Photo by Tracy Elizabeth
Photo by Tracy Elizabeth

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.

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. I was thinking about this yesterday.

    I am Presbyterian through and through. I love going to GA because it’s like a family reunion, but what frustrates me is that we seem to me more worried about getting people in seats rather than doing the work of the Gospel.

    For instance, I don’t care if you have Lady Gaga in your worship services, because it works for you. If I tried that in my context I can’t imagine it would go over well.

    What I care about is that you are sharing a Gospel of love and inclusion.

    There is certainly value in having people with differing opinions and theologies in community together wrestling with the big questions, but no conference has that, really, you, and I, pick conferences that we like. I’m never going to a Saddleback Conference, I’m just not. But I will go to Presbytery and be in community with those who thing differently than me, if only slightly.

    I don’t feel I’m expressing myself clearly here, I guess I should just say that I agree and at some point we (you, me, Adam, others doing work in other denoms) might need to get together and brainstorm what something like this might look like and even if it is a national thing.

    We need to talk.

    • I shouldn’t have let “like-minded” slip in my post, because that’s not really my point. Of all people, I should know that this phrase throws half of Presbyterians into a frenzy.

      A healthy relational/connectional presbytery is one in which local Presbyterians of diverse theological perspectives should want to come together to be in relationship. Instead we have a system that forces us to come together, or compels us through a sense of obligation to an ideal of diversity that doesn’t really exist.

      But, yeah, let’s talk.

  2. Have you ever asked the congregation (in worship or at an annual meeting or large planning session) if they wanted the church to change? And how? I have done this and didn’t much like what I heard and I don’t think you would either. If 10 or 20% want new forms of worship what do you say or do for the 80% who do not? Or if a minority wants a major mission engagement – they will have to do it; the others won’t. Hence an old rule: for policy count no votes; for programs count yes votes. Too many nos on policy will sink it and you only need enough yeses for program who can make it work.

      • Sorry, I wasn’t trying to be encouraging or discouraging. My wisdom is that if you try to change the church against the wishes of the oldsters who run it, you won’t get far. Bill Easum used to recommend that you go ahead and change if you have support for it and forget the complainers. If they control it, then walk away and dust yourself off. Few of us have been ready and willing to walk away, so we stay and try to change what we can. It doesn’t work well. Then it looks like we are giving up on changing things because we are.

  3. In New Hope Presbytery a renewal movement is underway that is aiming to address the kinds of questions you raise. I am serving on the leadership team. I think this is going on in other presbyteries, too. What is God doing to remake our presbyteries?

  4. Our Presbytery is the whole state, and doing things together as a Presbytery is hard when it would take me 4.5 hrs to drive to Portland for a 2 hr meeting. So there is a Presbytery Restructuring Team in place to try and move us away from being a programmatic Presbytery to one that meets more in clusters in our regions, with more of a missional focus and a focus on congregations.

    I don’t really know that it’s going to work though. Because, like you said in a comment, John, in order for this to work in our Presbytery, there have to be groups that “want to come together” – who want to join forces for missional and gospel work in our areas of the Presbytery….and my critique, is that if we wanted to be doing that, we’d ALREADY be doing that…so I don’t know really what the point of this Presbytery Restructuring is….

    • I know a little about your presbytery and it has been struggling with restructuring for 30 years. There was a plan that I think was implemented that divided the place in 3 with a staff person in each area. Is there any natural affinities among any cluster of churches? If so let them be a presbytery without staff. (The first presbytery I belonged to just before the big ’72 restructuring nationally had always existed that way and it worked fine, thank you.) If not, they aren’t presbyterians and everyone ought to agree to be congregationalists of some sort.


  1. […] I wrote a post in which I pondered whether the best and brightest in the PC(USA) are giving up on changing the system. At the same time, Tony Jones published a post in which he argued that Pope Francis will not reform […]

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