Here’s what happened on Sunday afternoon at church. Nine people who didn’t even know each others’ names at 12:00 noon, 90 minutes later were hugging one another, shedding a few tears, and demonstrating a general reluctance for the meeting to be over.
It was the first gathering of folks who want to become members of our congregation. We did it differently than we’ve ever done it before; not surprisingly, the outcome was different than it ever has been before.
Thirty years ago, my pastoral training told me that I have the responsibility to impart a certain body of information to those who want to join our church. They need knowledge of the very basics of the Christian faith: who Jesus is, what he did, what we believe about God and the Spirit, what faith is, how we are saved, what the church is, the sacraments, stewardship, and on and on. I’ve had this sense that if people are going to join a confessional church , then they ought to have an idea of what they are confessing.
As if that weren’t enough, I’ve thought it would help them to assimilate into the congregation if they were given information about our church: our worship and why we do what we do, our various ministries, Sunday School and Adult Faith Formation, the stuff we do in the community. We’ve brought in staff members to describe their ministries, and folks who are already members to tell them a little about what they love about Faith.
In the back of my mind, it’s always felt a little like we were going through the motions, that people showed up, but they weren’t transformed in any meaningful way. It was like we had set up this relatively benign obstacle course that they had to complete in order to join the club; they did it; and they were in.
We did something different on Sunday. We had lunch together and enjoyed some casual conversation as we ate. Then we did bible study. Here’s the catch: not informational, knowledge-based bible study. Instead, we used Eric Law’s Kaleidoscope Bible Study method. The passage is read three different times; each time, the group is given a different question to reflect on while the passage is read and then there are three rounds of sharing. We also used Law’s process of mutual invitation: after each person shares, they invite someone else at the table to share.
It would not be appropriate for me to relate the conversation that happened in that room, but I can say that it got very real very quickly. People told stories of loss, of the difficulties of life, of the challenges of parenting, and of the struggle to believe. Matters of faith became intertwined with the realities of life and the Christian faith bloomed into something intensely relevant. What’s more, an almost miraculous personal bond developed among people who walked into that room not knowing each other’s names. In 28 years of ministry, I can’t ever remember that happening with a group of new members.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t discovered the holy grail of assimilating people into the faith. It was one meeting. We have a long ways to go.
But that experience was one more in a long line of experiences that is reinforcing for me just how critically important relationships are to the work of the church. I did not get into this work leading with my heart; I got into this work with my head. I love theology and books and bible study. I began pastoral ministry with the central notion that it was my job to impart a body of knowledge that would help people be Christians. “Faith comes by hearing. . .” and all that. It was never that relationships were unimportant; they just weren’t primary.
It’s been a long, long transition — one that I am still learning, and still trying to live into — to come to the place of putting my head in the background and leading with my heart, to know that all church work is about relationship and that while the cognitive aspects of the faith are not unimportant, they mean almost nothing apart from relationship. After all, a relationship with God is very, very different than knowledge about God.