I’ve heard about the Congress on Evangelism for years, but last week was the first time I ever attended. I was invited to speak on the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, and later on Risk-Taking Mission and Service. In fact, the Five Practices provided the umbrella theme for the event, with various speakers addressing Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, etc. The speakers included such notables Sue Nilsen Kibbey (author of Ultimately Responsible), Tyrone Gordon (pastor of St. Luke’s Community UMC in Dallas), Mike Slaughter (lead pastor of Ginghamsburg Church), Paul Borden (Hitting the Bulls Eye), Karen Greenwaldt (General Secretary of the General Board of Discipleship), and a whole array of workshop leaders. Missouri’s own David Kerr served as the leader of the event, and with my presentation, work by Bob Farr, and the participation of many clergy and laity from our area, the Missouri Conference was well-represented.
As with many such events, some of the key moments happened in the side-bar conversations and personal connections. I saw many colleagues from years past, acquaintances from seminary days, friends from my home conference, co-workers that I’ve served with on various committees and boards over the years. I’m always reminded at such times of how small the United Methodist family is, and how tightly interconnected we really are. If you are active in United Methodist circles for long, you will cross paths with many of the same people over and over again through the years, and it’s a special grace to reconnect unexpectedly with others on the journey. The connection is not just a denominational structure or a missional strategy; it is also deeply personal, an expression of community, a delightfully tangible and sustaining expression of the body of Christ.
One of the highlights of the time in Nashville for me was a gathering of United Methodist bloggers late one evening after the worship services. We had prearranged to meet at a pub/restaurant area in the hotel, but the music proved overwhelming, and so we moved to a quieter unused lobby near the convention center. We talked and joked and chatted until nearly midnight. I had a ton of questions about blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, MySpacing, YouTubing, online journaling, texting, writing, publishing, and about where we are going as a people, a community, a church and a connection with our communication. How is the Internet redefining our connection, both the structural and missional as well as the relational one? Why do people blog? Who reads what we write, and why? How did these bloggers get started? How did they meet each other online, and face-to-face, and how do the two experiences compare? How has blogging become part of their ministry? Part of their identity? What would they like to see the United Methodist church do differently with communication and social media?
In addition to a couple old people like me, the group was comprised of several of the pioneer bloggers in United Methodism. (I’m sure they would not use that term; to be a pioneer in this stuff means you’ve been doing it for four or five years. Most of these folks were in their thirties and forties.) Among those present were several who have been instrumental in “organizing” the United Methodist voices on the blogosphere through such means as Methoblog.com. (Somehow the word “organizing” seems out of place here. Think about those giant windmill-looking wind turbines that are now generating electricity in the western states. The wind farmers don’t “organize” the movement of the air over the earth; they just channel it into useful energy by capturing, combining, and multiplying its power to provide light for people. That’s Methoblog.com. Jay and Gavin are wind farmers of the Internet!)
All of the bloggers who were present are very good at expressing themselves in writing, so I’m not trying to interpret or speak for them. But here are a few things I heard.
I heard these folks say in a zillion ways that they want more open, honest conversations about key issues in the church. Many started blogging with this objective. On the other hand, most report that the greatest personal benefit they derive from blogging has to do with community, connection, shared journeys, and mutual support.
I heard disappointment about existing approaches to communications in the church and about the lack of understanding by denominational leaders, general boards, etc. There are opportunities for reaching people, connecting people, and presenting our message that are being missed, overlooked, and not taken seriously. The lack of understanding of virtual worlds, social media, and new forms of community restrain and limit us in our ability to reach people. These ways of connecting play a pivotal role in the lives of millions of people. Bloggers wish people would not discount the great usefulness and potential of social media and Internet communities just because they don’t understand them.
These bloggers value transparency, authenticity, honesty, vulnerability, and a willingness to share doubts, struggles, and personal stories. They expect this from each other, and they desire to see more of it in our church’s leaders. They like to be invited in beyond the veneer and pretense in order to know leaders more personally, including what people are mulling over, worrying about, searching for, and disappointed by. Blogging, when done well, can open honest conversations and these become the currency for greater connection, trust, and collegiality. The personal “give and take” of blogging, the free interchange of ideas and feelings laterally and vertically, is a sign of the flattened world and of the changing expectations of access, leadership, conversation, and community.
We talked about the risks of sharing honestly online, and the repercussions that sometimes result when we speak our true thoughts and feelings so publicly. People get hurt by words, and misunderstandings are easily multiplied and intensified in the unrestrained and totally accessible environment of the internet. Most of those present have had experiences of being cautioned, confronted, or restrained by friends, colleagues, or supervisors over something they had written. Some have also occasionally experienced people responding to their thoughts with rudeness, anger, or hostility.
They told stories of lives changed through connections formed in virtual worlds, of a transformed life and an adult baptism in Ireland that were the fruit of an encounter with a blogger in the U.S. They talked about the sense of closeness they experience with one another and with others whom they have never met face-to-face. They told of shared grief, constant prayer, and laughing together with people they’ve never seen before.
I enjoyed the rich conversation. I have much more to learn, and I thank all those who participated.
Connection. There are so many dimensions to that word, and it captures so much of our faith history and of God’s intent. God desires to connect to us, and desires us to connect with each other–sister and brother, teacher and disciple, healer and healed, served and server, reconciler and enemy, forgiven and forgiver, encourager and encouraged, traveler and fellow traveler. We can never exhaust the means and expressions of the Spirit’s work of connecting us to one another and to God, and whatever forms “connection” has taken in the past are nothing compared to what is yet to come. I pray we have the wisdom and the will to open ourselves to new forms of connection, including those that have nothing to do