Second day of NEXT Church gathering raises issues of loss and renewal

‘Dying’ and ‘Rising’ themes invites attendees to release burdens, envision a new future

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Jess Cook washes the hands of an attendee of the NEXT Church 2018 gathering in Baltimore. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

BALTIMORE — The second day of the NEXT Church 2018 gathering in Baltimore began with a worship service focusing on “testimonies of death and dying.” Over 675 participants have gathered for the annual conference of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members, pastors and those in affiliated ministries under the theme of “The Desert in Bloom: Living, Dying, and Rising in a Wilderness Church.”

Several testimonies of death and dying were shared including the story of Jess Cook, whose father, a doctor, had contracted hepatitis B from a patient and died due to complications from the disease nearly 20 years later. Jess said he always loved juice, and asked for toast and grape juice one day as he was nearing death. Despite having seminary training on communion, Jess said, “I learned more about the Eucharist that day than in any class.”

John Molina Moore told the story of walking into a new church and observing the decay of ministries that have outlived their lifespans. He noted the music program with its “half broken organ and five faithful members of the choir trying to hold this ministry together.”

Rather than suggesting a dismantling of the music program, saying “pastors are often seen as those who kill the program,” he brought a diverse group of people together to “honor what it used to be.” Over time, the music ministry was gifted a grand piano, a local jazz musician came to provide programming, and the church began an arts program for area youth.

These efforts, Moore said, “breathed new life, allowing the music program to rise and blossom again.”

Erin Counihan, a pastor in St. Louis, said she was working on letting the “polite white church lady” within her die.

“It wasn’t until recently that I got to know this radical Jesus guy, got to know this radical Holy Spirit,” she said, calling upon her experiences in the protests against racially motivated violence. “In St. Louis the Holy Spirit screamed, ‘Look what’s going on here! Look at your part in it!’” she said.

“In polite white church land, we don’t name our pain, we don’t name our sin. It’s where we avoid having hard conversations that may threaten some of our biggest donors, where we hide our systemic racism … through polite white church lady complicity,” she proclaimed.

Saying she and the church are not the same because of her experience of “learning to show up and shut up” among the people of color organizing the protests, she continued, “It’s difficult because that nice polite church lady is like Lazarus, she keeps coming back. There are times when the systems and structures of white supremacy think they are Jesus too, because they try to raise her from the dead. There is a bold and radical ‘kindom’ of God out there. … If only we can let some of our old ways die so the kingdom can be reborn.”

Following a reading of John 13:1–17, in which Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and invites them to lives of service, attendees wrote down their concerns of dying and participated in a ritual of remembrance and handwashing with one another at stations around the event space.

Denise Anderson speaking at a joint session with Jan Edmiston on the intersections of race and poverty. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Lunchtime conversations and two afternoon workshop sessions engaged attendees in more than 20 topics including worship design, bridging ideological divides, intergenerational ministry, creative arts ministry and a session led by Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the PC(USA), titled “Always With Us: Intersection of Race and Poverty.”

Commending the book Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor by the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis‎, Edmiston said the second year of her and Anderson’s tenure has been exploring the intersections between racism and poverty, joining efforts with the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival organized by Theoharis and the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, former president of the North Carolina NAACP.

The Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School Choir performs during the afternoon worship service at the NEXT Church 2018 gathering. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Performances by two Baltimore-based music groups, Soulful Revue, a male gospel group from Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, and the Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School Choir made up of 50 students, punctuated the Tuesday afternoon worship service based on the theme of “Rising.”

The Rev. Jennifer Barchi, pastor of Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church on the far west side of Baltimore, preached the evening sermon. After reading from both Isaiah 34 and 35, she spoke of two types of people and their responses to the situation of exile and loss: Those who say they’re not going to make it out and those who find a way to grow out of adversity.

“You get to choose your experience of death in the wilderness: you can let it destroy you or you can let it take you somewhere new,” she said. “Instead of approaching these moments of death with fear, what if we approach them with the hope we find in the resurrection?”

“The church is dying, thanks be to God,” she said, asking attendees to join in the refrain. “These words seem sacrilegious, it’s as if I’ve been conditioned to believe we don’t find hope in the death and resurrection.”

But acknowledging places of death, Barchi proposed, “allows us to ask an entirely different set of questions like: What are we dying to? What does death allow us the opportunity to walk away from? What is central to our identity; what is not? What is the Holy Spirit doing among us to fashion us anew?”

She repeatedly affirmed Christians are to have a different perspective on dying.

“The promise of the resurrection allows us to approach death with creativity and hope,” she said. “The promise of the resurrection allows us to reframe death in the wilderness and ask the questions that lead us to new life and new possibilities.”

“The church is dying — thanks to be to God,” Barchi concluded. “Thanks be to God, for that means a new church is rising.”

The NEXT Church 2018 gathering continues through tomorrow. Organizers announced today that next year’s gathering will be held March 11–13, 2019 in Seattle.


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