GS-2008 — Can’t Wait for the CD

From the RCA Website, about the R-16 process:

After synod, a DVD resource based on the presentations will be available to help churches join the discussion.

Part of that conversation will be kicking off the RCA Story Project, a communication tool loosely patterned after National Public Radio’s Story Corps. The project seeks to collect stories about missional practices from around the denomination.

“We know that we are able to make change and to encourage one another by telling story,” says Jan Hoffman, pastor at First Reformed Church in Scotia, New York.

“This was one way to begin to get at differences that we’re experiencing in our denomination, begin to get at terms that don’t mean the same to us across the denomination–terms that are hard to identify, like ‘missional.’ We all come to that word with different ideas and different baggage.

“If I can tell you a story about what it means to me to be in the parish that I serve and go on mission trips and reach out to others and include others into this community, I can convey more of a sense of what I think missional is. If you can talk to me and tell me a story–or play me an interview–I can better hear you and begin to have conversation with you.”

An old SNL routine, “Coffee-Talk”, had a hostess who would call out a discussion topic, followed by the instruction, “Okay, go talk among yourselves.” So here arrives on the pastor’s desk, the big envelope containing the R-16 CD with its “Discussion Guide” for use with Consistory, study groups, etc. and a Reply Form. Instructions are also there on how to participate in the RCA Story Project, including how to submit MP3 files on line. All that remains is for the church folk to schedule some times to “go talk among yourselves.”

It’s a process—but is it dialogue? No. It is guided discussion. Please note how the word “dialogue”, which implies a real-time face-to-face exchange, has dropped completely out of the process description. This is not what R-16 called for:

To instruct the Executive Committee of General Synod to continue the denomination-wide dialogue and data collection with written survey and other means…

Dialogue is not a discussion of a larger issue in a smaller venue. Dialogue is not a simple exchange of stories as if each story were another bit of collected data. Dialogue may involve factual presentations as in discussion. Dialogue may certainly involve the emotional impacts of personal stories—but it is much more. Dialogue is listening-responding in real time, usually face-to-face. Moreover, dialogue is most effective when it involves persons who don’t normally sit down at table with one another. The chemistry of dialogue is about real persons sitting to talk with one another about real differences. I doubt a CD can carry that freight.

Many a Friday morning, my wife and I have come to tears over our breakfast listening to NPR Story Corp excerpts. They are often moving, worth downloading and sending on to friends. But the one thing I can’t do with them is to reach out and give a high-five to the social worker who dared to take to lunch the kid who had just mugged him for his wallet. I can’t tell him how he has lived out a truth that Jesus taught us all. You don’t have that opportunity with one-way canned communication.

Dialogue is scary, open-ended, in-process, and costly of time and money. We have delayed on it for one year already. I repeat my suggestion of last September. Put two sets of air tickets in the hands of the 27 GSC members and fly them to two classes of the RCA where they have not gone before. Let them dialogue with classes and churches and observe the scene. Classes and churches will see to their hospitality. That will cost 40% more for travel than last year; and about 30% less than next year.

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