Thursday, September 27, 2012

Two Days at the Church House

I spent Monday and Tuesday at the United Church of Christ's national offices in Cleveland as part of a gathering of Christian education (we're supposed to call it faith formation now) consultants charged with the task of discussing a report on the state of Christian education/faith formation in the denomination. A few clergy in their 20s and 30s were invited to join the conversation, which is how I ended up attending.

First off, it was my first time at the Church House (one of my colleagues likes to call it the Mothership, which I've found myself adopting). Over 20 years living fairly close to those offices, and this was my first time inside. During breaks, I'd give myself my own tour of parts of the building, particularly the Amistad Chapel on the first floor, being the sanctuary connoisseur that I am. I was struck by how intimate a setting that is, and in true Reformed fashion there was no stained glass. Instead, clear windows with a view of the city provided quite the juxtaposition of church and world, and a simple and profound theological statement. The rest of the building is what you'd expect an office building to be like, save for all these church artifacts in the hallways and by the elevators.

There has always been something about participating in wider church events and meetings that I've relished. More and more people at the local church level question how worthwhile they are. Many see them as boring or a waste of time and resources. To drive that point home, our Associate General Minister Mark Clark pointed out to us Tuesday evening that national church bodies are a pretty recent phenomenon...the church survived most of its history without them. For me, these sorts of gatherings help remind me that I'm part of something bigger than me, even bigger than the church that I serve, with such a wide range of faith expressions and incarnations. These events help me remember and appreciate that.

As for the event itself, we were there to talk about Christian faith formation. It's an area of church life that I think is important, yet that I also find confounding. The confounding aspect mostly comes from old models that I've known my whole life falling apart, and while I feel comfortable coming up with new ministries and models to replace those that are fading in areas like worship, mission, even some administration, faith formation is a bit of a blind spot for me. Or I just say it is to avoid dealing with it. Or I'm selling myself short. Or something else entirely.

At any rate, we had a very well-done report in front of us detailing the current state of faith formation, cultural trends that may be causing that state but also beginning to birth new methods and possibilities, and proposals for how to address its future in the denomination. You can actually read the whole thing for yourself here.

Much of it sounded familiar to me: old models are proving less effective, younger generations are more diverse and less "plugged in" to church in general, the culture around us has changed, etc. We were invited to react to the report and to begin offering ideas for the future. We generated a lot of what I saw as small pieces that could hopefully be worked into a larger whole down the line, but at least there has been a beginning.

During our opening worship in Amistad Chapel, we were at one point invited to pick up a stone from the center table to carry with us during our meeting. We were clued in that these would be used again later on during a closing activity. Sure enough, on Tuesday evening we were invited to reflect on our stones; to notice things about them and share what we've noticed. I noticed that mine had been worn somewhat smooth, perhaps by water or some other means, but it wasn't as smooth as I expected it to be before I picked it up. It wasn't polished; it didn't have a glassy feel to it by any means.

I shared that this was church and faith in a nutshell: it's not as smooth as you expect it to be. Living into the future of both probably won't be, either.