Conferences are like busses – they all come along at once. November is turning out to be Conference Central for me – last weekend I was at one called ‘Changing Church in a Fragile World’ in Lurgan – you can find out what I learnt here (and check out the Diocese of Down and Dromore website while you’re at it – these are the crazy people who took a chance and launched The Dock!)
Next week I’m away at an Arrow retreat – a chance to get some good teaching and leadership about my own walk with God. (So apologies if this blog goes quiet for a couple of days!)
This week (in fact as I type – I’m “multi-tasking”/rudely ignoring the current speaker – delete as appropriate) I’m in St Anne’s Cathedral at Redeem Cities, a conference organised by the gang at the new Redeemer Central church plant in Belfast (you can check them out here). Fascinating to be in an old, deeply-rooted traditional building to listen to some cutting-edge speakers at the leading edge of new forms of church.
For me the unquestionable highlight of this conference pile-up (so far) was yesterday’s session here at Redeem Cities. Now I have to confess that I arrived here with some prejudice – the keynote speaker yesterday was Mark Driscoll, whose megachurch in Seattle, Mars Hill (check out their website here), has become famous and enormously successful, but also a bit controversial in terms of some of their very ‘reformed’ theology (for example in relation to women in leadership).
The morning session yesterday (in common with the Mars Hill podcasts I’ve listened to) was a frustrating, unsettling mixture of loads of fantastic input, and some controversial, confrontational stuff which quickly became the only thing that everyone could talk about during the coffee break! And so it felt like my prejudices about Mark Driscoll – that he was aggressive, arrogant, exclusive – were maybe deepening, no matter how much I was enjoying the vast majority of his teaching.
Then – wow! – the afternoon happened… talk about having your prejudices turned upside-down. Turns out Mark Driscoll comes from a good Irish Catholic family, and he spent the afternoon dealing honestly, humbly and humorously about his Catholic heritage, his faith journey, and his heart for engagement with Catholic brothers and sisters.
Because yes… Mark Driscoll, the bastion of Reformed, Evangelical, Conservative theology (or so I’d pegged him), gave the most heartfelt, profound case for Shared Medley that I’ve yet heard. He argued passionately that Protestants and Catholics are co-heirs of the Christian tradition – part of the same family. As with any family, he suggested, there are rows, differences and conflicts – but we are family, and what we share in Jesus is infinitely more important than what divides us – to use his great phrase, we should work “from common ground to complicated ground”. He emphasized time and again that his vision for church growth is not about institutions or denominations, but relationships – which can cross denominations and transcend institutions. Without compromising his deeply-felt core convictions, he came across as a guy who would happily sit down for a coffee and a conversation with anybody – someone who is willing to agree to disagree.
It was another one of those times (they’re happening a lot recently!) when I wanted to cheer, or cry, or both, at the thrill of being part of the church at a time when the momentum of reconciliation seems to be growing so powerfully. How fantastic it is when someone you’d written off – for being too tight or too loose, too dogmatic or too flexible – surprises you and changes your world just a little bit. God works in the mix.