Jim Grossnickle-Batterton currently serves as the interim pastor for First Mennonite Church, Iowa City, Iowa. A number of years doing missional hospitality work has tuned Jim’s spirit toward searching for a better understanding of how we do and do not offer welcome in our communities and congregations. He enjoys employing his growing, though incomplete, knowledge of superheroes, detectives, starships and cowboy culture in pastoral visits and sermons. Jim and his wife Stephanie are expecting their first child this summer.
Growing up in a small town, experiments in science class were an exciting time. Within a controlled lab environment, we were given permission to try things that might succeed or fail. The point was less about results and more about learning from the process. Farm kids like me were used to doing experiments in a less controlled environment. The results could be a lot messier and, occasionally, more dangerous. If I’m totally honest, such “experiments” were mostly an excuse to see what happened to things as they burned.
The Future Church Summit this week felt like a space to try on ideas, to consider the current climate, to envision possibilities. The environment was controlled enough to allow us to celebrate some successes and mourn some failures in a brave space. Like my childhood backyard experiments though, the degree of danger in the process was very real too. Anytime we test things in the church, we risk encountering the Holy Spirit. Pull on your gloves and goggles because this Spirit’s fire and wind go where they will.
Over the course of the Summit, we gathered around tables to think about what draws us to our faith as Mennonite Anabaptists, what we can learn from our histories, what we carry forward, and what we might choose to transform. Most importantly perhaps, we each need to discern what is our own to address individually, what is yours, and what is ours to address together. Just as importantly, we need to discern what is God’s to address. We each have our part.
We will not be able to replicate the Future Church Summit process in every conference and every congregation. We can try replicating the sense of experimentation however, encouraging our further explorations, opening up our vulnerabilities in brave spaces — controlled environments where we can be messy if need be. Offering one another the space to succeed or fail without harsh judgements. Accepting that we can only offer the space. Right now though, we know that there are some voices in our congregations, even some entire congregations that do not feel the offer is being made. The first few steps will probably not all succeed. Let us lament, repent and pray for grace to abound.
The value I saw in the Summit process was the ability to be messy. Too often we avoid important discussions for fear of saying the wrong thing. What if someone thinks I’m a bad person? What if I look ignorant? What if they judge me for saying what I think? What if the others in a group ignore me? These are all possibilities. The disciples no doubt experienced these anxieties many times over. If we really believe Jesus was God come into our world as the Human One, then we may have to accept he faced these anxieties too. His holy imagination never let his anxiety drift into despair. Oh, that we could all find our place in the arms of such a Creative Holy Spirit! Pray that we can!
I am thankful so many during the Summit felt they could imagine ways to be brave, to speak from their hearts boldly. I mourn the ways we failed to live up to our best intentions. Success. Failure. Sometimes one after the other. Sometimes both at once. I pray we always continue to strive to do better. I pray our imaginations grow brighter and warmer.
We should celebrate the fact that one clear message burned brightly as our Theme Team sifted our responses to the group questions: every goal and process we suggested, we want to attempt together. Sing together. Pray together. Serve together. Gather around Scripture together. Together. Can we control the Holy Spirit’s wind and flame? No. But we can go wherever we are led together.