As faith communities across Canada grapple with what it means to be the church in today’s society, a small on-line conversation this past week offered a fresh, meaningful and pragmatic way to explore that question.
Open and free to anyone who was interested, the hour-long conversation (the first in a series) was intended as a way to listen to the Spirit by listening to one another.
“The hope for these Online Conversations is to pay attention to where the Spirit is active in various aspects of the United Church in Canada,” says Sarah Arthurs. Sarah is hosting the conversations as the founder of NewScoopYYC, a Calgary-based social innovation combining dialogue and new ways of doing journalism.
Where are new relationships bubbling up within and amongst churches?
Where is there good energy?
Where are people having the courage to step up and out in answer to a call they are sensing?
Where are churches prototyping new ways of connecting to and with their communities?
“Through these calls, we want to surface these kinds of stories, pay attention to them and connect up folk who are playing in similar ‘playgrounds’,” Sarah says.
About 20 mostly United Church ministers from across Canada (P.E.I. to Yellowknife) answered the invitation to join the Sept. 12 call. Using a relatively new, very user-friendly and free video technology called Zoom, everyone had an opportunity to engage in dialogue. It was almost as good as a face-to-face conversation, minus a few technical hiccups, of course. (The experience was also very distinct from that of an on-line webinar, where the instructor lectures for the bulk of the time to an audience of often faceless and silent listeners).
Reframing the Question
Asking “How can we survive?” and, further to that, “What’s the need out there that we can meet?” are the wrong questions for churches today to be asking, noted Christine Jerrett. Christine is a minister and consultant for the United Church Edge initiative, a network for ministry development.
Instead, we must be asking, “What is God up to in our community, among our neighbours, and how do we get to join in?”
Finding answers to that question largely has to do with learning how to listen – learning how to listen to God, to one another and to those in one’s neighbourhood.
Recognizing the Holy Through Art
Brief though it was, the call surfaced a number of interesting and hopeful stories around new possibilities for being the church today.
One story, shared by United Church minister for the Laurentian area, Cathy Hamilton, highlighted how nine small congregations, eight English- and one French-speaking, just this past year worked together to come up with a way to reach out into their communities more broadly.
On Sept. 10, the congregations co-hosted an arts festival – a non-religious but typical United Church event, open to the public. Belly dancers, a singer, a guitarist and wood carvers drew about 100 people. A number of the festival-goers had had no ties to the churches previously. Besides mingling and lingering over the art, participants could munch on corn, wind their way through a rhubarb leaf spiral on the front lawn and create prayer flags.
Each of the nine church communities has its own unique qualities, Cathy emphasizes. All are much less interested in amalgamation, but many are open to finding ways to co-operate on joint ministries, such this art festival.
“Looking to the future, one of the important things will be to try to lift up the strengths, the skills, the talents in each community,” Cathy says. For instance, one of her congregations includes quite a few artists. “It seems they could use some encouragement around how artists might connect with the community more broadly and encourage spiritual life and recognition of the holy through art.”
What’s Possible for Church and Worship through Technology?
The interest in collaborating more than amalgamating was one of several themes that surfaced throughout the call.
Other common threads that emerged included:
- How to use technology to support that collaboration
- What does collaboration mean and what can it look like for rural churches, especially those that are far-flung.
George Bott, a minister supporting four congregations in northern Ontario, hails from a background in IT and has much to offer in terms of how technology might be a tool in worship as well as connect churches.
George has been experimenting with how “we can create a collaboration, connection and collegiality in a virtual world as it relates to the church and how we express our theology and our way of worship.”
One of the interesting surprises made possible through this openness to using technology has been the engagement of a youth congregation from about 10 areas in northern Manitoba and Ontario. “To see these young people who have never known life without technology, and how they work in a virtual world, is amazing and a lesson for us who span that reach between being ‘googlers’ and ‘Guggenheimers’,” George says. “It shows us the potential.”
As the Sept. 12 call revealed George’s depth of IT knowledge, he is now slated to join an upcoming call in the Online Conversations series focused specifically on technology.
A couple other key learnings/insights that emerged in the call:
- Art of Hosting is a proven methodology for convening people in dialogue to listen to one another, for those interested in practical ways to facilitate the listening mentioned above
- A group of representatives from several congregations seeking ways to collaborate shared about their challenges with moving past conversation and “visioning” to action as some in their circles were not ready for change. The wisdom offered was that sometimes “you just have to accept that you will not keep everyone on board.”
From Listening to Freedom to Incredible Creativity
“As we start learning how to listen to God, we discover that God is doing amazing things in our neighbourhoods,” Christine said. “As we listen to each other, we learn what’s important to each other, and where each other’s interests and passions lie.
“And once people get their minds around the fact that whatever does develop out of these conversations won’t look like traditional church, that frees us up to do all sorts of creative reconfigurations of church. It just opens up a whole lot of possibilities.”
The Online Conversations continue throughout the fall, with topics ranging from Elders, Our Gift & Grace: Co creating Community, to Women are from Venus. For the full list of conversations and dates/times, click this link.