With the world and the church changing too rapidly for most Presbyterians to keep up, more than 350 gathered at Second Presbyterian Church here for two days this week for conversations about “the next Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

The NEXT gathering included more than 70 seminarians, making it demographically the youngest gathering of Presbyterians since the Presbyterian Youth Triennium.

The 30-hour event Feb. 28-March 1 was loosely structured around three broad topics ― mission, vocation and connection ― and was heavy on worship. “Whatever the next church is going to be, it’s going to be a worshiping church,” said the Rev. John Wilkinson of Rochester, N.Y., and a member of the conference planning team.

It’s also going to be more relational and less bureaucratic, said several speakers. Recounting the development of the early church as depicted in Acts, the Rev. Pen Peery, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, LA, said, “The church was created by the Holy Spirit, not by the apostles’ polity exercise.”

In a world of globalization and technological advancement, Peery said, the churches efforts at institutional control are futile.  “We are attempting to speak with one voice about God’s voice and vision,” he said, “but vision is springing forth in so many directions, that it’s no surprise our singular effort at connectionalism leaves us nothing else to talk about …the Spirit will find other ways.”

With mission being done at so many levels of the church in so many different ways, the question of leadership is as important as connectionalism, said the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, pastor of Brown Memorial Park Ave. Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. “Our congregation is becoming less about programs and raising funds than about developing leaders who understand themselves as a sent people,” he said.

“When we define ourselves this way we become truly evangelical, following Jesus out into the world, Foster Connors said. “My job is to feed discipleship with the food of the Gospel … I’ve come to see my role as organizer of people, not of an institution, and I’ve reached the conviction that communities built on relationships are the most enduring, the most effective, and the most fun.”

That desire for involvement in the world rather than “institutional maintenance” motivates young people and may explain their lack of involvement in the church, said opening worship preacher the Rev. Scott Black Johnston, pastor of New York’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.  

Likening the current state of the church to the exile of the Israelites in the prophet Jeremiah’s time, Johnston said the church isn’t dying, as some critics both inside and outside the PC(USA) have claimed. Rather, he said, “God is sending us into exile because we’ve spent the bulk of the last 30 years playing court politics rather than caring for those in our midst God calls us to serve.”

The church claims to offer an alternative to the world, Johnston continued, “then we go to presbytery or General Assembly and politicize everything with winners and loser after every vote. We’ve sold our souls and young people are watching and see what we’re up to… We’re not losing them to other churches,” he said. “We’re losing them to the neighborhood coffee shop and the Sunday New York Times.”

The arrogant competitiveness of Christians was apparent as far back as the church in Corinth, said the Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner in her sermon, referring to the “super-apostles”  in 2 Corinthians 4 who were all too willing to leap into the leadership breach following Paul’s departure with a self-assured certainty that threatened to divide the Corinthian church.

“They didn’t believe Paul had what it took to build the next church of their time, with all that talk about brokenness and suffering and humility,” she said. “The super-apostles were the original prosperity gospel preachers,” she said, “but Paul refused to fight fire with fire or play the game that he was the savior of the church. He said ‘we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus as Lord.’”

That kind of humility is much-needed amid the current heated rhetoric, Kershner suggested. “God gave us the gift of our imperfection and it is precisely into our cracked-pot selves and cracked-pot church that God has poured God’s grace and chosen us partners for the mission of the world and truth tellers of God’s message of mercy, grace and good news.”

Trying to be saviors of the world and the church “has never been our call or vocation,” Kershner said. “We’ll be the same cracked pot selves we were when we arrived, but is through the cracks that God’s light shines most brilliantly. No matter what is next for the church, our primary calling is to be the most faithful pastors, leaders, disciples we can be, embracing our humility as God’s cracked pot vessels ―  not that we’re worthy but that God is worthy and God will decide what’s next for the church.”

That’s a task for the whole church, not just the PC(USA), said the Rev. Christine Chakoian, pastor of  First Presbyterian Church in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest. “What we’re facing is not what’s happening in the denomination but what’s happening in the world ― the Middle East, climate change, [advances in] technology, terrorism,” she said.

“The changes are unique to our times ― there’s no map and no ‘app,’” Chakoian said. “We have to figure out what faith in Christ looks like now and how to be a part of it. But we don’t have to figure it out alone, we can’t figure it out alone ― it’s God’s vision for the church universal.”

That vision is fueled by hope, said the Rev. Lewis Galloway, pastor of the host church, in his sermon to close the conference. “As we have discussed, life in the church and world have changed ― with confusion, loss of nerve, anxiety, with certainties not holding the authority they once did, and with people of good will engaged in endless fighting,” he said. “Our seminary students must be wondering what kind of church they will serve or whether there will be a church at all.”

We may not know what the next PC(USA) will look like, Galloway said. “We wait for a future we may not see, and we wait with patience because the one clear word God gives to the church and the world today is hope,” he said.  “Our only hope is that in life and death we belong to God.”  

In the meantime the church is called to take risks for the kingdom of God, Galloway continued. “We’re not called to protect the church like some fragile antique ― the church is living, dynamic, open to change.

“And change comes from seeing the gospel story woven into the lives of believers,” he said, “and seeing their lives woven into the gospel story.”

Organizers have already announced a next NEXT gathering ― Feb. 27-28, 2012 in Dallas.