A “view from the table” by Frances Townsend
“What on earth are we getting into?” may have been the question on a lot of minds as we found our tables. The business session opened with singing “open our eyes,” a prayer asking for God to bring illumination and to make us willing to receive it. But singing this is not the same as willingly saying the prayer. Are we willing to receive new illumination? Am I willing?
Before we even got started on compelling vision questions, we had a time of sharing around the table for community building. I have not served as a delegate since round tables were introduced at Annual Conference. My table has young and old, “cradle Brethren” and folks new to the denomination, pastors and lay people–a good mixture. We should have much to listen to as we work together.
Finally, after other business, we officially started the compelling vision process in the afternoon. I was impressed by the amount of time and work that has already gone into it. Not only 2 sessions last summer at Annual Conference 2018, but 72 sessions out in the districts. We were all amazed at the amount of thoughts and feelings being collected and somehow digested. This work won’t be driven by the most articulate voices or the loudest voices.
The first question we were asked was how we envision our church in 10 years. In that future church, what do we hope “the manner of our living” conveys to the world? For older folks–me included–pushing this out 10 years means thinking about how the church will look when we are not running it. It forces the answer to be more corporate, more dependent on everybody working together.
For a lot of people, churches are just real estate, nothing to care about or even see. I think, however, that if we really live out what we say we believe, it will make a difference and people will indeed notice. Everyone at our table enjoyed thinking about how our churches could live out our values more fully in the future.
I was challenged by one of the answers to this question that the presenter Rhonda Pittman Gingrich read from another table’s responses: that the church should be worthy of persecution. What a response! Way beyond getting the approval of the secular society around us, and more focused on the way of Christ and on his approval. It was a reminder that we are always going to be on the edge if we are really being the church.
In another question, we were asked to describe a Christ-centered ministry we have seen in another congregation or the wider church that makes us hopeful about the future. Our answers all contained some element of breaking through our regular social circles. Most included youth. We were not just repeating the old notion that the kids are the future of the church, as if they are supposed to inherit our way of being church, but we were beginning to get at another truth that is about listening to them and finding out how God already is active in their lives and using them in the world.
The next question was about Brethren ordinances and practices. What do our practices convey about our priorities and passions as Christ’s disciples? These markers of identity were cherished by those of us around the table who were not born into the church just as much as by those who have a generations-deep Brethren identity. But our discussion wandered quickly afield as we thought about things besides ordinances, such as conscientious objection. Standing for what we believe in as Brethren–even when the world does not understand–is definitely a way to convey our priorities and passions.
Among the Brethren every voice is valued, as we teach that the Holy Spirit may speak to the body through any believer. I preach that myself repeatedly, especially before congregational council meetings. When I said it again today, I was reminded that it means I have to listen–seriously listen. Of course, not every voice during a council meeting or Annual Conference is Spirit-led, but when it happens you certainly do not want to miss that holy moment.
I came with my fears and hopes for this process, as we all did. But I also hope for the holy moment that takes me way beyond my own thinking.
The Holy Spirit, after all, is loose in the room.
— Frances Townsend is a volunteer member of the Annual Conference news team, and is “embedded” at a nondelegate table to write about the “table’s eye view” of this year’s compelling vision process.