This past Monday and Tuesday I was in Dallas (for the second time in one month!) for the 2012 NEXT Church Conference. NEXT is a continuing conversation among (mostly progressive) Presbyterians about what is next for the Presbyterian Church (USA). It started a few years ago with a group of tall steeple pastors asking each other, “What is next in the church beyond debates about sexuality?” For decades, our church—through various affinity groups—has been posturing itself with regard to questions of LGBT ordination (and now marriage). The original leadership of NEXT realized that sooner or later, in one direction or another, this debate will end and we’ll need to figure out how to be church in the 21st century.

As others have pointed out, this is not the only place this conversation is happening. In many respects, the Fellowship/ECO movement is asking the same questions, from a different theological framework. Years ago, Presbymergent asked the same questions (and in some respects teed up these other conversations). The Mid Councils Commission is asking the same questions, as is the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century Committee. The new Form of Government that went into effect in 2011 reflects these same questions. It is a time of change and questions about the future for the PC(USA).

Last year, the NEXT conference generated considerable criticism for the lack of diversity among the leadership: it was predominantly male pastors of tall steeple churches. It seemed to me that the planning team for this year heard those criticisms and made sure that the conference leadership included more young people, women, people of color, and pastors of smaller churches.

Reading back through the tweets I send during the conference, here is a summary of my reflections and thoughts for next year.

  • First, I should say that I thought this was a stimulating and generative conference and I’m really glad I attended. I love connecting and reconnecting with friends and colleagues from around the country.
  • It’s a good sign that 600 people showed up, which I think I heard was about twice as many as last year.
  • Perhaps I am biased after a year and a half of work on the Mid Councils Commission, but I’m growing weary of asking open-ended questions and the posture of agnosticism about where the church is headed. I think that there are enough people doing creative and innovative work, and enough people dreaming dreams, that we should start focusing more on specific questions regarding theology, ecclesiology, and how to do ministry in the 21st century. I think this NEXT conference moved in this direction, and I hope this trend will continue.
  • At one point we were asked what the PC(USA) has lost. I have many answers to that question, but for me the most important is that we have lost a clear and compelling articulation of the gospel and a sense of urgency. I was pleased to hear Tim Hart-Andersen preach on urgency at the closing worship.
  • Speaking of worship, it was hit or miss at the conference—though all the preaching was solid.
  • Of the 33 (!) workshops offered, I was disappointed that not single one was about youth ministry. I was pleased that those interested in youth ministry took advantage of the “open source” time on Tuesday and had a great conversation.
  • Again, I may be biased after many months of thinking about our institutions, but I’m weary of idolizing the PC(USA) and talking about what we can do to “fix” or “save” the denomination. I’d much rather be talking about the gospel and our mission.
  • Stacy Johnson‘s talk on the adaptive challenges of our changing contexts was outstanding and right on target. (In fact, it was very similar to the overall message of the Mid Councils Commission report.) Nationally and locally, Presbyterians (and most mainliners in general) are stuck at the level of technical fixes and need to move into adaptive change. I hope Stacy’s presentation was recorded and/or available in written form because more people need to be exposed to this.
  • I enjoyed meeting MaryAnn McKibben Dana and thought her workshop on Agile Church was excellent. This mental model transfer from software and technology companies is very helpful for reshaping how we do church in our rapidly changing world. What if our structures were agile and fluid enough that we aren’t wedded to them?
  • I heartily agree with Carol Howard Merritt that church revitalization is not enough. We must start investing in new church development.
  • Not many people approached me about the Mid Councils Commission. I still get the feeling that progressives are mostly suspicious of our proposal about non-geographic presbyteries. I just hope that the rest of what we have offered to the church is not ignored because of this suspicion. As my recent blog posts indicate, I really want the church to engage this conversation.
  • I had a great lunchtime conversation with Steve Yamaguchi and Tony De La Rosa, who both noted that NEXT still feels awfully white to people of color. They suggest that the conference needs to be even more proactive in inviting non-white leaders. If the “next” church is going to be relevant for an American society that no longer has a white majority, we need to be more concerned about growing a church that reflects this reality. (See Multiculturalism and Racial Ethnic Representation)
  • I  had another great lunchtime conversation with Joe Hill about Presbyterians in rural areas of the country. NEXT (and much of the wider conversation about the future of the church) is skewed too much toward urban and suburban contexts. I don’t know anything about realities in rural contexts and would like to learn more. I think a future NEXT conference (or regional gatherings) need to take place somewhere other than a big city.
  • There needs to be more ruling elders involved in this conversation. In order to do that, NEXT conferences should take place over a weekend so that ruling elders don’t have to take vacation days to attend. Pastors don’t like to do this, but I think it would send a great message to congregations to say that their pastors and elders are missing a Sunday for such a conference. (See The Quest for True Parity)

All in all, NEXT 2012 was a great conference. I’m sure I will continue to reflect on what I heard and experienced. Many of these reflections could—and may—grow into posts of their own. And, I may remember some things that I didn’t mention here.


