Director Jessica Tate speaks about momentum, challenges
by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE – Sparked by the belief that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can be a place for vibrant theological discussion, spiritual growth and evangelistic courage, the renewal group NEXT Church has been fostering conversations since 2010. One decidedly different component of NEXT Church members from other reform groups is its intentionally progressive posture, siding with the PC(USA)’s more recent social and theological developments.
The Rev. Jessica Tate is director of the organization and says she’s more excited now than ever for the future of the organization. The annual national gathering—which draws 600-700 participants—along with regional gatherings, have grown in size and focus, which present challenges of their own.
Tate spoke to Presbyterian News Service following the 2016 National Gathering, noting nearly one-third of participants this year indicated it was their first time at a NEXT Church event. “More people are cycling in and getting to be part of this,” she said. Tate’s responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
PNS: What are the biggest successes of NEXT Church?
Tate: The biggest thing I’m pleased we’re doing is creating a new way for people to connect. We talk so much about being a connectional church, but when people think about what that actually means, they usually think about going to vote at a presbytery meeting. This is offering them a place to come and talk about the practice of ministry, what we dream and imagine for the church, to spark creativity. People always tell us they leave NEXT Church conversations hopeful and energized for ministry, and equipped with new ideas. That feels like a huge success.
PNS: Are there justice issues that tend to lead, or follow, in the footsteps of NEXT Church?
Tate: NEXT Church began as a conversation between colleagues who asked, ‘What’s next for the church? How do we imagine what that is?’ It started with three buckets at the beginning: mission, connection and vocation. One of the original questions that framed the conversation was why the Presbyterian Church used to be known for building hospitals and schools, and now we’re known for fighting with one another. Surely there’s something other than this. The impulse to be thinking missionally has very much been part of our DNA.
The way we’ve structured the gatherings has been to take the temperature of where people are feeling the need for robust conversation. When we started planning [the 2016 gathering] there was so much going on in peoples’ lives and in the news about police brutality and trying to figure out what the church’s response should be to the racism we’re seeing—some of the mourning and lamenting that happening—and we wanted to create a conference that responded to that very real need in peoples’ ministries and lives.
We didn’t set out to have a ‘justice conference,’ but we were trying to understand what people are wrestling with in very real ways in their communities right now and this is one of the things that came to the fore.
PNS: How do you answer critics who say NEXT Church is where all the PC(USA) liberals hang out to forward their agenda for the church?
Tate: We are asking: What’s next for the church? What’s the spirit calling us to? How do we be the church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century?
I don’t think that’s a liberal or conservative question. It’s a question we all need to be asking. We want [NEXT Church] to be a place where people of all theological stripes can feel like they have a home. We’ve had mixed success with that. We’ve been in theological camps for my entire life, and that has really eroded our connection to one another. So one of the things we try to do is step into the breach where there has been real polarization and figure out what we can work on together.
PNS: How are the gospel and justice connected for you?
Tate: Scripture is full of a God of justice who is longing to enact justice as in the Kingdom of Heaven, when it comes. In the meantime, we’re called to participate in justice making. I see the two absolutely interlinked. We can’t have the salvation promised in Christ without justice. Abundant life can’t just happen for some small segment of people. Abundant life in Christ is for all. If some aren’t experiencing that, all of us can’t experience it.
PNS: What are the current activities of NEXT Church?
Tate: We just finished a listening campaign across the denomination, asking people about their experiences of transformational mission in their own contexts. We have a lot of things to sort through and I’m eager to see if there are some actionable items in what we heard as we continue to think about how we do mission in this era, as some of the ways we’ve done mission in the past are not serving us as well.
PNS: What are some challenges facing NEXT Church and the PC(USA)?
Tate: People are exhausted and they are running as hard as they can, not getting anywhere given the challenges of their institutions and daily demands. Things are changing so fast—for pastors and sessions—that it’s hard to get off the treadmill and see the big picture.
PNS: What are you most hopeful about in the PC(USA)?
Tate: There’s such talent in this denomination. The people are smart and creative and compassionate and gracious and hope filled and tenacious and gritty. As we continue to try to connect healthy tissue to healthy tissue across the denomination you can see these relationships form that are like sparks of new fire growing. There’s tremendous possibility.
I’m hopeful for this group of people taking seriously some of the cultural challenges we face. [Belhar Confession co-author] Allan Boesak’s call to the work of reconciliation—racism, theological divides and economic divides—feels like a start. If we have people who are willing to work on that, there’s some real hope.
PNS: How will you know when the work of NEXT Church is done?
Tate: I think there will be a point at which we are done, but we’re not sure what that means. This is a very organic movement and we feel like we’re building this plane while we fly it. We’re not sure if NEXT Church is just helping to be a breath of fresh air for the church right now, which is a time bound thing. Or it may become clear that there is, in fact, more work to do.
We’re constantly asking ourselves the question because it’s important NEXT Church doesn’t become and institutional structure that’s trying to keep itself going.
The 2017 National Gathering of NEXT Church will be held March 13-15 in Kansas City, Missouri with the theme “Wells & Walls: Well-Being in a Thirsty World.”
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