Reflections on the Next Conference

Non-Presbyterians, thanks for standing by as I engage in a bit of inside baseball. I wasn't able to attend the Next Conference, but I followed the Twitter feeds and am making my way through the videos. Several good friends were involved in the leadership, so I have a bit of insight into what this group is about. From their website:

"New occasions teach new duties," the old hymn suggests.  For some months a group of friends and colleagues across the church have been in conversation about the "next" Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We have focused less on denominational controversies and other matters and more on vital, faithful and connectional congregational ministry. We held an initial gathering at the 2010 General Assembly to spark a larger conversation. There is strong interest in continuing and expanding the conversation to explore the movement of the Holy Spirit in the church and God's intention for the future of the Presbyterian Church.

This gathering in Indianapolis is open to the whole church. We will join with friends and colleagues, old and new, who care about the future of Presbyterian witness. Together, we will seek God's guidance in discerning how to move forward in a rapidly evolving church and culture. Join us in Indianapolis for the important work of reflecting on such topics as:

  • How do we live and work together as a connectional church?
  • How do we engage the gifts of our members in Christ's mission?
  • How do we identify and nurture leadership for the future of the church?

The Next Conference is really about conversation, so this post is very much offered in that vein. Other bloggers are reflecting on the conference too, providing helpful stuff. I also resonate with Jan Edmiston's pre-conference reflection. Jan's post, on listening to a variety of voices, was prescient: while the Next Conference was meeting, Rob Bell was essentially being tried for heresy on Twitter and his book dealing with heaven and hell was moving to #21 on Amazon---and it's not even out yet. (I've preordered my copy for Kindle, you?)

I also have to say that, as much as being Presbyterian is the air I breathe, and I'm married to a "genetic Presbyterian," I'm not as grounded in deep love for the denomination as many are. I am interested in the flourishing of the PCUSA because I am interested in the flourishing of those congregations that make up the PCUSA. But I do not have the deep Presbyterian roots and, perhaps, the nostalgia that some do. For what that's worth.

One of the threads of critique I heard on Twitter (and sympathize with) is the demographic makeup of the leadership. One person estimated that of the 23 leaders on the podium during the conference listed as leaders in the conference program, 5 were female. [UPDATE: see comments for more context on this number] And the crowd was overwhelmingly white. Much of this is to be expected---the PCUSA is overwhelmingly white. And this conversation began with tall-steeple pastors, and the sad reality is, women are incredibly underrepresented among those folks.

However, this conversation began almost two years ago, if I'm counting right. This thing needs to get blown open, but quick, if it is to foment a truly faithful conversation about what's Next. And when I say blown open, I don't mean that we need women and people of color and small church pastors (which, of course, make up the bulk of the pastors in the PCUSA) to talk around the edges on blogs and social media, but on the platform in Dallas next February, when the conference meets again. Women outnumber men in our seminaries. Multiethnic churches are growing while historically white denominations are shrinking. And tall-steeple pastors are vastly outnumbered by the pastors of small churches. We need to hear from these groups, not to kneel to the gods of political correctness, but because that's what's next in the church of Jesus Christ.

Of course the gender piece is near and dear to my heart, but it's the small church piece that's really on my mind... for obvious reasons. I agree with whoever it was at Next who said that some little churches need to die---especially if the resources used to prop them up can be funneled into new church development and supporting already strong congregations.

That said, I also find hope in church guru Kennon Callahan, who writes, "The 21st century is the century of small, strong congregations. More people will be drawn to small, strong congregations than any other kind of congregation... Around the planet, the vast majority of congs will be small and strong, and the vast majority of people will be in those congregations." That's from David R. Ray's book, The Indispensable Guide for Small Churches. Other recent books speak to the potential of small churches for being intimate, nimble, authentic and effective... indeed, a great gift to the world.

But let's be honest. People are not going to spend their precious time and con ed money to come and listen to pastors whom nobody's heard of. They want to hear Scott Black Johnston and Tom Are.

So here's my modest proposal---a dialogical, dialectical format next February. What if the planning team surveyed presbyteries to identify churches of 200 members or less that are growing? What about partnering one of these small-church pastors with one of the "big names" around each of the conference topics? What if the dialogue took place right there on the stage in addition to small groups?

What about putting a new church development pastor together with a pastor of a historic congregation?

What about a seminarian with a pastor nearing retirement age?

What about an "ecumenical advisory delegate"---like we have at General Assembly? This would be a pastor or leader in another denomination that has made some of the same shifts we're discussing, and can give us some of their wisdom. (I nominate the UCC; they are incredibly tech savvy and "get" a lot of this.)

A final suggestion: a conference "presscorps" that would liveblog and tweet the conference and serve as curators for social-media discussions.

Offered in a spirit of wanting this discussion to continue...

Image: what came up when I google-imaged "next church."