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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Difficult examination

Many reflections on the recent Church of the Brethren Annual Conference have found their way onto blogs, facebook, email lists, and into private conversations, public forums, and virtually every avenue of communication. The reactions have been varied, nearly as widely as the breadth of perspective on the issues that made up our business, notably human sexuality, climate change, a resolution against the war in Afghanistan, and the election of leaders.

I myself have felt like much of what needs to be said is being said, but I do have one observation that for me signifies the deep sense of sadness I felt about this gathering of Brethren.

Wednesday morning worship was attended by fewer than two thirds of the registered conference attenders.

Why do I think this matters? For a number of reasons.

First, I believe it shows that worship as a priority for the Brethren is down on the list. Way down. When there is better attendance and passion for business sessions than there is for gathering to honor God and tend to our relationship with God, then we have a problem. After the week we had, could there have been anything that we needed more than a reminder that we are God's people, the sheep of God's pasture, not because of what we've done, but because of who God is?! Where did so many people go?

Second, I believe the lack of attendance shows that many Brethren attended this conference not for an encounter with God or with other Brethren, but primarily to promote their agenda. And I do mean their agenda. Making the effort to get to Grand Rapids was about political pragmatism, not spiritual activism. We learn this type of politics from the world: getting the vote out, caucusing our position, maneuvering for power. Worship is a spiritual activity that we can't learn from the world: confession, grace, hope, waiting, surrender, servanthood. It felt to me that many early departers had little interest in this spiritual activity.

Third, I believe that lack of attendance shows a disrespect for leadership, an unwillingness to be led through the service of our staff and volunteers. I don't view it primarily as disrespect for the morning's preacher, our General Secretary and my immediate supervisor Stan Noffsinger, at least not fundamentally. Rather, I see it as a posture toward leadership that only allows for leadership when it serves our own predetermined purposes. That actually sounds more like prostitution than leadership. The lack of leadership that is often referred to in the church may be true; but, the void of followership seems to me to be even greater, as evidenced in the mass exodus prior to closing worship. We don't want to be led by one another; do we really want to be led by God?

Some will say that it is typical that the last morning of conference sees a lot of early departures, with cursory business items and "only" worship to cap the conference. I myself have left early in the past to catch an earlier flight, beat the traffic, or hurry home to my family after a week away. I'm rethinking that now, though, because it is becoming clearer to me where part of our problem lies. Even in our primary gathering of Brethren, we are so focused on our own agendas, schedules, and comfortable life locations that we casually excuse ourselves from the worship of God, rejecting the shared voice, heart, prayer, and posture that rehearses once again that God is God and we are God's people.

I'm examining myself on all these questions. Is worship, is God a priority for me? Am I functioning out of spiritual guidance or political positioning? Do I really want to be led by God? Am I willing to follow wise counsel and gifted leadership of my sisters and brothers? Tough questions; difficult examination.

If you made it this far in this blog, you may be saying, "But I was there. It is a priority for me." Thank you. We need each other to stay committed, to keep our priorities ordered. And I may need you to remind me why it is important to stick around for closing worship at Annual Conference next year!


  1. I was not at this year's conference in person but attended all the business and worship gathering via the web.

    Great reflections and some important questions to ask ourselves. Thanks!

  2. And that final service was such a deeply needed and healing time of worship with a thoughtful message -- reminding us who we are and whose we are.

  3. I too agree that you raise some interesting questions. I had noted that attendance at worship was low throughout the conference in relationship to the number of folks registered. And while much of the worship seemed to be offering a vision that was in sharp contrast to what we were doing in business with each other, I agree that it is important that we are there.

    It makes me wonder if there were alternative places that people were gathering for worship, or if the form of worship was simply dismissed by many who chose not to attend.

    I am grateful for the gifted leadership of Rhonda Pittman Gingrich for that Wednesday morning service. The prayer, the introduction to the time of blessing and consecration, all provided a large enough space that I could feel welcomed into the worship space after a very frustrating week of business. I experienced an opening for hope in that space.

    I did find it fascinating to spend a week with the text that prominently ends "there were 5000 men, not counting women and children" and never have any sermon touch on this notion in the church today. I know it is cultural that women and kids wouldn't have been counted, but I think we have to take up that challenge of inclusion in our day and age. Megan McKenna does well with bringing these women and children into our biblical consciousness and calling the church to hear their story as well. I think we missed that during the week.

    Again, thanks for your questions, Jonathan. And I will look for you at Wednesday a.m. worship in St. Louis.

  4. Well said Jonathan. It is always good to worship together but as stated here, it was hard to sing "all are welcome" in worship when our actions said something else.

  5. Thanks for your replies. Russ, that's an excellent observation about an important opportunity missed with the text that was in front of us all week.


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