I wasn't in a church meeting on a jam-packed weekday evening. I was in the home of friends; on a hike in rural Auckland; on a beach sitting on a rock in the sand. I was with friends who crave conversation about culture; friends who crave to be heard in a growing environment of isolated connection.
I have found myself launched, one New Year older and in a rocket not of my own, into a new world working with documentary. I have been listening to stories woven into the lives of others, and listening deeper than before. And it is from this space behind the lens that I'd like to offer some simple observations of a culture that craves authentic community; the one my churched peers are struggling to articulate.
Unbound by Formula
The type of conversations I had with my friends over summer seems rare in the context of church congregations. The responses to cries for meaningful conversations beyond the 'solutions' of programs, events, and another meetings, seem to be falling on well-meaning but deaf ears.
So I've started asking: Where is the place in the corporate model of church where conversations don't have to demand solutions? Where is the space for creative brainstorming with an unlimited God? And where is the forum for engaging the 'clients' and for delving into their needs? If we're going with the corporate model of church we might as well do it properly.
I've taken encouragement from my home church in Perth – a community that has challenged church formula and where conversation and authentic relationship are not sacrificed in programs. Three years ago our friends Derek and Kylie became Pastors of a Church while also being business owners - working in the market place Monday to Wednesday and choosing not to take a wage from the Church. They stepped outside of the shiny lights-camera-action box to try something new with God and with church routine. They've done this while walking beside the needs of the community and challenging the norms. The 'formula' always needs tweaking, and is rich with relationship and different than you'd expect.
It's not the norm.
But what could and should be the norm is finding the ultimate space that Jesus wants to dominate with His Love, through the Church, by starting to ask people the real questions that need asking. Questions that I believe Derek and Kylie really asked of their community.
Being an extravert who likes to 'bounce around the room' yet doesn't like small talk; I've been thinking a lot about the use of 'empowering questions' in every day conversation. More recently I've been aware of using them as an interview technique in documentaries I've been working on. Along with stories, analogies, and even silence, empowering questions are one of many essential tools in a counsellor's tool kit to invite self-discovery. And they can also help facilitate deep and authentic connections by teaching us to really engage with the needs and desires of those around us.
Using empowering questions begets the skill of asking questions that are open, searching yet always respectful, and stimulate deep thinking. It is only a trained counsellor's job to ask a challenging question that opens a wound, as it must immediately then be filled by the correct truth. But as we would use them in everyday conversation, they are much like rhetorical questions as they seek to put no external pressure on the person addressed. They're not rushed; they don't assume; but they can expose internal conflict.
Questions such as, "What is the feeling you a trying to fix?" and "What did Christ ask of you that was just too hard?" They can also be used to explore our own personal dissonance, i.e. "Are my expectations realistic?"; "Why do I have to be right to be safe?"
Church Community Encouraging Small Talk
As I have reflected on how rare the use of empowering connections like these are - outside of the counsellor's office or an interview or a healthy family relationship - I have noticed an unhealthy relationship brewing: a relationship between a church culture that is unwelcoming of empowering questions and even threatened by them, and a new generation that have lost the skill of asking them.
I noticed how unfamiliar it was for me to really delve into someone else's story in an interview setting. I had to feel the journey to capture their story. And yet I needed to stay removed enough to know when to best follow on with another question, or when to remember chronological events. While interviewing people for film documentary, I realized that the hat I was wearing – as the active and engaged listener - is the person I want to be and the friend I want to be: a friend and even a leader who listens and asks questions, and has space in my heart and my worldview for ideas bigger that my own.
The Innovation of Loneliness
I think we've been unlearning how to have this sort of space within us. Perhaps even partly by the sheer volume of people that we 'know'. On a Sunday morning or evening, others not at church are often 'meeting' on social media and yearning for a sense of belonging in a world of information that could seemingly swallow them up. And meanwhile we have the crazy opportunity to connect with hundreds of people across generations, ethnicities, genders, and personal hobbies - in real time, with real people … and really connect. But do we really 'connect'?
Unfortunately I think church ministries, particularly youth and young adults ministries, can easily ride off the buzz of social media and bring relationships down to 'newsfeeds' in real time relationship. Information about people isn't necessarily shallow on a newsfeed, but it can get that way if we start to feel we actually know people through this medium when regular meaningful conversations in real-time don't exist.
Rather than overcoming the challenges of social media and educating a new generation on the pros and pitfalls of a medium that they genuinely want to talk about and struggle with, and rather than transcend small-talk and the tendency to information gather when we connect with people … church culture can quite easily just encourage more of it.
I'd like to leave you with a video that you may have seen floating around social media last year:
The Innovation of Loneliness:
What do these sorts of statistics mean for our way of doing Church?
Perhaps having forums where we really learn to hear from God, and help each other know where He wants to use us within the multitudes around us, and to just share each other's struggles, would be far more relevant than at least some of these programs and events we see so much of.
The programs and events are only a means to an end, and we want to make sure we actually know what 'end' we are aiming for.
Janetta Hayden is a Social Anthropology and Visual Arts graduate from New Zealand, based in Perth with her Design Engineer husband Ryan. Janetta works at The Story Culture in film and community development.
Janetta Hayden's previous articles may be viewed at