Okay, so granted, it wasn't the best planning on my part. Nevertheless, less than 24 hours after the closing of the 2013 NEXT Church Conference in Charlotte, there I was: lying on a hospital bed in the pre-op, all gowned up and ready to go. It was a torn meniscus that had brought me there; and in standard surgery fashion there was a whole lot of "hurry up and wait." Three hours of it, in fact. So I had plenty of time to think amidst the beeping and humming of machinery and the impending dose of drugs that would send me off to la-la land.
(and as a quick aside, I think every pastor should have surgery at some point in ministry, preferably for an actual ailment that requires it. I'll never look at hospital visits and pre-surgery prayers with parishioners the same again, having been in the bed rather than standing beside it.)
Anyway, so I had a lot of time to think in that pre-op room. And I won't lie to you: I thought about NEXT.
I thought about this relatively new movement in the Presbyterian Church (USA), described on its Facebook page as "sparking imaginations, connecting congregations, and offering a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ." I thought about the way co-organizer Shannon Kershner further explained that it is not an affinity group pushing any doctrine or issue currently being contended with ad nauseum in our denomination. The one thing that binds those in NEXT together is relationship. Relationship with each other and relationship with Jesus. The fact that NEXT makes this their focus and stubbornly refuses to be parlayed by any special interest group or agenda is precisely why I and many others are on board with it.
I thought about all the people there, around 650 of them. Honestly, it was like a high school class reunion for not one year but twenty or thirty. Pastors and laypeople, friends and new faces. Retired preachers and folks not yet ordained. Southerners and Northerners, Midwesterners and West Coasters. And a new category made possible in our social media age: people I've known for a year or more, conversed and engaged with, but have never actually met in person until now. A shout-out to Facebook and Twitter for creating this new way of knowing people, where the first face-to-face is not the beginning of a great friendship but the continuation of it.
I thought about something Steve Eason said in his sermon on Monday evening worship - something that struck me as tweet-worthy:
I think this speaks to a major reason why NEXT Church has taken off the way it has. We all recognize the cultural shift the church has endured over the past 50 years. Gone are the days where no one dared hold a soccer game on Sunday mornings; where pastors were bestowed with de facto mayor-like authority in their communities. Study after study has shown the sharp decline in mainline denominations that's reflected in greater pew vacancies and shrinking budgets. For some, the only appropriate response is an alarmist mindset rooted strongly in fear. NEXT, however, chooses to view these changes in a positive light as God's intentional process of creating something wonderful and new.
Around this time, some lady stuck me with an IV, so I had to think about needles for a minute. When she was done, though, I went back to thinking about NEXT.
And I thought about all the wonderful speakers. And you know the really cool thing? They weren't the "big names" you typically see at these type of events. That's not how NEXT rolls. What they're more into are the unsung heroes who are quietly doing some amazing "next-ish" things in their contexts. So we heard from the Caucasian man and African-American woman who have teamed up to revitalize a defunct and crumbling church facility in Philadelphia; the seminary president who used thirty seconds of a Janet Jackson video (FYI, it wasn't "Nasty Boys") to share the story of a growing student body that at one point numbered seven; the Washington DC-based pastor who unpacked worship liturgy as improv; the pastor in Columbia, SC who equated God's spirit to live music as opposed to 16-bit MIDI. Every voice mattered, official speaking role or not; and it had nothing to do with the size of one's congregation or how many degrees are hanging on the wall.
I thought about what is NEXT for the church - something that is tempting to immediately jump to, like the kid who stares at the wrapped present under the Christmas tree wondering what's inside. I thought about the fact that this journey we're on in the NEXT Church is not a formula or five-step plan that can be implemented in actions steps to acheieve "maximum results."
NEXT is more like jazz, really. The Spirit moving in and through us, gently reminding us that we're not directing the band but are the called and equipped players offering our unique voice and gifts to the ensemble. And the sound that is produced is the sound of a church that is not looking to be "successful" as much as it's striving to be faithful.
That's all that I was thinking. And then they wheeled me into the OR and hit me with the good stuff. I don't remember much after that, but I do remember the last thought on my mind was how there is no better and more exciting time than now for the church to be thinking about what's next.