Nearly 600 participants from across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have gathered at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Ga., to find inspiration and innovation for ministry at the NEXT Church National Gathering. Meeting February 22–24, the conference is themed “Faith at the Crossroads,” inviting participants to “engage questions that invite us into the transformative power of reconciliation and inspire us by the stories of those witnesses who go before us.”
Monday morning’s opening session included worship by Tony McNeill and a video call to confession to the song “Rise” by the musical group Flobots. The song calls to question division and apathy, urging its hearers to find “redemption . . . calling to you from another dimension” and featuring the refrain “Together, we rise.”
The opening sermon titled “Who’s Got Next” was delivered by Mark Douglas, professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. Preaching from Joel 2:23–32 and using the common basketball court terminology “who’s got next” (called out when selecting the next team to play the previous victors), Douglas asked the audience who would be next from the group to provide leadership for the PC(USA) in a time of division, confusion and reformation.
“Who’s got next? Does anybody?” he asked in light of challenges the church is facing. “During this conference we’ve been asked to meet at the crossroads to make important choices… The crossroads are also places we can get run over from many different directions. Standing at them is not an especially sustainable thing to do.”
He noted that change in the church is difficult, saying organizations—like NEXT Church—seeking to find new ways of ministering are often filled with people for whom the current model of church is “working out pretty well.”
“We have to be willing to step forward,” he said of the bold response required to initiate change. “We have to be willing to rise up. Even when we feel so much pain we don’t know how to be [anything] but angry, we have to be willing to rise up. Even when we feel alone within a sea of faces, we have to be willing to rise up. It’s certainly what the prophet Joel would have done.”
Referring to promises made to believers in Romans 8, Douglas assured his listeners that God will provide the resources needed for the challenges ahead. “Together we rise, because we are raised,” he said.
Theresa Latini, associate dean of diversity and cultural competency and professor of practical theology and pastoral care at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich., will present throughout the conference on the themes of diversity within faith communities and leadership. Monday’s presentation, following worship, focused on how people create “Enemy Images” and then dehumanize those considered “other.” Her initial talk sought to explore how individuals can “differentiate observations from evaluations,” going beyond preconceptions and stereotypes to begin working together, even when all parties don’t agree.
Attendees at the NEXT Church national gathering have the opportunity to learn and share their own experiences at over 45 workshops, including sessions on faith formation, diversity, worship design, models of stewardship, leadership, Christian/Muslim relations and many others. Offsite workshops on Tuesday include visits to Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, and The King Center; Memorial Drive Presbyterian’s efforts to build partnership-based ministries; and Jewish-Christian relationship modeling between the Temple of Atlanta and First Presbyterian Church.
NEXT Church describes 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.