For a variety of reasons, I couldn’t attend the NEXT Church national gathering last week. But I was able to watch some of it on the live stream and will catch up on some other highlights once they post videos. I’ve also read several blog posts about it and have talked with some friends who attended.
My sense has been that NEXT began with several pastors (many of whom are friends) asking important questions about what’s next for the PC(USA) but has struggled to find it’s way and claim its charism for the church today. After expressing some frustrations last year that the NEXT leadership keeps asking the same open-ended questions followed by the refrain of “we don’t know the answers yet,” I was hoping that this year might be the year to break out and advance the conversation.
Based on my observations from afar, I’m not sure that this happened in Charlotte last week. But it does seem that NEXT might be carving out its niche in the PC(USA) as a platform for innovative and creative leaders to share ideas and best practices. This is good thing and has the potential to inject much needed energy and life into our denomination. But I must admit that this is not what I thought NEXT set out to do. I really thought it was an attempt to gather together the best and brightest in the church to do the hard work of rethinking theology and ecclesiology in the rapidly changing contexts of ministry in 21st century postmodern, post-Christendom North America. There are glimpses of this from time to time, but NEXT seems to be more about Presbyterians networking and sharing practical ideas. (As an aside, according to a recent post from Bruce Reyes-Chow, this kind of parochial approach will always be insufficient.)
This may not relate as much as I think it does, but given my post earlier this week about Presbyterians rediscovering the relational element of connectionalism, perhaps this (re)positioning of NEXT says something important about what is happening in the PC(USA). Perhaps our best and brightest really don’t care about reforming or reshaping the denomination. Perhaps there is simply more energy in local expressions of creativity and innovation and a desire to network with other people doing similar things.
I think there is also a connection here to Adam Walker Cleaveland’s recent musings about Presbymergent. I think Presbymergent fizzled after 2009 because those of us interested in the conversation got busy working in our local contexts, putting our energy in those endeavors rather than creating a new special interest group. But we’ve maintained vibrant connections with each other, which is essentially my point. (Speaking of Adam, though, he also has a nice post about a Louisville-sponsored event that did pose some big questions about ecclesiology.)
I guess I’m wondering if all this adds up to a new reality in which the movers and shakers in the PC(USA) are giving up on changing the system. I’ve certainly grown discouraged about the capacity of our institution to reform itself in the way we claim is a core value of Presbyterianism. Does this mean that we are in fact moving toward an essentially congregationalist relational ecclesiology in which we value networking with like-minded gospel innovators more than the bureaucratized form of mid-20th century Presbyterianism that is increasingly out of place in the 21st century? (Would you rather spend time and resources to attend a NEXT conference or a presbytery meeting?) As I’ve suggested before, I think that Presbyterian ethos is actually what binds us together more than a particular theology or polity.
But let’s be clear, if the best and the brightest in the PC(USA) don’t take the time to reform the institution, it will go away sooner than later. The numbers of denominational decline don’t lie and they can’t be ignored. The PC(USA) as an institution—not the good and creative ministry and mission of the people who belong to this peculiar tribe—is on a trajectory toward extinction. Maybe we’re okay with that.