Foreword: This post is offered as a sequel to Bill Kinnon’s The People formerly known as The Congregation, which I believe has genuinely caught the wind of the Spirit, evidenced by all the conversation which it has sparked. This post is my proposal for a “capstone” to the conversation, a way of summarizing and expressing what’s going on in the conversation, and where I believe it is going. My hope is that it will frame the conversation and point to a healthy direction for its continuation. At this moment, I believe I can say that there is talk of a project to gather it up for presentation as a distinct corpus… and I would hope to see it continue in that fashion.
I confess that if there is an aspect about the response to the series as a whole that has bothered me, it would be a combination of the criticism of the series in the name of not being critical, and the plea to make the conversation only positive. The former has largely come from those not directly participating in the series conversation, or those who do not understand it. They are critical of us being critical, without understanding that the criticism comes from a place of pain, which needs to be talked out in order to move past it. The latter has come as well from some within the conversation who do understand why some of us are critical and agree that change to our models of church must occur… but in the interest of not wanting to negative airs, an attempt to immediately make the conversation positive before it’s ready to turn can leave behind people who are broken and unable to speak because the time for expressing pain passed too quickly, before they mustered the courage to speak. It is for their sake that those who can think positively already must hold off just a little, and allow the broken to express their pain and begin the process of healing. They might not want to be upbeat right away, but responding with patience and care will help ensure they aren’t left behind. To all respondents, I would suggest that after all, sometimes truth is messy, sometimes painful, and yes… sometimes negative. We must be gracious enough to finish hearing the problem before pronouncing the cure, and to understand the problem before condemning (or condoning) the language with which it is expressed. And let us be patent, for (and I know whereof I speak) in addressing the pain, the brokenhearted most often do not speak quickly, lest their cautious words be trampled underfoot.
For this entry to the conversation, as one might expect, it is difficult to express what hasn’t happened yet in a conversation that is still continuing, and I have therefore chosen to explore a different literary way to do this. In a way, it’s a prophetic call, and in that spirit, I tell it as a dream. I didn’t really dream this, but telling it that way allows me to drop in a number of symbols and non-sequiturs that can later be interpreted, and if you think on them, there is much to understand in some of the symbols. I have linked most of the major posts in the conversation as they existed at the time of publication… if you have the time, stop and read (or re-read) them as you encounter the links along the way. Here then, is what I refer to as “The Dream of the Former.”
Last weekend I had the strangest dream. I was sitting in the basement of a little old country church. There were wooden folding chairs arranged in a circle around the room, ready for a meeting of some kind. Some ladies were busy in the kitchen – I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them busy with preparing something… food? A pot-luck? Mmm, country home-cooking! There was a muffled piano playing somewhere upstairs.
A few people wandered in, each picking up a name tag from a table by the door. They each took a seat in one of the folding chairs and fastened their name tags. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t really see the names, just that each one had a big red “X” on it, over top of the names as though to strike them out. One of them sat near me, and I was able to see the name that was stroked out. It said, “Congregation.”
I heard feet thumping on the steps, and more people arrived. For some reason, everyone who entered the room that night was wearing dusty hiking boots. The next name tag I saw had the same red “X” as all the others, and it was the one that confused me most… it just said “Waddle.” After that, there was one that was all smudged, but said something like, “Non-Missional” Then “The Pastor,” followed by “Battle Torn” and his wife, “Battle Worn.”
Many others began to show up. The piano playing stopped, and shortly after that, “Worship Leader” showed up, along with “Usher,” “Priest,” “Sunday School Teacher,” “Covered Head,” “Prophet”, “Youth Pastor,” “Missionary,” “Pastor’s Kid,” “Institution,” “Celebrity Convert,” “Deacon,” “Itinerant,” “Custodian”, “Protégé”, and others.
“Normal Christian” showed up next, with “Pastor’s Wife.” “Prodigal Quest” and “Footsoldier” came in, talking like old friends – despite the fact they looked so different, you’d never have put them together. The cryptically-named “Formerly Former” showed up. Next was “Silent”, followed by “Always Right” and “Them”.
Finally, the last person to enter was a faceless man. His name tag said “God”, and it had a bold red “X” just like all the others. He sat quietly behind the only table that had been set up in the room – it was laid out with a beautiful white tablecloth. My own seat was next to the table, where I hoped the ladies in the kitchen would be serving a nice meal later. Up to that point, I was understanding less and less about what was going on that evening, but that was about to change.
