"The study brought members of the congregation who had never tried adult programming..., but it was the number of folks who joined us from the larger community that astonished us."
When "Smart" Has Nothing to do with a Phone
We are a small United Methodist congregation in the suburbs of Boston. But some people are referring to us as “the smart church.” It has everything to do with our hospitable discourse!
A New Time Slot for Adult Education
When we planned our adult education class as book study, we intentionally chose 4:30 -6:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoons. And we actively advertised it to our non-church-going neighbors.
Our first book was Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Really Matters in the End. When the planning team and I read the book, we realized the topic was one that faced the aging population of the area, as well as members of our congregation, and community members who are a part of the “sandwich generation.” The topic was timely and fit our demographic, but we were concerned that the book did not adequately address the spirituality of dying. I found a chaplain colleague who was very willing to create a study guide for us. We publicized the study in our local papers, senior centers and libraries – and we waited to see what would happen.
Checking us Out
At our first session, we tripled the number of folks who normally attend our adult education programming! The study brought members of our congregation who had never tried adult programming, which was great, but it was the number of folks who joined us from the larger community that astonished us.
Over the next six weeks, we were joined by folks who had heard about the discussion from neighbors and friends. This was clearly a book that resonated with many people; our visitors included doctors, nurses, other health care practitioners, and care givers. Almost everyone was looking for ways to talk about, and tend to, the spiritual needs of people at the end of life.
The Next Chapter
Our second series is in progress. We are reading Jonathan Sack’s new book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. Again, we advertised through local media, local libraries, and senior centers. And again, people we might otherwise never have met were sitting in the circle at 4:30. Folks from two different Jewish congregations were intrigued by the topic and joined us, as well as some of our new friends from the Being Mortal study.
Our discussions have been rich and deep. The Monday morning after the first session of this study, I had two emails and a phone call from folks outside the congregation asking if there was still time to join. Those in the class have been sharing YouTube clips and podcasts via email between sessions. Conversations about faith, belief, and ultimate meaning are happening that might never have happened anywhere else. We have decided to attend the local production of the play Disgraced together. When this study concludes, we will begin a study and discussion of Ta-Neshi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which will carry us to the end of the program year.
Filling a Deep Need for Social Discourse
My education team and I believe we have tapped into a new way to serve the community around our church. While the classes have not brought us new members, our purpose was never to convert others through these offerings. Instead, we are becoming known as the place to talk to others who will listen to your questions and share their own. This is still a fairly new experiment, but we feel we have become (so far) a safe space for civil social discourse – something lacking in other public places, and something our attendees clearly value.
As folks join us on Sunday afternoons, they see the community theater rehearsing in our fellowship hall; the see the Hindu families who use our Sunday school wing for cultural and religious training; they see our own youth group meeting during the same time period. People recognize that we invite diversity and encourage respectful disagreement. There is warmth of welcome and hospitality.
Those of us who work in the Church know that it is changing. While the old passes away, new things are emerging. At St. Matthew’s, we aren’t preaching the Gospel the way we used to. Rather we are seeking to become the Gospel – the good news for folks who yearn for a community in which it is safe to “reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). This too is mission in the name of Jesus for the sake of the world.
What are the issues in the community that surrounds your congregation? Find a book that speaks to it, offer some hospitality and see who shows up!
Dr. Elizabeth L. Windsor is the Director of Christian Education at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church in Acton, Massachusetts. She is an accredited Godly Play storyteller. Christian formation throughout the life cycle is both her profession and her passion.
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