This is my second national NEXT Church conference, and "journey" - though a woefully overused faith word (present company included) - is still an appropriate image. Because even when you know where you're going, you quickly find out there are innumerable ways to get there. Take the first leg of my journey from Charlotte to Minneapolis, where this year's NEXT conference concluded mere hours ago. There was a direct flight, but it got canceled. I had to wait a full day and go through LaGuardia to get here. If that sounds undesirable it still was better than the Charlotte-to-Miami-to-Minneapolis route they proposed.
Missing the first day of NEXT had me a little off-kilter and discombobulated the rest of the conference - the stuff I got to be part of was great, but I always had this feeling lurking inside me like I had missed the foundation, because I had. It was a tad frustrating. But guess what? The church can be frustrating too, when everything around it is changing so fast; when we feel like we missed something. Mainline churches today are experiencing dramatic cultural shifts faster than you can say the word "postmodern." The arrivals and departures are all over the map; and they're affecting attendance, giving, and commitment. Some choose to view it as a sinking ship that you either disembark as soon as possible, or go down with as the loyal sea captain. NEXT Church, however, chooses to see these as birth pangs of something exciting and transformative. And when you attend these NEXT workshops and seminars and hear some of the amazingly creative, faithful things that churches are doing, it's hard not to rejoice a little bit. Because you sense there's something substantive and meaningful there, and you want to dig into it more.
I believe in NEXT because I still believe the church has relevance. I believe people want the church and need the church to bear witness in the world. This is not the time for the church to try and be something it used to be, or even something it never was. Nor is this the time for the church to "sell out" to the culture in an attempt to fill up pews and offering plates. This is a time for the church to do exactly what Jesus did and what he would do still today: in the words of the prophet Jeremiah (our scripture for the conference): Seek the welfare of the city, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7)
I'm ready to get back to my city and, with the wonderful folks at Trinity, do just that. But first, one final flight and maybe a little sleep too.