Beyond the buff Jesus: What is NEXT?
by Sarah-Dianne Jones
In case it has not already been made clear, I find myself most at home in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the “family” that I am quickest to turn to when life is hard are all Presbyterians that I have come to know through conferences, events and, honestly, just hanging out with my parents’ friends. That said, it should come as no surprise that I was incredibly excited to learn that NEXT Church, a Presbyterian conference, fell during the MC Spring Break.
I applied for a student scholarship as soon as the application went up and hoped and prayed that I would be able to go. I had heard nothing but good things about the conference, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend Spring Break than by hanging out in Chicago with some of my favorite Presbyterians. I ended up being able to attend the conference, and it was a wonderful experience.
NEXT Church, much like the name sounds, looks at where the church is going next. What will the church look like in five years? 10 years? There were worship services with amazing artwork daily, incredible workshops and a chance to see what new things churches are doing in Chicago. The conference was held at Fourth Presbyterian Church, a church that opens its doors to the homeless for shelter. Worship was held while homeless neighbors slept in the pews, a new experience that will remain with me for many years.
NEXT gave me a lot to think about, some of which I struggled with, particularly in regard to the way millennials were spoken of. One of the speakers claimed that “Millennials in the pews are like unicorns. You have to see it to believe it!”
Speakers and presenters, even those on Twitter, liked to bring up that if we continue to only have traditional style worship services, there will never be millennials in the pews. Several people said to me, “It must be so nice to see other millennials at this conference so that you know you aren’t alone!”
Maybe I’m odd, but I do not share that mindset. I do not hold the belief that I am alone as a millennial who is committed to the church. I am not under the impression that the reason there are fewer millennials in the pews is because of worship style, but rather, at least for many, because they don’t see the connection between Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself and the prevalent Christian voice saying that those who are welcome are those who are considered “normal,” whatever that means.
Rachel Held Evans, a well-known writer in Dayton, Tenn., wrote in an opinion article on CNN that states: “What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.”
Maybe that is what the church will look like next. Instead of being considered an unwelcoming place, perhaps in the next few years the church will see a change, will become the welcoming place that it always should have been. Progress is being made, and I think that one day true change will come.
In looking back on my time at NEXT Church, I think that what I most enjoyed was being with 660 Presbyterians, most of whom were clergy, who truly believe that a change is going to come to the church, and they want to be a part of it. These were some of the people ready to welcome everyone, not just the “normal” ones. I counted myself lucky to be among them, to learn about new ways to be the church, to ask questions and to be recharged. It was probably not the conventional way to spend Spring Break, but I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.