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NEXT Church: Living Witness

The last post on NEXT Church ended with a question about what the church’s responsibility is in the face of a culture of individualized spirituality and disengagement from the establishment of church. Based on what I heard at NEXT Church, I will offer what this responsibility might look like if the church took action.

     Rodger Nishioka is a highly respected Pastor, Professor, and Christian Educator. He offered one of the plenary talks at NEXT Church. When Nishioka spoke, he showed two videos. Both are probably familiar to most of us. The first was a Budweiser commercial that ran during the 2017 Super Bowl. The second is a Cadillac commericial that ran during the Oscars. You probably remember them.
     Each commercial makes a large truth claim. Budweiser is telling a founder’s story that expresses that our knowledge is relational. It shows the great possibility that comes from welcome, hospitality, and partnership. Cadillac is telling a story of society at large that expresses that our knowledge is incarnational (that is, what we believe is lived out in the way we act). Cadillac says “We carry each other forward regardless of who we are, what we believe, or where we come from.”

After he played these two commercials, Nishioka offered a lament. His lament to these two profound, engaging proclamations of large truths that offer significant impact was that they were offered by companies advertising products. Part of his lament were that these large truth claims were not offered by the church.

     The church makes bold proclamations about God’s grace week after week in worship. Commercial companies are beginning to make similar truth claims as the church and are getting out into the world in ways the church is not. While the church may not run Super Bowl ads (and that is not the goal), the church is the caretaker and proclaimer of one of the boldest and most astonishing truth’s the world has ever known: God’s grace in Christ unites people, promises hope, knows reconciliation, and offers a love beyond our ordinary knowledge. But the church, in all of its work, effort, and toil, is contained and being outplayed by beer and car companies at their own game.

Linda Mercadante finished her presentation with some ideas for action in the church. On the positive side of Mercadante’s research, she found that people in the United States are searching for lives that know “fullness.” The responsibility of the church, she said, was to see the opportunities and respond. Mercadante said “the church needs a new generation of apologists.” What she means is that the church needs theologically and culturally knowledgeable people to become more active in doing what Nishioka’s lament suggested: the church needs to take the bold and beautiful experience of God’s promises and reveal it to the world. The church needs to get out to the world with messages of hope, peace, love, joy, and grace. And where others in the name of the church proclaim judgement, despair, prejudice, and violence, such false messages should face the scrutiny of the church community that is living the mission of building up instead of tearing down.

The church must get out into the world in new ways to proclaim an ancient message.
It was Nishioka who pointed to one essential of what needs to be done to broaden the message of the church. We in the church must design opportunities for experiential knowledge to meet the process of developing meaning from such experiences connected to faith formation. No simple task. What we know is that this knowledge is transcendent (beyond us). It is relational (the task of interpretation is shared in the community). It is incarnational (embodied and lived out).
We must wrestle with a question that Nishioka offered: What are emerging new ways of knowing “the Lord” for the next church? It is a question our church and it’s leaders should ask regularly. It is one that will stay with me and continue to challenge me. I hope it challenges you too.

NEXT Church: What is SBNR?

A significant theme of the gathering this year was thinking differently about the church in light of what sociology is telling us about church. People are participating less or not at all at higher rates than ever before. This is not news. The news is that many people are thinking and activing differently as a result.

     The difficult part of this conversation is that there is some criticism offered for the church we know so well. It is easy to feel defensive or let down by the conversation. I don’t think we need to feel this way though because as challenging as the conversation is, listening offers some compelling possibilities to recognize new life and new ways of being the church if we are so willing.
      So what is SBNR? It is Spiritual But Not Religious. Linda Mercadante, a professor of theology, can explain. She spoke to the culture of “spiritual but not religious” concept that has become a popular way of thinking about engaging one’s faith. “Religion” as something dogmatic, self-interested, institutional, and is set aside as unessential. In its place is th “Spiritual” what is understood as open, reasonable, and more relatable to life. While her talk was not entirely surprising, she offered a lot of data to back up what many know from lived experience in the church.  Using this data, Mercadante pointed to the reality that SBNR people have not just left the church, many have stayed. Many have also become pastors.
   Mercadante found that SBNR people were diverse in age (not just young), race, and background (education, income, etc). There were few complaints about the church as community. They were not narcissitic, non-committal, theologically shallow, or against belief. So why this phenomenon? Changes in social landscape, intellectual landscape, and a cultural shift on the “locus of authority” (no longer institutions).
     Another speaker, Soong Chan Rah spoke about the changing face of Christianity. In many ways, he and Linda Mercadante’s ideas reinforced one another. He made one big, bad, bold point: diversity in the United States is not changing due to immigration, it is changing because of birth rates. We are a diverse nation with a higher rate of birth among non-white peoples (which began in 2011). So we must learn to be a diverse church. Such a large cultural shift, means people are listening to different voices that before. The church’s voice, to resonate, won’t simply be able to use one narrative in relationship to scripture, theology, and leadership. The challenge the church faces, is to mediate a wider set of narratives and metaphors that embrace a wider group of people. The church needs to be a diverse voice with diverse teachers and diverse mentors for leaders.
      In terms of the church relating to these cultural shifts, Menticante said there is little value in blaming the church. Much of the change in religious climate is out the the control of the church. Her critique of the church suggested that took many faith communities have values that don’t speak to people who they would welcome and an attiude of self-interest too often creates dissonance with the same people. If church does not express its faith and values in a ways that does not seek to connect with people, the church will not connect.  What does not speak honestly about faith without dogma, moralism, or exclusivism, will struggle to invite people to a deeper experience of faith. This seems obvious, but it is also where the church has fallen short. As a result, the cultural understanding of the spiritual task has become an individual, solo journey, which often prevents people from connecting to the resources that could offer a more developed and nuanced theology that roots a life of faith. The question she raised here was “What kind of God do [SBNR people] hear about?” Too often is one that the churches we know and trust don’t believe in either.
     So what comes next? Read the next post for what I heard as the church’s responsibility.

Conversations from NEXT Church

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.

Contemplative Prayer & Photography

Following the first class, people are invited to make their visual prayers by taking photos. Here are some suggestions below. If you want a primer, you can download the class notes.

Photo Assignment for January 25

  • Start each day asking God for wisdom and guidance to see with the heart.
  • Take them in color or in black and white.
  • As you go about regular life in your neighborhood, your house, familiar streets, at work, in town, see what your notice. Receive the photos you open yourself to.
  • Using your phone or camera see things that are signs of God’s presence. This might look like one of these or even beyond these:
    • Human Expression: Interactions of people
    • God at the Farmers Market: What does the presence of God look like, smell like, feel like, taste like?
    • A New Old Thing: Something familiar that you have not noticed before.
    • Gratitude: Something on the street that feels welcoming or generous
    • Seeing Patterns: receive a photo that creates lines, shapes, textures, or symmetry.
    • When something draws your interest or curiosity, see it with openness, with the eyes of compassion and gentleness.
    • Is there a building, or pattern, or imfections you see that are interesting?
  • Give thought to what signs there are of God’s presence in these things.
  • The second and third prompts will offer more specific things to look for.
  • Remember, seeing is the goal, not perfection.
  • If you want to share the photos: email them to nickel@hpclouisville.org

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