This past weekend our congregation hosted a biblical "Teaching Weekend" on the Gospel of Matthew. Our guest teacher was Rev. Dr. Sean Winter from the UCA Theological College in Melbourne. A year ago the congregation completed a visioning exercise about our future directions. The presbytery then conducted a periodic consultation about our "life and witness" as a church, and they suggested that we needed a clearer emphasis on adult education. We took this on board as one of our 2020 goals.
I proposed the Teaching Weekend, which I hope will become an annual event. One of our local Mission Networks has run an annual event with a focus on the Lectionary Gospel for the year, but in 2014 they had planned something different. So it made sense to focus on Matthew. We gained the support of the SA Presbytery Lay Preachers' Committe and the Urban Mission Network (which we have just joined).
Part of the significance of the theme, developed superbly by Sean Winter, was that Matthew's Gospel is a teaching gospel for the church. It is about learning from Jesus about being disciples whose life together both welcomes and participates in the coming reign of God. So the actual content of the sessions reflected what we are seeking to become, a church whose common life connects the life and teachings of Jesus with life today.
- The Practice of Interpretation (Friday evening)
- The Practice of Discipleship (Saturday morning)
- The Practice of Forgiveness (Saturday morning)
- The Practice of Mission (Sunday morning)
Throughout the weekend, Sean engaged us in 'doing' interpretation; we were learning the first practice. On reflection, we could have learned this more explicitly, but given the time constraints, it was fine. People were provoked in their current understandings of the nature of Scripture, invited to see familiar texts with new eyes, and asked to dialogue with their present experience. Sean is an excellent speaker - clear, succinct, insightful, thoughtful, and passionate.
So, four themes... And for me, four questions
- What does it actually mean in practice to be a community of interpretation? What would that communal work look like?
- How are those practices of interpretation part of the reorientation and resistance of discipleship signified in the Sermon on the Mount?
- What would it look like for a faith community to be a reconciling influence in its local community (not just within itself)
- What does it mean to be 'discipling' the 'Gentiles', those who are next door to us, rather than preaching to them or seeking quick conversions?
On Saturday afternoon, Sarah Agnew led a participatory workshop on bringing the Scriptures to life in worship. As well as being of practical benefit to worship leaders, Sarah's wonderful insights and gifts brought a direct connection to the practices of interpretation.
After worship on Sunday we offered a light lunch and then finished with a panel conversation on what it means to be a "teaching church", with Sean Winter and guests Susan Burt (international Editor for Seasons of the Spirit) and Tim Hein (Director of Christian Education and Discipleship at Uniting College). I missed the session as I was struck by the dreaded lurgy, but apparently it was excellent. I'm most grateful for Sue and Tim's participation.
We had about 45 people attend across the teaching sessions, and a full church on Sunday. I'd hoped for 60 people (30-40 locals and 30 visitors), but there were enough to make it a good event. I hope that we agree to run another event next year. As a church we have a pretty reasonable participation in small groups (including 90 people in Lenten Studies this year). I reflected over the weekend about how to deepen engagement with the Bible across the life of a community. We know that the Uniting Church is relatively biblically illiterate, and that preaching generally doesn't (and perhaps shouldn't) add systematic knowledge. So there are some important questions about how to build not just biblical literacy, but a "community of interpretation".
Sean's input was immensely helpful as I'm working on how to speak to the whole church about being a community of disciples. He offered a number of quotable quotes, and also some perspectives that have helped to enrich my recent thinking.
I'm glad to be part of a congregation that is willing to have a go at things, and in this case to be able to work on what it means to be a learning community. I am reminded again of the importance of intentionality in shaping a comunity of learning.