Recently, I made a few college visits with my nephew. One president, in speaking to the potential students, stated that a criterion you should use in assessing a college is the quality of the conversation that happens in the dormitory hallways in those late night gatherings. What I expected him to say was to judge a school by what happens in the classroom. Instead, he said the level of the conversation all over campus reflects on what is happening in the classroom—so judge us by the conversation occurring in the cafeteria and dormitory hallways. Is it just “blah, blah, blah,” or is there meaningful dialogue about substantive issues?
I would dare to make the same statement about a congregation. I can tell how vital a congregation is by the quality of the conversation that is happening in the coffee hour as well as the church council meeting. If the conversation is only about the weather, or surface chit chat, then I wonder about how deep the relationships are in this congregation and whether people feel safe to share what is really happening in their lives. If in a meeting, people talk over each other, or stay silent and never speak their mind, I wonder how robust is the discerning process about where God is calling this church? If a congregation never talks about the pressing issues of our day out of concern to avoid controversial topics and not offend anyone, how well are they helping people make sense of how to live their faith in the world? If I rarely hear people talking about how God is at work in their lives or how they are trying to cultivate their relationship with God, then I wonder about the spiritual depth of this congregation.
Mike McCurry, former White House press secretary and a United Methodist, was the speaker at the Wesley Foundation dinner in July. He spoke passionately about the church being a place where we ought to be talking about politics. Government has become so partisan, and our world is increasingly fragmented. He asserted that the church is one of the few remaining places where people from all different walks of life, Republican and Democrat, are sitting in the same pew. He believes, as I do, people long to be able to have meaningful, respectful conversations about the things that really matter. I would suggest that a primary calling of ours as the church is to deepen the quality of our conversation and by doing so, we actually transform the world. We learn how to live and work together and collectively address the concerns of our day.
So what do you think? I know I am hungry for authentic community where I can share deeply with a few others about my life, my struggles, and my hopes, and be listened to and prayed for. I long for a space where I can wrestle with the big questions and not be judged for how I think or whether I have the “right” or any answer for that matter.
I am seeking a community where people honestly talk about their faith in thoughtful ways and are not embarrassed or apologetic about the name of Jesus, but also are not derogatory of those who still might be questioning or choosing another path. I believe a vital congregation is one where yes, there is quality preaching and teaching, but even more, there is a richness and depth to the conversation in the hallways, meetings and social times. So listen this Sunday to the conversations around you, and ask yourself: what is this telling me about our congregation?
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church