been and to sit on our laurels,” he said. “We came to NEXT to be active participants in what God is doing in the world. We are here to mount a massive redirect. We dishonor what we’ve done here these last three days if we don’t leave this place and mount up a redirect in our churches, in our cities, in our states, and in our country.”

Using the example of the Bolivian town of La Paz that has suffered drought due to receding glaciers in their area, he spoke of the people’s wait for water to arrive, for the government to turn on taps, and how to plan for transporting the water, comparing it to the woman’s journey to and conversation about the Samaritan’s claim to the well.

“This obsession with possession will be the downfall of us all,” he said of the tendencies to restrict access to God’s gifts, including natural resources. “We need a redirect where the people of God not only change the subject but reframe the discussion. … We need to open the book of Hebrews and proclaim that everything was created by God for us to share.”

“When we find ourselves wrestling against rulers, against authorities, against the cosmic power over this present darkness, as it’s written in Ephesians, ‘against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,’ we need to take up the full armor of God,” he said. “This is the power of the redirect. It’s your responsibility and mine, not only to change the subject but to reframe the conversation.”

Roberts said this is what happened in the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well. Her questions of who Jesus was, the scarcity of the water, and why a male Jew would be talking with her, a Samaritan, was redirected by Jesus’ response saying none of that mattered because of his work in the world as messiah.

“The arrival of the messiah is a game changer,” he said. “If we’re really going to live into our faith as disciples of the messiah then—when the game needs changing—it’s up to you and me. When the game really needs changing it’s up to you and me to join our forces together—to join our hearts, our energies, our hands, our feet, our voices together—to follow the leading of the Spirit and to change it.”

“I started by reminding you that liturgy is the work of the people,” Roberts said. “And so we dishonor the liturgy, we dishonor the basics of our Reformed heritage, when we are content to be passive. Now is not the time to passive.”

Turning his attention to the current social and political situation into which he said the church must testify, Roberts urged the audience to remember Langston Hughoncludedes’ poem “Let America Be America Again” whenever they hear the refrain “Make America Great Again.”

Reciting the poem that includes the stanza, “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—Let it be that great strong land of love, Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme, That any man be crushed by one above. (It never was America to me.),” Roberts concluded his sermon by saying, “Let us take up this charge. Let us mount a massive redirect. … Let us make America America again. Do it!”

Tamara John plays flute during a Hope for Life Chapel RV Ministry worship service. (Photo provided)

Earlier in the day, Tom Cramer, co-executive for vision and mission in the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, and Tamara John, pastor of Hope for Life Chapel RV Ministry, presented on efforts to promote and support new missional communities.

Saying the expansion of the mission of the church must be supported by the “mixed economy” of established churches and presbyteries forging partnerships with these new communities, Cramer called this work an “essential act of being a flourishing community of faith.”

John gave an overview of her life story that brought her to her RV ministry among those who live in trailer parks, saying her former life of affluence that led to drug and alcohol abuse was “an insatiable way of living. … The more you have, it’s never enough.”

“The Bible is not a book of rules,” she said of the realization that started her path of recovery and pursuit of theological education. “The Bible is a book of freedom.”

Rodger Nishioka, longtime professor of educational ministries at Columbia Theological Seminary and now director of adult educational ministries at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, also spoke on the topic “New Ways of Knowing for the NEXT Church.”

Using Jeremiah 31:31-34 as his text, Nishioka said experiences of faith are not complete without reflection and action. “Jeremiah is talking about a shift from episodic [experiential] knowledge to semantic knowledge—where meaning is derived from experience,” he said of contemporary ways in which people are approaching faith. “In my experience and research, there are a lot of people looking for something greater than themselves—that’s transcendence.”

Saying reflection on and relations within these shared experiences of faith call the church “together to be the body of Jesus Christ,” Nishioka said they are essential for the future of Christianity as a presence in society. “Shared experience allows us to be adaptive and agile in the church. That whole relational piece is huge, it’s vital to us all.”

As of the close of the 2017 National Gathering, no announcement had been made on the location or dates of the 2018 NEXT Church event.

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