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Over the past few summers, we have sought to create different kinds of gatherings. While this was initiated by COVID and our inability to gather inside, it has created space for us to reflect on our times together. What is the purpose of our gatherings? What is missing from our typical way of gathering? How might we be able to draw on some of our anabaptist values to do things differently? And what have we potentially lost over the past few summers by emphasizing offsite ventures? That reflection has led to us attempting something a little different on Sunday mornings this coming summer. I’m going to share some of those thoughts and try to paint a picture of what we’ll be trying this summer on this Covenant Weekly for June 11, 2024.

For most of us, a Sunday morning format that looks kind of like what we have on most Sunday mornings is all we have experienced. Whether we were raised Roman Catholic or Protestant, in a liturgical setting or a more free church style, whether it was traditional or contemporary, the church formats we are used to have a front area - usually raised - where the drama of the service takes place. And a series of rows - padded chairs or pews - where the congregation or audience observes and responds to the drama at the front. There is a level of participation in readings, singing, or confessing together. But for the most part, it is a presenter/audience engagement.

I won’t get into all the historical things that have led to this format. But I will say that some of them are theological - shaped by concerns about whether or not individuals can approach God without mediation. Some of the reasons are intellectual - shaped by the university where those in the know were set above the learners with an emphasis on imparting knowledge. Some of the reasons are cultural - a contemporary church emphasis on drawing a crowd and people embracing a desire to be entertained.

I won’t critique any of those things or our typical format. It is what I’m used to just as much as anyone else - maybe more so! But it is good to note that the limited pictures of gatherings in the New Testament don’t look much like our typical gatherings. There doesn’t even seem to be one picture of what gatherings looked like for the first Jesus followers. Yes. Some people were teachers. And there was teaching. But our model of teaching is relatively new in world history so teaching probably didn’t look like it does now. And there was music. Likely even musicians. But the idea of a formal team leading things is pretty new in church history. The New Testament picture seems to include food in a way that we don’t have. And the emphasis seems to have been on gathering as a family in community. I don’t know about your family, but when mine gets together it isn’t in rows with a presentation from the front! It’s a lot more chaotic than that.

In our Anabaptist tradition, one of the things that was embraced early on was a conviction that reading and understanding scripture wasn’t left up to only the professionals. Anabaptists have practiced something called “community hermeneutic.” It means that to rightly discern and live out the way of Jesus together (which was the true end goal of engaging with the Bible), we need to hear each other’s voices. Anabaptists have believed that the Spirit of God was in all who are in Christ and that God speaks through the community as we wrestle with scripture, reason, life experience, and tradition to guide us. It didn’t negate the idea that some had more formal training than others. But it refused to put a limit to God's speaking by only letting those people share.

Over the past few years, when we’ve done different kinds of gatherings, we have sought to emphasize the familial nature of our gatherings. In doing so, we’ve not been online in the summers. In the past, we never shared our gatherings online so this wasn’t thought about much. What we’ve realized, though, is our world has changed. Several for whom online connection had been a lifeline suddenly lost that lifeline when we stopped live streaming over the summer.

We’ve been wrestling with how we could, during the summer, emphasize the familial nature of the church gathering, give space for God to speak through the community, and maintain a connection with those who aren’t able to gather in person. Here is what we’ve come up with.

Most of our summer gatherings will be held at our church building at 95 Robert St. E. However, when you come into our main gathering space, it will look somewhat different! Other than our Inspire celebration Sunday, we aren’t planning on using our sound system or the screens. There will be rows of chairs, but they’ll be set up more “in the round” so that we’ll be facing each other. There will be a few tables set up around the outside of the space for kids (or adults) to colour at or just for people to set their coffee on. Yes…there will still be coffee each week. And if you want to bring some napkin-friendly snacks to share, you’re welcome to! The musicians for the week will be more integrated among those gathered rather than on the stage. Then, rather than a formal sermon, we’ll read through some scripture together. Our theme for the summer is “Jesus and… .” We’ll read about Jesus and children or Jesus and table or Jesus and religion. After we read the text together, we may give some contextual background to the text. But then, rather than presenting everything we’ll facilitate a conversation. We’ll follow the same basic question format each week to keep things moving and on track. There will be space for your questions and for respectful conversation around how Jesus’ interactions help guide us in how we should live well today. We are planning on getting the themes and texts for each week out to you in advance so that you can read ahead if you’d like. And we’ll follow the same flow of questions each week so you’ll get a sense of how the conversation will go.

Not wanting to forget those who connect online, we are going to have one camera on and one microphone in the middle of the room set up each week. This should allow those online to see and hear the music and conversation. We’ll livestream on YouTube and have someone watching the comments so that those online can contribute to the conversation. Once the service is over, however, the service will no longer be available online. We hope this encourages and fosters freedom in the conversation.

I’ll also mention that this is most of the summer format, but there will be some exceptions on the schedule. On July 14 we’ll have our Inspire Celebration Sunday, which will look different. On July 28 we’ll be offsite and not online because we’ll be participating in the Church In the Pines service. On August 11 we will be doing this format, but including a baby dedication as a part of our time together. And there may be one other offsite gathering that we’re still considering. But most weeks between June 30 and September 1, this is the format we'll be following. 

I was thinking about this format and how it compares to other formats of church gatherings. I thought about it through the lens of musical concerts. We could imagine that formal, liturgical, gatherings are kind of like performances by a symphony or like attending the opera where there is response, but there are also expectations and mores that it takes time to learn. Larger church contemporary gatherings are kind of like a rock show where it is less formal, but almost all of the audience participation is driven by what happens on the stage. Smaller church contemporary gatherings might be like small venue or house concerts where there is more interaction and give & take, but the attention is focused at the front. We’re hoping this summer will be like participating in a maritime cèilidh or kitchen party where we gather in community to participate in making the music together at whatever level we are comfortable.

There will be a host and some guidance, but we’re focused on what we can create, learn, and discern in community. I’m looking forward to participating in these times together with you this summer!

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