Theology is conversation

Wireless world, networked ministry — Part IX in a series

By Rev. Rick King

Much is changing in the institutional church today, and the pandemic sped up the change in the past year and a half. This series of columns is based on the book, “The Digital Cathedral,” by Rev. Keith Anderson, to expand our concept of Church beyond the bricks-and-mortar, exclusive-membership, financial and flesh-and-blood institution we’re used to, allowing God to birth the NEW reality, already underway in the world.

Last week we looked at places where spirituality and life intersect, the coffee shops, restaurants, and pubs that function as “third places”—that is, not first places (home) or second places (work), where we can be ourselves without many of the expectations our roles place upon us in the other spaces we occupy.

This week, we expand our view to include the connecting networks where conversations about life and God can happen more easily and naturally than in the prescribed religious spaces of churches. Life feels different in these alternative spaces, and people often act differently in them.

Keith Anderson tells of the campus ministry of Chaplain Callista Isabelle of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, which emphasizes the sidewalks which connect the chaplain’s office and the campus chapel with the rest of the tiny campus, which has other spaces where she encounters students and is a presence in their lives: the student center, administration building, campus theatre and sports fields.

She says that the one-block sidewalk is “where everybody walks at some point in the day. So if I’m just walking down that sidewalk, I’m likely to have several conversations or at least many points of quick contact with people. This is often where moments of pastoral care happen in fleeting ways.”

In my spiritual direction training at St. Kate’s, we talk a lot about what we do as “accompaniment,” that is, walking with people wherever they are in their lives, not trying to fix their problems or direct them in what to do, but listening them into speech, witnessing them and noticing what they’re saying verbally or nonverbally, and being a mirror that helps them become more conscious of where the spirit is showing up in their lives.

In the church, and institutional religion generally, we’ve grown accustomed to a prescribed theological dance, where the role of clergy is to have answers and the role of church members is to ask questions—or a teacher-student relationship, in other words.

Accompanying people in their everyday lives is theology unscripted and unprescribed—Anderson calls it “theology without a net.” It occurs more often in the context of spontaneous conversations than formal situations like sermons and classes. Networks formed and strengthened during the pandemic, such as the Monday meditation group, which started mostly through the efforts of two FHC women and has deepened on its own; people can’t wait to resume the ones which had to be suspended, such as the Breakfast Fellowship and Thirsty Falcons.

These are networks which neither I nor any other staff member engineered: they were lay-driven, and occur largely off-campus, in homes or cafes or bars. And they are places where people share their lives and spiritualities informally and in unplanned ways.

And these are where the magic happens.

Where are the networks in your life? In our little neighborhood in the Northwest Quadrant of Falcon Heights, or north Como, or elsewhere? I’d love to hear from you!