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Convers(at)ions in Community: On Creating Space for Dialogue Around the Sermon

This is a third post in a series of reflections on the nature of dialogue and transformation, or “convers(at)ion” as I am referring to it as for a little playfulness (see a and b).

These are some ideas of how we try to inhabit some of the ideas of conversations/conversions within our faith community specifically around our dialogue with scripture.

Invite the congregation to reflect throughout the week on the upcoming text

I got started doing this very early on at Camas Friends (almost 6 years ago). I think I stole the idea from my friend Jason M. but I’m not sure where it came from now. But basically I send the text out on Tuesday or Wednesday so people can reflect on it the rest of the week.

The very basic format for this email that goes, which you can see in one of our newsletters, is this:

  • Passage of Scripture
  • Queries (Quaker lingo for open-ended, reflective questions)

Below is an example from a week we were discussing lament:

Text of the Week: Psalm 13

“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” (Psalms 13:1–6 NRSV)

Query:

  • What do you notice about this passage?
  • What comes to your mind when you think of lament?
  • When was a time when you experienced lament?

When I started doing this we didn’t have an online newsletter so I just sent off an email to the group with these basic structure. At first, I had hoped people would respond to the email and we’d get into some big online dialogue around it each week but that never happened. So I accepted the silence as people reading and reflecting on it, but not necessarily feeling safe to share over email in that way. I know of folks in our meeting who print out the passage each week and read it daily. Others read it on their computers or phones, and still others don’t engage with it at all.

The point is that there is an opportunity and invitation to participate in preparing for worship. The implicit message is that I, as the pastor, am not the only one preparing for Sunday. We can all come reflecting on the same passage and see where God leads us together. If we are truly to be a participatory community then we need to have the field leveled so there is the opportunity for more mutual engagement.

Open up space for dialogue prior to sermon

Almost every week during meeting for worship, just before I preach my sermon and just after the Biblical text is read to the congregation, I start off by inviting comments and questions about the text that we’ve been reflecting on all week.

I ask Godly Play style questions: “What surprised you?” “What do you notice about this text?” I might ask, “Where are you in this story?”

When someone shares I respond with a nod, an “uh huh” or I may summarize what was said back into the mic so others can hear it. I try not to give a lot of external feedback. I just appreciate that people are engaging in this type of convers(at)ion. People point out areas of the text that they struggle with. I don’t see it as my role – in this moment – to alleviate that tension. Sometimes the sermon addresses that but other times I voice my own tension in the text. “Yes, I have wondered about that question too.” And when people ask questions, depending on the type of question it is, I typically do not try to answer it, but instead we wonder together as a congregation.

I don’t see this as an opportunity for me to exercise my Biblical expertise or be the “Bible Answer Man,” it is an opportunity for the congregation to voice their reflections and practice listening to one another, while holding our different perspectives tenderly. Parker Palmer says it like this:

As we grow in our ability to listen this way, we give the gift of ‘hearing each other into speech.’ As our listening becomes more open—and speakers start to truth that they are being heard by people whose only desire is to make it safe for everyone to tell the truth—their speaking becomes more open as well (A Hidden Wholeness, 120).

It is for us to hear one another and learn from our different perspectives. It is also our work to not give into the temptation that we are hear to “fix” each other or win each other over to one side or the other.

During this open sharing, I often take mental notes and weave congregational insights and stories that were shared into the message.

One of the main challenges I continue to confront within myself while seeking to build a participatory community is that the pastor/teacher must continually work to be de-centered and must refuse to take the temptation of colonizing the text with his or her expert readings.

Orient the sermon/message around questions rather than answers

My sermons are not typically setup as straightforward exegesis of passages when I extract the “answer” from the text – “This is what it means.”

Instead, in the hopes of facilitating convers(at)ion, I have worked to hold a pondering orientation to the text, “I wonder…” “It seems to me…” I think this helps invite others into the story for themselves. It is after all our story not my story. I try and raise questions, come at the text from different angles, and open-up a space where a community of interpreters can thrive. Finally, I typically end my sermons with “queries.” Instead of giving the three points for how you should be doing this or that, I invite people to explore with the Holy Spirit what their response is to be.

This past week, at the end of my message on “The Taste of Truth,” I asked:

  • How does truth taste to you?
  • Are you refining your palate so that you can recognize truth when it comes to you in its many flavors?
  • What potential truth have you been unwilling or unable to taste?
  • How are you doing with living in such a way that you are nurturing those seeds of truth in your life?

For me, the role of a sermon within a participatory setting is about nurturing at least four things: building pathways of connection between the hearers and God, the hearers and one another, and the hearer’s self and the text; inspiring imagination for what the Christian life looks like within our particular context; liberating for healing and action in the world, and deepening one’s empathetic reading of the text, as my friend T. Vail Palmer, Jr calls it.

Allow/plan/invite interruptions and questions during message

Sometimes we act as if this is a bulletproof moment in which interruptions are not only unwelcome but something less than sacred. In my experience God often speaks by way of interruption into my life. I want to foster a space where an interruption, a hand raised, or a question that is blurted out is part of the participatory experience of worship.

Sometimes I build this in, “do you have any questions or comments?” Sometimes it just happens. Either way I enjoy it when it does. This always adds another layer of engagement when it happens. People have said that we know no rhetorical questions here. When we’re asked questions we expect (and are expected) to answer.

Allow time for “open” worship afterwards

As a Quakers, we have silent, or what we call at Camas Friends open worship for 15-20 mins after the sermon. That is our time of centering down into the silence and listening for Jesus to minister to us as individuals and as a community. The sermon and queries are meant to all flow into this moment, which we see as our communion, or “Eucharist” moment. In the same way that Eucharist is the pinnacle of a Catholic mass, I believe that everything we do as Quakers leads up to this time in our meeting for worship. We wait for God to speak to us in the silence. And if God does speak, a person may be lead to stand up and speak out of the silence and share what has been given to them.

I like open worship at the end of the gathering because not only does it communicate that this is the “pinnacle” of our meeting, but it also gives God the last word. This is God’s time to speak and what happens during this period of time is not under our control.

Create spaces for online engagement and “sideways” chatter

I have tried to do this in a variety of ways but most recently
I’ve partnered with my friend, Ryan Bolger, at his site Iklesia.org to build a private space for Camas Friends folks to practice convers(at)ions online. We are at the very beginning of this experiment, trying to carve out space online that is suitable for this kind of, as Seth Godin calls it, “sideways” engagement but I’m excited both by the possibilities and what I already see happening. I am trying to build on some of the ideas from “connected learning” for this aspect of our community (see this free book by Mizuk Ito for more on Connected Learning).

Last note: On asking “open-ended questions.”

Parker Palmer, who is one of the people who has influenced my pedagogy quite a bit, describes an honest, open-ended question is a question that I don’t know the answer to in advance. It is truly not searching for a particular answer but instead opens up the conversation for others to explore their own meaning-making.

Here are a couple other thoughts from Palmer found in Chapter VIII of A Hidden Wholeness, “Living the Questions:”

A question that serves my needs, not yours, pressing you towards my version of your problem is not an open question.

A dishonest question insults your soul, partly because of my arrogance in assuming that I know what you need and partly because of my fraudulence in trying to disguise my counsel as a query.

An open question is one that expands rather than restricts your arena for exploration.

Posts Related to this Series:

Flickr credit – Tony Hisgett “Children gazing skywards in the centre of the roundabout at the end of the motorway section just as you come into Jandia on Fuerteventura”

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.