The room would have held about 40 or 50 people quite comfortably, but there must have been almost 200 people sitting there comfortably, perhaps more, chatting together as though it was some kind of reunion. Despite the room being overcrowded, it didn’t feel that way, and though the chairs were arranged three or four rows deep, there was still plenty of open space in the center of the circle. If anything, there seemed always to be room for more people.
The meeting began shortly after the faceless man sat down. Nobody called it to order, nobody chaired the meeting or read an agenda… people just began to start talking in turns, sharing their stories, which gradually began to weave themselves together in common themes.
Congregation spoke first, giving an introduction to the conversation that followed by telling a painful tale about a church that talked a lot about money and was run by a man with one of those larger-than-life personalities. He talked about worship that didn’t seem to fit, about a myriad of programs, and about the preoccupation with being the biggest church in the region. Waddle then began to interpret some of the wrong models and ideas of Congregation’s and other churches, sharing some principles that she thought would be helpful in avoiding the same kinds of problems all over again. There seemed to be general agreement. Non-Missional spoke up next, and continued to share what he thought about the direction things should go for the church, and why.
People began to murmer, evaluating some of the ideas with one another. They seemed to like the ideas, but weren’t quite ready. Sensitive spoke up from the back, saying that we needed to wait a little before attempting to fix things. She said that Congregation had shared much pain, and there was still a lot of pain felt by the people in the room. “Could we hear from those of us who have pain to express?” she asked. “Though many wounds were caused by words, there is healing too, in other words which we have yet to hear.” The murmerings took on a more positive tone. Her words were wise.
The-Pastor stood up, and the room fell silent. After a brief pause, he began to tell his story. People thought that he would be opposed to the things that had been said already by Congregation, but he wasn’t. He simply told the other side of the story, from his perspective as a pastor that shared the same heart and longings as Congregation, though not of all his colleagues. He also hadn’t been always met with the same receptivity as The-Congregation showed this evening. He also shared much about the pain of the way others judged him and his family in their role.
Everyone was silent for a minute or two, and then Battle-Torn and Battle-Worn stood up and made a plea for us to work together. They addressed God at one point, pleading for all of us to be set free. They listed a number of things that they believed were important… some had been priorities before, and some had been overlooked for a long time. People nodded as they went through the list. They continued, saying that they felt we were on our way to new beginnings. Exodus. Freedom.
Normal-Christian spoke next from her seat, sharing her story of devotion to God, to her faith, to her church… and of the pain of realizing that the things the church seemed passionate about didn’t align with her passions. Theirs were about buildings and programs rather than people.
Pastor’s-Wife spoke up, timidly at first. She shared the pain she had experienced in her role… much at the hands of people just like the ones in the room. When she finished, as they had done for The-Pastor, again people were quiet for a few moments, respecting her pain and her courage to share it.
Blue-Pill talked about options, something about having swallowed a red pill, and wondering whether to swallow a blue pill and go back to what each of us had known or to give up on the whole thing completely. Neither sounded good to him, and we needed to find a way to keep going on as we were. Everyone nodded agreement that we couldn’t go back to the way things were, but neither could we just quit. I thought I saw the faceless man smile when we agreed that quitting was not an option (hey it was a dream, you can smile without a face in a dream).
Prodigal-Quest began to tell his story, about coming into the church after finding what he had been seeking, but finding that nobody there seemed to prize it quite so highly.
Footsoldier began to speak, telling us what he had been a footsoldier of, the Christian Right. He outlined a lot of woes about Christian political involvement and assumptions.
Many, many people spoke. People shared about things that they used to be, roles and labels they were trying to leave behind, to to move on. One thing that was clear was that it seemed nobody wanted the thing that they had jointly helped to create… the church in its present form. It went without saying that these people had hurt one another… if not personally, than as representatives of the groups for which they spoke. And as they spoke, they connected, and learned that deep down, they all wanted the same things, really. They knew of other people from the groups they represented who did not share their views, who said that the expression of their pain was mere criticism and had no place in the body. But nobody in that gathering thought so. In the expression of their pain one to another, they were finding healing, and freedom. Formerly-Former (whose name I still didn’t understand) even talked about what we were becoming through this healing process.
Everyone spoke that evening, and most spoke several times. Even Silent spoke up, telling how he had seen many things wrong, but had never spoken up at the time. It was the voice of regret, and of realization that the time for silence was over.
