reflections by Todd Edmondson
Every community has its own language. Any time a group of like-minded people comes together to discuss what is important to them, it is critical that each person understands what another is saying. They develop a kind of shorthand among themselves, and cultivate ways of sharing information, interests, and convictions that are particular to that group. A gathering of accomplished cooks can exchange recipes and discuss culinary technique with one another without much effort. Experts in auto repair can discuss parts and technical procedures in ways that elude the layperson. To enter into the conversation requires a grasp of the language that is employed. The same is true for the church. It is not that we, as disciples of Jesus, consciously seek to utilize jargon that excludes or alienates those not already part of the in-group. But followers of Christ do sometimes traffic in terminologies and concepts that are essential to a proper understanding of who we are. Often, such terms are difficult to grasp for those unpracticed in the art of sustained ecclesiological conversation.
At this summer gathering, members of the Ekklesia Project will reflect together on the notion of “Slow Church” as a way of being faithful. As advocates of slow church remind us, something like “sustained ecclesiological conversation,” or–more simply–“talking with brothers and sisters in Christ about things that matter,” is an essential element of the slow church vision. But, as anyone who has tried to enter into this kind of conversation with a church community will likely tell you, this can be difficult when there is no common language shared by those who engage. Even more challenging, sometimes participants in the conversation come to the table with stubbornly trenchant ideas about the terms of the conversation and deeply ingrained definitions of the concepts up for discussion. Sometimes, instead of talking with each other, participants simply talk past each other and leave the conversation feeling more frustrated and alienated than when they came.
One of the strengths of the Congregational Formation Initiative is that it assists church communities in exploring key terms–basic building blocks of any conversation about corporate faithfulness–in ways that challenge all participants to rethink and perhaps revise any stubborn perspectives that hinder real discussion and growth. If two people come to the table with radically different notions of what the “Kingdom of God” might look like, or what “reconciliation” is all about, the initial stages of CFI provide opportunities to sort through these differences, to work towards a common understanding of their common vocation as members of the body of Christ. On an even more basic level, participants are encouraged to develop shared perspectives on things like “virtues,” “convictions,” and “stories”. Because each person comes to the conversation with different experiences and different influences, there will–thankfully–always be some measure of diversity in our understanding. The development of a common language helps to ensure that such diversity doesn’t result in a conversational impasse, as congregations learn how to articulate the story of their life together in Christ. These discussions, as simple as they might seem, achieve so much in the way of laying a foundation for future conversations.
As a pastor committed to engaging my congregation in long-term dialogue about our identity in Christ and our calling to embody the gospel where we are, I look back on the CFI experience as one that provided an invaluable starting point for that process of engagement. CFI is not a quick-fix. In the early months of our three-year conversation, I jokingly referred to the curriculum as “1,095 Days of Purpose”. By the end of the three years, I was convinced that the conversation would be much longer than that. And that’s exactly how it should be. A mustard seed takes a long time to grow. God’s work is not instant, and the conversation among God’s people about that work should unfold in a context of stability and commitment, where we are patient with God, with one another, and with ourselves. The CFI conversation assists congregations in creating space for the Spirit to do its work on us, as God continues to grow and build us up in love, and to shape us for the purposes of the Kingdom.