CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Greeters stood at all of the entrances to the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C., on both days of the two-day NEXT Church conference, giving everyone who entered a brightly colored stole to wear around their neck.
While these stoles, which at times were called ribbons, were solid colors, they were a reminder of the multi-colored stoles, or scarves, worn at other Presbyterian Church (USA) events that signify support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lobby. While the lobby has succeeded in opening ordination in the PCUSA to LGBT people, they are now focused on allowing PCUSA pastors to perform same-sex marriages in their churches.
Bearing witness to the connection between the agenda of NEXT Church and the LGBT lobby, those who arrived for the conference early were treated to a free screening of Love Free or Die: How the Bishop of New Hampshire is changing the world, a documentary on Gene Robinson, a former priest who after leaving his wife and two children to live with his homosexual partner, was consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church (USA).
The NEXT Church Conference, attended by approximately 600 people, was held March 4-5 at First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C. The mission of NEXT Church is to “foster relationships among God’s people: sparking imaginations; connecting congregations; offering a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ. Trusting in God’s sovereignty and grace, NEXT Church will engage the church that is becoming by cultivating vital connections, celebrating emerging leadership and innovation, and working with congregations and leaders to form and reform faith communities.”
Jessica Tate, director of NEXT Church, was the preacher at the opening worship service held March 4. Before coming to NEXT, she served as an associate pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia.
Her sermon included texts from the first and second chapters of Luke – the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
“The story is so familiar,” said Tate. “Anyone who stops and thinks about it will tell you it is unbelievable. … How did we get to this strange and awe-filled moment? Someone had to say yes to the unexpected plans of God.”
After pausing for a dramatic reading of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Tate continued, “I wonder how she did it – how Mary found it within herself to agree to become the mother of God?”
Tate acknowledged that Gabriel was not asking Mary to do this task, he was telling her, but “let’s set all that aside and wonder what made her put down her Martha Stewart Wedding Planner and pick up What to Expect When You’re Expecting. How did she set aside her fear and give up control?”
Mary had a lot to lose, Tate said. Unlike Christians today, she did not know the end of the story, but “somehow Mary found the gritty faith to enter the uncertainty … to allow for the unexpectedness of God and to allow salvation to be born.”
Tate said that “we know the end of the story and how it will change the world. …. It teaches us how to inhabit this space of radical availability to God, and in that space, salvation is more than an idea, it becomes an experience. It becomes God with us.”
“We don’t inhabit that space very well,” Tate said. “We don’t open ourselves to radical unexpectedness enough.”
Tate spoke about how churches prepare for worship services or fellowship times, but she wondered if perhaps, “we prepare God right out of our plan and our lives. If we set out to do just what we can control.” She said Christians then can put God right out of the equation.
“Where is the space for God to show up and surprise us? Where is the space for the good news of salvation?” she asked.
Tate said that controlling behavior is a symptom of fear, and she listed several fears in the world today, including financial, gun violence, cancer battles and dementia.
Trying to control fear, Tate said “we hoard, we calculate where we can risk without exposing our underbellies. … Maybe that is why angels always start by saying, ‘Do not be afraid,’ because we are perpetually afraid.”
But it isn’t just fear that binds people. It is also the unknown, said Tate. “We don’t know what to do and how to do it. We can pull off a potluck lunch after service … We know how to do these things, but inviting people to worship, reaching out, changing our way of being church so that we go out to be an exhibition of the Kingdom to the world, we don’t know how to do that, and we close ourselves off.”