Karen Bridges of Robertson-Wesley reflects on her experience at this year’s Congregations Project.
The Spiritual Arts Collective
The experience at the ISM Congregational Projects Seminar has left a deep imprint on our Spiritual Arts Collective project, on our ministry here at RWUC and on my life. I remember the first day we gathered and Martin Jean, the director of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale, said “We are so glad you chose to participate in this gathering.” I remember thinking are you kidding me? I’m so grateful you chose our project and that you have invested in our team and our congregation.
The people who participated in the Seminar consisted of 9 church teams (a minister, a musician, and a lay person) from across America and this year Canada; some of the great minds of the theological world, the music world, and the liturgy world; the faculty and staff at ISM; some of the students; and some past participants. What I realized on our last day together is that the Congregational Projects Seminar is in itself a spiritual collective.
A collective is a process that allows a group of individuals to tell their stories using all forms of expression and gifts brought with them to the collective process based on a particular theme or question. This year the gathered group of participants engaged the theme, “Hark the Glad Sound: Inviting New and Returning Christians to Worship” leading us to explore the challenge of engaging people who do not attend church — people who live beyond the walls of the church. We were asked to consider, by Dorothy Bass, how we engage the following practices: hospitality to strangers, testimony or witness, and ritual engagement and how these practices will propel us forward in our mission lived out in our various congregational projects.
We began the collective process by telling our stories through music, storytelling, imagery, dance, and art or to put this in spiritual terms we engaged the practice of testimony or witness. As we listened to how the spirit of God is moving amongst us through ministry and mission we began to sketch a metaphorical picture, a connect the dots picture, where each story was a dot which would eventually create a full picture once connected. What stands out for me in this time of witness was how the various stories touched and connected with people within the large group. Commonalities began to emerge as we basked in the rich diversity of experience and artistic gifts amongst the participants in the seminar.
I personally had a moving moment after we share the story of Robertson-Wesley United Church. Another participant felt compelled to share with me how much our presentation moved them, and how they felt a connection with our ministry in reaching out to people with different abilities. A sense of trust and mutuality was forming in the group. The practice of hospitality was hard at work as we ate together and continued our conversations. It was such a delight to be in a place where we heard stories of new growth and possibility in ministry. Not once did I hear the words “the church is dying…what can we do?” We were being told the Good News of Jesus Christ at work in the world.
Within the stories we heard, we began to collect the gathered wisdom of the group, we began to share the gifts that God had given each one of us, some as storytellers, some as pastoral presence, some in their ability to engage others in movement and music. As we sang together our voices mingled, the spirit stirred and the breath of God was felt. I heard stories about students in Universities who are seeking and engaging a life of faith, I heard about congregations who are living out of a great richness of tradition and legacy, but who aren’t feeling trapped or held back from transforming. I heard about places and spaces where God was at work in all people, all ages and all cultures, where together the faithful followers of Christ are seeking out ways to engage each other and the world with authenticity and openness.
What gathered us and grounded us each day of the seminar was God expressed and experienced in worship. Each day we entered a practice of discernment as each congregation shared their project and then invited the group to share their questions, their ideas, their wisdom and their reflections. We weren’t afraid to ask the hard questions. We were challenged by the group to remember the people we serve and the people we long to connect with. Each time we left one of the presentations about a congregational project I felt my spirit soaring. God had filled my cup and it was overflowing.
Each project that was presented challenged our team to think about how we could be deepening our own practices in the Congregation. For example, how can we use the space in our narthex more effectively, how are we meeting the needs of people who walk through our doors when they speak a different language, how can we be connecting with our government and other social agencies to meet the needs of the oppressed? How can we infuse our worship so that people have an experience of God that brings them hope, that leads towards healing and reconciliation, that causes them to express and engage their faith stories. As we worshipped together I witnessed the spirit moving people to be moulded into reflections of the scriptures, I witnessed people being moved by the beauty of dance, the harmonies of voices.
One morning as we walked the labyrinth together and I witnessed people walking together, following each other’s footsteps, moments were we stood together in solidarity, times when we were moving in different directions but with the knowledge that our paths would cross again, times when we touched and connected physically, all the while being held in prayer. In the silence God’s voice proclaimed, “You are loved, and you are a blessing, I am calling you to use your God given gifts to reach out to others.”
The collective wisdom of the group was stirring, was creating, and was moving us all to dance with freedom and compassion in the kindom of God. As we lifted each other and all whom we serve in prayer, and as ThomasTroeger lifted up the wisdom of the group in our final penary time, we were affirmed, we were empowered, and we were commissioned to go out into the world and proclaim the Good News!
In the words of Thomas Troger, our spiritual collective created a tapestry of deep understanding and appreciation of “what the living Christ displays” for we know “we are fashioned by God’s hand for a life that sings God’s praise”. We have been called we have been chosen and we leave knowing that we are not alone. Thanks be to God!