Time stopped, the clocks didn’t move… it could have been hours or days that we were there, or longer. I don’t know if the magic in the room came from the fact everyone was finally talking, or from the fact everyone was finally listening. Eventually someone said, “We’ve all shared our stories, and we can only sum up by saying that everything we’ve tried hasn’t worked. We’ve only hurt one another in the process, and we need to go back to the beginning and start over, do everything differently.”
“Hear, hear,” said some. “Amen,” said others.
Fearing-Future said he thought we were already starting to do things differently.
There was a bit of a lull, and Always-Right stood up to introduce her friend, Them. Their words together made us think, deeply. Many of us wept.
Christian began to speak. His voice was quiet when he began, but his voice grew as he spoke and by the time he had finished, he was virtually reciting an anthem — we were all inspired as he summed up the range of people we represented, from one extreme to another. And we saw, again or for the first time, that though we are all so different, still there was a name by which we could all be known.
Then, finally the faceless man, God, spoke. He was still seated behind the table with the white tablecloth, which for the first time I noticed had a single place setting. He told us that there were many people still in the places from which we’d come, and elsewhere, who did not understand the conversation we were having. They were critical of what we were saying, largely because they didn’t understand our hearts… and he told us to be patient with them. He then said that each of us, by his grace, had the ability to rub out the names beneath the “X” on our name tags, or to rub out the “X” and try again… but both the name and the “X” could not remain on the name tags together. We each needed to determine which to do. He gestured to his own name tag, and explained that it was the only tag in the room whose bearer could not change it. He looked to us and said, “You must change my name tag, and in so doing, will change your own.”
I wondered how we would do this, but nobody asked.
A woman appeared from the kitchen at that moment and said, “The feast is ready!” She brought out a plate with a large loaf of fresh-baked bread, a big bottle of wine, and a single goblet. She set them on the table beside me, and looked me right in the eyes. “Would you, please…?” she said, gesturing to the bread and wine, then around to everyone assembled there.
As I stood up, I looked down at my own name tag, which I didn’t remember putting on. It had an “X” on it as well, and beneath the “X” it said simply, “Observer.” I broke the bread and poured the wine into the goblet. I began to serve it around the room, giving to each in turn. As each person took the bread, the name on their tag would begin to change, and as they took a sip of the wine, the “X” would begin to morph into a cross, becoming much less prominent and moving aside so it interlinked with but no longer blotted out the name. Some names changed, some did not, and the text of few names that did not change turned from black to deep red.
“Battle Worn” became “Free Man”.
“Normal Christian” became “Real Christian”.
“Blue Pill” became “Red Pill”.
“Silent” became “Bold”.
“Self-Absorbed” became “Neighbour”.
“The Pastor” became “The Radical Pastor”.
“Always Right” became “Humble,” and “Them” became “Us”.
“Sensitive” just lost her “X” and became “Sensitive” again.
“Institution” became “Community”.
“Prodigal Quest” became “At Home”.
The room was quiet, and a tangible peace grew stronger as the bread and wine went around the room. As I looked down at the people who had been served, I saw that their hiking boots were no longer dusty, and their boots in fact looked freshly polished.
Finally everyone had been served but me and the faceless man. I stepped up to the table in front of him, and looked down at the tablecloth. Embroidered in the pattern were the words “I Was”. I set the last small morsel of bread and the goblet holding the last swallow of wine down before him. He offered both to me, and I took and finished them. As I set the empty goblet down in front of him, I looked at the faceless man’s name tag, which simply said “God” now. The faceless man simply vanished from our midst then, and we all stared for a moment at the tablecloth in front of the place where he sat. Embroidered in the fabric were the words, “I Am”. There was an aroma in the air like the fresh dew of the morning, and it was somehow a holy moment: we all began to weep.
Only then did I look down again at my own name tag.
It said “Participant.”
In a flash, it all made sense. Nothing would be —could be— the same.
I heard in my mind the words, “The soil where the dreams of the formerly known are buried is fertile ground for the building of my church.”
I awoke at that point, with these words ringing in my ears, and I realized I had nodded off in church once again. Too much pizza and a late night, perhaps that explained everything. Or perhaps it wasn’t a dream at all… it was somehow all real to me. I was there. And I have the distinct impression that if you’d like to know what else was said, you could ask around, and fairly easily find someone who wore or still wears a name tag with a bold red “X” on it. They were probably there in the room as well, and even if they don’t remember what everyone else said, I’m sure they can tell you what they said, and what was written beneath their “X.”