Some of you may know that the network of communities I’m planting is part of the Ecclesia Network, which had its annual National Gathering near Washington, D.C. last month. I am just now finally getting around to sharing a few reflections on this year’s gathering, and the network in general (much like I did last year).
As I’ve reflected on this year’s gathering, my thoughts revolved around four headings, each one being an aspect of the gathering (and the network generally) that seems to set it apart from other kinds of similar gatherings/networks.
1. Relationships and stories over cleverly-presented content
The Ecclesia National Gathering (like the network itself) is much more about relationships and stories than it is getting rock star pastors in to present new content. A lot of time is given to hearing short presentations from a lot of different people within the network, and I found these talks profoundly encouraging. It was so helpful for me to hear from practitioners I’ve been getting to know over the past two years share what they’re experiencing and learning in the nitty-gritty of planting and leading missional churches.
Which is not to say that there weren’t some great speakers who gave some great talks (Todd Hunter and Marykate Morse were wonderful!), many of which you can find on Ecclesia’s site. But the relationships and stories were some of the biggest “take-homes” for me.
2. Spiritual formation over skills and strategy
Of course, the theme of this year’s gathering was spiritual formation, but even when it isn’t explicitly stated as the theme, it still shows up all the time. I appreciate that Ecclesia seems to place spiritual formation as a much higher value for leaders than obtaining the latest leadership strategies and skills. There is a lot of focus on the simple rhythms of learning to pay attention to our souls, listen to the Spirit, rest well, bring our darkness into the light, sit still long enough for God to his work in us, forgive and be forgiven, etc.
3. Openness to the Holy Spirit
There was a wonderful sense of the Spirit “hovering” over the gathering this year (just like there was last year), and within the network generally there is a very sincere and humble openness to and desire for the Holy Spirit to be in the center of everything we do. This has been a growing theme among the pastors and leaders of Ecclesia for a few years now, and it was encouraging to see even more attentiveness to the Spirit this year.
I loved that there was an intentional process of making room for the Spirit to act and speak and guide and form us throughout the gathering. It felt like a very “naturally supernatural” way of welcoming the Spirit and beginning to walk in the power of the Spirit.
The Spirit’s “hovering” at a gathering like this has to do somewhat with the authority and presence that the presenters carry with them, but I think it also has to do with the openness and receptivity of the community. (Even Jesus couldn’t do any “mighty works” in Nazareth because of their lack of faith.) I was encouraged by the longing and expectancy I sensed at the gathering this year.
There was precious little posturing, preening or competitiveness at the gathering, and this reflects the culture of Ecclesia. There is a humility about the gathering, and about the network that I hope we never lose. I also hope we never get proud of our humility, because then we will have lost it.
One pastor was sharing a story with me about a gathering in his former denomination. The superintendent of their district got up to speak to a bunch of young church planters and said, “Look, I know you’re all tired and beat up and struggling out there. Stop whining and get back on the horse. We need winners, not losers.”
Contrast that speech with the final talk of the Ecclesia National Gathering, where Marykate Morse spoke to a bunch of young church planters in a tender, motherly way. She talked about how she felt about her own children, how she loved mothering them: preparing their lunches, putting a meal on the table at dinnertime, talking with them and tucking them into their little beds.
Then she said this:
God is that same kind of rabid mother. God wants to show up in the morning and give you a hot meal. God wants to pack you this great little lunch that’s going to carry you through the day. And at the end of the day God wants to throw another banquet for you and fill you up. And when you lay down in your bed God wants to whisper in your ear love and prayers and adoration and hear the stories on your heart. That’s what God wants to do for you.
And the only way… the only way, boys and girls… the only way that can happen is if we come to the table. We have to come to the table. We have to be in our little beds. And that’s all it is. We make it out to be something we have to accomplish and do in order to make us better persons… but it’s not that at all. God just wants to be with us.
God wants to tip tables for us. God wants to feed us exotic things we never imagined. God wants to talk through with us that hard thing that happened that we were hurt and disappointed about. God wants to heal your soul. God wants to make you strong. God knows you need sleep. God knows you need food. God knows you need space.
Those are all of the things God wants to provide. The only thing you have to do is show up in your little bed, and show up at the table.
I cried like a baby. It was a really good gathering.