The highlight for me of the Gathering of Leaders was a presentation offered by The Rev. Dr. Christopher Beeley, professor at Yale Divinity School (in Patristics, I believe). Christopher spoke from The Works of John Newton, "Grace in the Ear" from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark (the parable of the Sower), letter XI. John Newton is the author of the hymn known as "Amazing Grace." He was a ship owner and slave trader before becoming a priest in the Church of England. He went through a mighty conversion, worked to end the slave trade and spent his last years as Rector of united parishes of St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Mary Woolchurch in London.
Beeley focused his presentation on a three step process of faith formation offered by Newton and developed from a reflection of Newton's on the parable of the sower. The first step is "Desire." A person wanders into a church one Sunday morning because....and we were asked to offer up a variety of reasons a person might wander in and HOW they would feel. A person might feel "elation" and "joy" or "relief." The sense of desire propels one into church with a sudden surge of awareness of God's grace and love. This first phase is like the Hebrews freed from Egypt, it brings with it a sense of elation. While the sense of desire and God's love persist they also change with time leading to the second phase.
The second phase is "Conflict." This is the "dark night of the soul" phase where one wrestles with God, with faith,and often faces challenges that were not experienced in the first phase of Desire. If Desire is marked by elation like that of the Hebrew freed from slavery, this phase is marked by a sense of being lost, the Hebrews wandering in the desert for 40 years. One might think upon entering the phase of Desire that all one's problems are over, but in fact, they may just be beginning. This is a time of growing more dependent on God and deepening our trust as we travel through one challenge after another.
The second phase leads to the third phase. Newton is careful to spell out that one is not necessarily a better believer or person in one phase or the other, rather one's sense of dependence on God increases through each phase. To me this phase sounds a bit like what the Buddhists call "Detachment." This phase is marked by a shift in emotions where one becomes less emotionally engaged in the challenges and more able to view them with some distance, having put one's trust in God.
For more information on The Works of John Newton go here. You will find his ideas on these three phases beginning on page 171, "Grace in the Blade."
Our group felt strongly that these phases, A, B, and C were not linear but perhaps a spiral that repeats over and over through life.
The point of Beeley's presentation was to spur a conversation and our thoughts on how to provide Christian Formtion programs in our churches that address where folks are along the spectrum of these three phases. What kind of programming and or ministries can we offer those who are in the state of "Desire" - thinking more clearly about what newcomers might really need? And then what kind of ministries and programs can we offer to those in the "Conflict" phase or the third phase of "Contempltion?"
It left me thinking about how individuals go through these phases, but I also, I think congregations do too. Some congregations are mostly in one phase or another at any given point in their life....and if so what does that mean for leaders? More on this idea later.