Each year I look forward to attending the NEXT Church gathering. Presbyterian pastors, elders, church members, and students from across the denomination and country gather for conversations around issues related to the future of the church. Among these people I discover people and communities full of imagination and possibility for the church and our church. This year, the conversation focused around the shifts in culture that are influencing the ways that people engage their spiritual lives in communities of faith.
The final plenary featured pastor and educator Roger Nishioka who seemed to get at the heart of the larger conversation poignantly. He wrestled with the tension and relationship that exists in our contemporary culture between experience and knowledge. In exploring how people take their experiences and use them to create meaning, Nishioka described “a new way of knowing” that is transcendent, relational, and incarnational. What he explained is that experience involves the senses and stands out. The strongest experiences of faith reveal ways we experience God in ways that are “bigger than just me.” Individual experiences do not stand by themselves. The meaning of an experience is stronger when affirmed in relationship with others in our community. And incarnational here means that these experience mean knowing that this is embodied and embedded in the ways we live. How then the meaning of our experiences shape how we act?
Considering this process of engaging experience and understanding meaning from it is a process, it is interesting to consider the ideas engaged throughout the experience. Some of these included: making church meetings more relational, engaging change when we don’t know how to change or are unwilling, finding ways for church leaders to make commitments to one another as a way of embodying the commitments of the church, what it would might mean to focus the church’s work on invitations instead of agendas, opening spaces for a wider range of experience to equate questions of faith, and ways to tell the story of God by embodying the scriptures.
As it does each year, NEXT Church provided much food for thinking. And I am stilling thinking. I am grateful to our church, which enables me to go and listen, engage, and return with a renewed imagination for our faith community. I will make a series of posts about more specific experiences at NEXT available on the church blog. I hope you’ll give them a read.