Moving beyond theory to practicality.
All Souls Church was founded with the goal of following the command in Jeremiah 29:7 to seek the peace of its city (in this case, Knoxville, Tenn.) by ministering to one of its most unchurched parts, the downtown area. In order to be inclusive of people from different backgrounds and belief systems, the church’s approach to doctrine is consensual orthodoxy, where members are asked to affirm the Nicene Creed, but may otherwise disagree on doctrine.
“We believe in the authority of Scripture and want to live under the authority of Christ, but we also understand that it’s possible for committed Christians to read Scripture differently,” explained Pastor Doug Banister.
Which sounds good in theory … but as Doug said, “It’s challenging when you get down to working on difficult doctrinal questions as a congregation.” Last summer Doug preached an 18-week series on what consensual orthodoxy means, ending with three weeks on how to disagree well. Afterward, the church board decided the congregation needed to move beyond theory and learn practical ways to discuss difficult doctrinal subjects.
A friend introduced him to Michael Gulker, president of The Colossian Forum, who told him about The Colossian Way small-group curriculum. All Souls’ elder board decided to pilot a TCW workshop on sexuality and tapped David Gayk and Linda Hamilton to co-lead it.
Doug, David and Linda all admit to some apprehension about diving into such a contentious topic. Although they have not identified all the workshop participants, the group will include at least one gay Christian.
Linda, who has training in collaborative communications, worries about keeping the conversation on the right track. “My primary concern is that it will just end up in debate, and my skills as a facilitator won’t be strong enough to lift us from debate into reflective dialogue, where we can recognize that we all really are concerned about the same thing deep down, but our certainties and assumptions and judgments tend to be in the way of that manifesting in a loving way. I’m concerned that our surface fears will shroud the possibility of something unifying emerging.”
In preparation, Linda is thinking of questions she can ask in those moments to defuse emotions and refocus the conversation. “And I’m reminding myself it’s OK to call a time-out and re-center the whole group,” she said. “What are we here for, and how can we focus on the central idea we all agree on?”
At the same time, all three of them are excited at what the church might learn from this. Although the issue of homosexuality hasn’t been widely discussed as a congregation, David guesses that many would say there’s only one way to interpret what Scripture says about it. “And I get that,” he said. “I come from a very conservative background, and I was very anti-homosexuality. But over the years, a lot of things changed me.
“I’ve slowly come to realize things that look black and white are never as black and white as they seem, and it isn’t about my opinion; it’s about listening well. I hope people will look at what we’re going to do in this workshop as a spiritual discipline – learning to listen to each other and love each other and be held together in Christ, as the verse from Colossians says.”
Linda thinks that once people understand the purpose of the workshop, the fact that they’re not driving toward consensus will be a strength. “Instead of, ‘Let’s hash out our differences on this contentious topic,’ we can be focused on worship and prayer and on this being a very Christ-centered activity,” she said.
The hope is that this workshop would go well enough that participants could apply the skills they’ve learned to other issues, such as race or politics. And the ultimate hope is that this would help the church be more successful in its goal of ministering to its local community. “I don’t think we’ve really done that as well as we would have liked,” David said. “Getting people to talk openly about disagreements may attract other people who see Christians as one-sided and bigoted. John’s letters said the hallmark of people knowing Christians will be how they love each other. It would be really nice if it turned out that way.”
“Success would be if this becomes self-sustaining – if there is enough of a hunger for what we’re about to get a little taste of that our body continually asks for it … that it becomes characteristic of who we are as a body.”