The two and a half days I spent at the 2014 NEXT Church National Gathering were refreshing and inspiring. I want to make a few general comments about the conference before diving into the theme that I wrestled with the most.
I’ve now been to all of the NEXT national gatherings except last year (including the first expansion of the conversation that took place in Minneapolis before the General Assembly in 2010). I didn’t go last year primarily because we had a three month old baby at home and it just didn’t make sense to take a trip to Charlotte right after my paternity leave. That baby is 15 months old now and I still wasn’t sure I could make the trip since I’m the primary morning caregiver for him and our five year old. So my first praise for NEXT 2014 is the awesome childcare option they made available. I loaded up both our boys after church on Sunday and we made a road trip up to Minneapolis. They very much enjoyed the childcare while I enjoyed the conference. We spent the evenings playing in the hotel pool and eating pizza together. Noah asked if we could do it again sometime. So I’m very grateful for the hospitable and forward-thinking move to make this a family friendly experience. I might not have been able to attend otherwise.
In previous years of NEXT, I earned something of a reputation for being critical of the national gatherings. I’d like to think they were constructive criticisms offered for my many friends and mentors involved in the leadership of NEXT, but I will admit that NEXT came into being during a period of my church life marked by cynicism and frustration. (I’ve consciously tried to pivot my posture here on my blog.) Still, looking back on previous posts (2011, 2012, 2013), I think I struck a balance between appreciation and criticism.
The 2014 gathering continued the basic trajectory of 2013. NEXT seems to be most interested in networking, inspiration, and providing a platform for leaders passionate about vitality and new directions for the church. The worship, preaching, testimonies, and ignite presentations were amazing. While I still wish for more theology and ecclesiology at these gatherings (Stacy Johnson’s 2012 talk on the adaptive challenges of post-Christendom remains a NEXT highlight for me), I was pleased to hear some of the first speakers note that “best practices” hold us back instead of move us forward. (I’ve long been frustrated with conferences that focus on best practices instead of big picture ideas.)
It was in fact one of the big ideas/themes of the conference that challenged me the most. All of the preachers were given as one of their texts Jeremiah 29:5-14a, with a particular focus on “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” (Jeremiah 29:7). I groaned a little when I realized that “exile” would be a central theme of the conference. As I’ve written about before (here and here), exile is a popular but inadequate metaphor for the situation the church finds itself in today. First, I feel like we are not exiled from some promised land as much as we’ve been left behind by our culture. Second, exile implies the hope for return, but it is neither possible nor desirable for us to return to the “good old days” of American Christendom in which Protestantism was the center and shaper of American culture (or vice versa). Third, whether we intend to or not, the exile metaphor also encourages us to be too self-focused. And fourth, as others have pointed out, it’s somewhat problematic for mostly white Protestants to talk about our post-Christendom loss of hegemony as exile when other groups in our society have experienced much more troubling forms of marginalization and oppression.
But my thinking on the theme of exile was tweaked by J. Herbert Nelson on Tuesday morning of the conference. Preaching on “The Common Good,” he helped me see that the church isn’t in exile. Rather, the church is called into places of exile to be God’s people there. Alika Galloway hit a similar note the day before by suggesting that we aren’t lost and that the Spirit is calling us into contested spaces. And MaryAnn McKibben Dana returned to this theme in her concluding sermon on Wednesday.
Inspired by this reorientation, I wrote the following in a moderator’s letter to the Presbytery of Chicago:
Let’s stop bemoaning our losses—as many and as painful as they are—and open our eyes and ears to the places of exile God is calling us to go to proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind.
Where are these places of exile in your community? Where are these places of exile throughout Chicagoland? Where are these places of exile around the world?
What’s next for the Presbytery of Chicago? Whatever it is, I believe we’ll find it in not in a sense of our own exile but in the places of exile to which God is calling us.
While I still think that “exile” may need to be retired as a metaphor we use to describe what’s happening in the church today, I can definitely get behind this notion of following God into places of exile for the common good of all.