In late 2009, a friend of mine made some pretty strong statements about the future of conventions, conferences and gatherings in the Christian ministry world. I really like Mark Riddle and you can read his thoughts here. There are about 7 posts and you’d do well to read them all. I told him I was going to write a response and here it is. Not a theological positioning statement .. just a collection of thoughts. But first some background, so you know the context I’m coming from.

I was in the middle of working on NYWC with Youth Specialties right in the middle of a really crazy season in the history and future of the company. In the middle of recession, owned by an ‘about-profit’ company, competing in a market full of youth ministry and leadership conferences and training opportunities.. for sure, there has been cause to ask some serious questions about the nature of our gatherings.

We were also working with some of the core talent from Catalyst, one of the conventions Mark talks about. It brought a very different flavour to our events, which I think highlighted, in many ways the nature of the discussion that was bubbling away.

And bubbling away it was…late at night in hotel rooms and over meals with folks I have been exceedingly grateful for..Mark Riddle, Mike King, Adam McLane… they were spillover of conversations with Marko, and others here in NZ too. I was excited to find that innovations I had worked on here in terms of experiential storytelling, programming, interactive gatherings and tribal narrative were also being talked about and expressed with folks like the Imago community and at Youthfront.

At the same time… I was conscious of how my own experiences of ‘gathering’ had changed in the last year. In addition to moving home churches and reassessing those values in my own life, I was then overseas and looking for a place to land.

I was listening to the stories… of many of my friends and then some former students who were bowing out of church life and the “gathering way” for the first time. Processing and understanding what that ‘space’ meant for them on the road.

Here’s my response to Mark in a nutshell….

I think we collectively understand there is a primal need to gather. There’s something important that we intrinsically are drawn towards as a tribal gathering.

My thoughts could be expounded with lots of reasoning and example.. but I think it’s simple enough to state the one question that resounds in my mind.

What shall we do when we gather together? Not how, where, who should gather, who should lead, who should plan, who should pay… but, what shall we do when we gather.

Our western thinking leads us towards a linear development of timeline, a sense that a gathering begins with a purpose and all things lead towards that purpose. However, a circular or mountain/valley shaped development would suggest that the gathering itself becomes a catalyst or causes precipitation of whatever is to occur when we gather. 

That there would be a calling together (it’s easy to think of this in Maori for me.. although a simplified version)… a meeting, breaking of bread, sharing of breath…and a celebration.
– a karanga, a calling of the people into the marae (home base), this signals the beginning of “gathering” as locals welcome visitors onto their home turf.
– much wiata (song) & karakia (prayer) – both equally as important expressions as speaking alone in the Maori culture
– speaking and dialogue
– eating together, resting together, playing together
– departing..

 Historically, our faith talks inherently of the importance of gathering. I agree with Mark’s point that we gather too often to listen to singular voices – he calls them experts. I want for us to gather more often to listen to many voices, and to hear many stories.

But I also think that what we have spent our time and energy in, especially for YS in the last 40 years, has not been wasted. I think something good and meaningful in all the models, has – like anything – the capacity to lose it’s purpose or intent.

Here it is for me: I won’t separate it like Mark does, to defining the value and place of expertise. Nor do I want to tear away the holy work that the Spirit in constantly going about in open hearts, whether by practical skill, theological discourse or ideological construct, however…

I will say that when we assume that we gather to share or expound to others an already determined endpoint, we are mistaken. That would suggest we have finished a journey and have gathered to share the story. But our stories remain undone, with loose ends and unknown final endings.. just ask Bill Hybels at Willow Creek, or Doug Fields or just about anyone else about the time they realized they were still in the middle of the story. So, my hope in the future is that we gather with a profound sense that we gather in the middle of the story – with something to say, something to ask, something to offer, something to listen to, with an open hand to receive something in return. 

That’s why I believed in Open Space dialogues at NYWC. They were a great opportunity for something to spark and start in the midst of our gatherings. How we frame those conversations needs work. Which is why I think we need to start asking the right questions, rather than trying to solve the wrong problems. 

I’ve realized too, that the magnetic point that draws me to my own ‘gathering space’ has not been the purpose of the gathering. I do not gather on Sundays for the theological presentations, nor for song along. I gather for the experience of being together and what will come from our gathered expression.

Might sound a bit airy-fairy, but the reality is that the same authenticity drew me to the most unusual gatherings in my travels too, yet they held the same mystique, comfort, wonder and God-full-ness as my home community.

Alister McGrath talks about the power of Incarnation being caught in the moment of ‘the revelation of the Glory of God’..that by the time the head and mind catch up, the heart is already won in the visible wonder of the revelation. The Incarnation holds so much power for us, because it wins us in the intangible, yet visible and allows us the space to reason with it.

I believe much the same experience to be necessary and truthful as we look to what new tribal gatherings will express or be or mean. What does it mean to be global or national or regional? It begins with a call to gather, a present revelation of who God is and then the catalyst of being with one another.. to see what happens, to record a story for ourselves and future generations and then to bathe luxuriously in the wonder and possibility of what it means and how it can impact us, before we leave again, our memories and stories interwoven and connecting us to those spaces.

Read that like a narrative and hopefully you see mountaintops and plateaus, valleys of expression and plenty of places where time becomes crucial.. to be able to spend it.