*Editorial Note: The article below was written by Bob Smietana, a veteran religion writer and national reporter for Religion News Service. It was originally posted May 1, 2023 at this link. We are grateful for RNS’ coverage of Awakenings 2023.
Missio Alliance Hosts Hopeful Conversation for Disruptive Times
After a ‘season of apocalypse,’ a diverse group of church leaders gathered outside of Chicago to discuss how churches can innovate in trying times.
EVANSTON, Ill. (RNS) — The last time the Missio Alliance held a conference, organizers invited expert speakers to help church leaders deal with a changing culture. Then came COVID-19. And the whirlwind of other changes in the past few years.
“There are no experts anymore,” said the Rev. Wayne Faison.
In its first national gathering since 2019, about 300 people came together Thursday (April 27) for the opening session of the “Awakenings” conference, organized by Missio Alliance, a cross-denominational, multiethnic network of church leaders interested in how churches fulfill their mission in a changing world.
The gathering was a place to ask hard questions, said Faison, a board member of Missio Alliance and the executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. And a place to find friendship and community in trying times.'There are no experts anymore,' said the Rev. Wayne Faison. Click To Tweet
Lisa Rodriguez-Watson, Missio Alliance national director, began her talk by outlining some of the challenges that churches have faced in recent years, during what she referred to as a “season of apocalypse.”
A global pandemic. The nation’s racial reckoning after the 2020 death of George Floyd. Christian nationalism. Church scandals.
“It’s been kind of sucky for a while,” Rodriguez-Watson said.
Those challenges, she said, had taken their toll on congregations and church leaders. The past few years have been a time of disruption, with friendships lost and hopes shattered, leading to significant disruption in many congregations, Rodriguez-Watson told attendees.
“There’s probably a number of things that you’d hoped had gone differently in your life in this recent season,” she said.
She went on to tell a story about a plant she’d gotten around the time of her father-in-law’s funeral. Rodriguez-Watson said she’d taken the plant home and for years, it had been a reminder of her beloved father-in-law, a kind of steady presence in her family’s home.
Then, during the pandemic, the plant died. It was a small thing, she said, but painful — yet another in a series of losses.
Still, she told attendees, there were signs of hope. Churches have long dealt with seasons of disruption, often with creativity and innovation. Responding to this current season of disruption, she said, will require a renewed focus on spiritual formation — as well as an outward focus on justice.
That outward focus, she said, is linked to spiritual formation. People can’t share the “boundless love of God” unless they know it, she said.
Dennis Edwards, another of the first day’s speakers, challenged attendees to turn the idea of disruption on its head. A New Testament scholar and dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Edwards said the earliest followers of Jesus lived in chaotic and disruptive times.
But they also disrupted the status quo of the Roman Empire at a time when social stratification and violence were commonplace. In that world, he said, some people prospered while others were crucified.
“When I’m thinking of disruption, I think of opposing unhealthy and evil practices and values, whether they emerge from within the church or come from the outside,” he said.
In a talk that quoted from scholarly sources as well as Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” Edwards challenged his listeners to do the same by overcoming evil — both in the outside world and inside the church — with God.
Along with challenging injustice, Edwards reminded attendees to tend to their own souls and lean into the grace and rest of God amid the noise of life.
“A restful soul is disruptive to a violent, competitive, stratified world,” he said.'With disruption, I oppose unhealthy and evil practices and values, whether they emerge from within the church or come from outside. A restful soul is disruptive to a violent, competitive, stratified world,' said Dr. Dennis Edwards. Click To Tweet
Thursday’s sessions, along with the rest of the conference, were held at the Vineyard church in Evanston, a near north suburb of Chicago that’s home to Northwestern University. The church recently renovated its worship space to be more conducive to community building, said senior pastor Ted Kim.
Before COVID-19, the church had a raised stage at the front of the room that included room for the worship band and the preacher during worship. During the pandemic, while the room was empty, the stage was lowered and relocated to the center of the room. The result is a stage surrounded by worshippers, where people can see one another, and most of the seats are on three sides of the stage.
Kim said that as a result of the pandemic and other social upheavals, some churches have been tempted to withdraw and circle the wagons, while others feel like giving up. He hoped the Missio Alliance event would inspire hopeful conversations that encourage leaders to keep going during disruptive times.
Almost everyone is bewildered, he said.
At times like this, Kim said, one of the best things churches can do is work together.
“I think the church is at its best when it’s together — when churches are not in opposition or in competition but are working together, to try to find new ways to have a presence in the world,” he said.'The church is at its best when it’s together — when churches are not in opposition or in competition but are working together, to try to find new ways to have a presence in the world,' said senior pastor Ted Kim. Click To Tweet
Rodriguez-Watson ended her talk with a similar message of hope.
Not long ago, she said, her husband told her he’d made a cutting of the plant from his father’s funeral. That cutting is now replanted and growing.
“Disruption does not have the final word,” she said.
'Disruption does not have the final word' declared Lisa Rodriguez-Watson, National Director of Missio Alliance.' Click To Tweet