Organizers of the United Church of Christ's two-day summit on theological formation, planned for April in Cleveland, are asking participants to come prepared to dive into a thought-provoking conversation around the values and beliefs that form and focus the denomination. What makes up the UCC theologically, from the ground up?
"Theology is a reflection, thinking, on the life of faith," said the Rev. David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary. "It is that activity of the person of faith, when they ask deep questions about God. The questions of theology are very human questions, not solely clergy questions. Sadly, over time, theology has been shuttered into this little area of the "theory for the practice of ministry." To bring new energy to forming people of the United Church of Christ theologically, that is a great thing."
Greenhaw, one of the panelists who will be facilitating the discussion during 'From the Ground Up: Re-Imagining Theological Formation,' April 9-10 in Cleveland, Ohio, said that in the UCC there is a common understanding that thinking about faith is not over. Take the God is Still Speaking campaign. It is based on a serious theological premise – to paraphrase the words of John Robinson, an English minister considered one of the founders of the Congregational Church, there is still much more truth and light to break forth from God's Holy Word.
"For a church like ours, theological formation is not a singular, prescribed set of doctrines," continued Greenhaw, who serves a dual role at Eden as Professor of Preaching and Worship. "It is instead an ongoing conversation with a 'Still Speaking God.' Coming together we will discover there are some things we deeply agree about, and some things that we don't agree about and all the while we can stay at the same table and have that discussion."
People across the life of the church now committing to that conversation as they register for the event are being asked to respond to two questions. Food for thought, and a way event organizers can gauge how best to frame the discussion. Here are the questions and a few responses:
If theological formation was intentionally embedded into all aspects of life in the UCC, what would change?
"I believe that our justice commitments would be strengthened if we articulated the theology that ignites them more boldly and clearly," writes John Allen. "I believe that our church members would develop the mature faith to impact their communities and the world for the better. I believe our denomination could be a part of articulating a new moral vision for our nation, rather than feeling trapped by existing political options."
"Each part of church life would reflect UCC theology," writes Ginger Bakos. "Every church and congregation would know, unequivocally, what the UCC believes and stands for and how that is reflected in our covenants with each other. If we laid this in a strong foundation, it would provide a compass in times of transition, confusion and trouble... the times we need it most. We would have a living breathing ecosystem of theological formation from user-friendly websites to the hymnals in the pews to movie nights to Wednesday Bible study."
"The church building would become more of a gathering space/town square—sure, with worship, blessing, equipping—but especially to meet the needs of the community," writes Karyn Frazier. "This outward-facing orientation would be an intentional shift. The intentional inward shift would be to invite community partners into the building to share resources from space to ideas. Our roof and walls would keep out the weather, but the church would be seamless for the movement of the Holy Spirit."
Others mention with more intentional theological formation, we'd have more courage, we'd discover our common story, and we would include the mystical.
In 100 words or less what has been the most creative and/or impactful theological formation experience you have encountered?
The most impactful theological formation experience for me has been my work on the labyrinth, centering prayer and other spiritual practices," writes Nancy Van Fleet. "It is what I would call the curriculum of interiority. It is not about creating new programs, but remembering how our ancestors used rite and ritual and infused them with intentionality and meaning. A class can enlighten you, but it may not help you see. It can explain a practice, but it cannot convey a mystery. It can satisfy an inquiring mind, but it cannot awaken a hungry heart. Silence, walking, grounding, searching — these are ways to connect to the divine."
"Worship services that were intimate, Biblically grounded, and experiential," writes Alex Will Shea.
"Ash Wednesday service with Taize chant," writes Ruth Bradshaw. "Preaching that took the biblical text seriously, but that also encouraged questioning the text."
Others mention impactful experiences theological formation experiences that are built on relationships, around a silent retreat, or an outdoor ministry.
A keynote presentation by Bishop Yvette Flunder of City of Refuge UCC in Oakland, Calif., will launch the April summit at the Westin Hotel in downtown Cleveland. A daily itinerary is available on the event website.
In addition to Greenhaw, other panelists include the Rev. Starsky Wilson, President and CEO of Deaconess Foundation and pastor of Saint John's Church in St. Louis, Mo., and Rabbi Susan Talve, the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation, the only Jewish congregation located within the city limits of St. Louis, Mo.
With early-bird registration now available, the cost of the event is discounted through February 20.
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