John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

Reader Interactions


  1. John,

    I appreciate all of your thoughts for how to move forward here, but I think that the most important one (of several) might be the last one — finding ways to make sure that scheduling doesn’t limit adequate participation. Too often, ministry-related conferences must decide whether to attract full-time pastors (by scheduling on Monday and Tueday) or bivocational pastors and lay leaders (by scheduling on weekends).

    My denomination’s most recent large gathering, our General Assembly last summer, refelcted this bizarre tension. Although it began on Saturday (an odd choice in itself), it didn’t really get going until late Sunday, with all of the voting business sessions and workshops on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I imagine that was to accomodate those that were not going to come until after Sunday morning worship. In essence, it made ineffective use of the weekend time and crammed lots of material into three (week-)days.

    Full-time pastors are not, and cannot be, the only articulators of the gospel moving ahead, at least in any vibrant manifestation of Christ’s church. It will take significant adaptive change to address what has become a pretty entrenched problem in far too many congregations and denominations.

  2. For what it’s worth, scheduling conferences like this on a Friday is ALMOST as good as Saturday for many bivocational folk. Fridays are relatively easy to take away from the office for many folks, as compared to Mondays. (Asking me to take a Monday away from the office is much like asking a Pastor to take a Sunday away, and asking me to take a Friday is much like asking a pastor to take a Tuesday.)

  3. I can’t echo what Jared says enough. Friday/Saturday is the winner.

    By scheduling something on Monday/Tuesday (the pastor’s weekend as I heard it called), you are saying, very clearly, that this is an event aimed at pastors. As Monday/Tuesday are probably the worst two days you could ask a working person to take off.

  4. It also occurs to me that in the business world (especially in my field), we’ve had to learn to “just deal” with time zone differences. Half my team is 10 time zones away. We’ve learned several (mandatory) coping strategies:

    – Anything that’s important is worth producing an artifact. It could be the powerpoint slides, the manuscript, notes, an audio or video recording, etc. EVERYTHING in my world leaves behind an artifact you can hand off to someone who wasn’t there. When I asked for “a copy” of someone’s talk at NEXT, they looked at me like they had no idea what I was talking about. In my world, people who do things that don’t leave artifacts behind are intentionally sending the message that the people who couldn’t be in the room with them aren’t valuable – they get dropped from teams in no time flat.

    – Anything that’s collaborative should value asynchronous communication methods. Wikis, blogs, email and the like are far more prevalent once your team goes multi-timezone. Face to face communication is a luxury, not a necessity.

    I’ll puzzle more on this. If we’re looking for parity between those that are professional church folks and people who are not, we have to solve this problem in a scaleable way. It won’t ever be enough to have a once-a-year conference, even if that conference is on a magical as-of-yet un-invented day of the week when both clergy and laity can attend.

  5. It’s frustrating that the dates for the next NEXT are already set for a Monday and Tuesday. I wonder if there is a way to address these concerns? It seems like with a year out they should be willing to consider how to better engage people who have to take vacation days to attend these conferences. Speaking as a teaching elder who did have to take off from work, it would be much easier for Friday and Saturday. Any thoughts about how we might politely and proactively engage them in considering changing the days?

  6. Great point regarding open ended questions and agnosticism. I think we’ve reached a point where this kind of behavior is simply lazy when most of us do it. We have a crapload of good ideas out there. We just need to get down to the hard work of prototyping them (as I understand Jud would say).

  7. Great post, John. Added it to my roundup.

    The strategy team is having discussions even now about timing. I know that we’ve already got active proposals from hotels and such for the Monday-Tuesday timeline. At the very least, we are looking at alternate timing post-2013. Maybe a long holiday weekend? Or my pipe dream: TWO conferences a year 😉

    Jared’s comments about artifacts is right on target. I know Joe Clifford’s tech people at First Dallas were working on getting the big plenaries up on the ‘net. Not sure they’re up yet but they will be.

    Remember also that regional gatherings are a vital key to this whole initiative. My personal view is that these should be on a Saturday come heck or high water, to allow more participation.


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