Thoughts from “More Than None”

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We asked Rev. Eric Larsen to write a post touching on his experience at “More Than None: Engaging the Religiously Unaffiliated,” a conference which took place at Montreat in October, 2014. With nearly 300 participants from over 27 states, “More Than None” was a huge success. Whether you made this year and are hungry for more or you couldn’t make it this time, make plans to come to the “Neighbor” conference next October. — Ed.

A few months ago my family attended the annual Montreat’s Institute for Church Leadership conference. This year it was entitled, More Than None: Engaging the Religiously Unaffiliated. This was the most widely attended adult education conference I have seen at Montreat! We heard keynotes and worshiped God together in Anderson Auditorium, came together to listen, struggle, or wrestle with the information being presented, and learn better how we might live out our callings as pastors, educators, and lay people to engage with the world we inhabit.

Gabe Lyons presented information from his books UnChristian and The New Christians which share how people who don’t attend and those who do, see the church. The data was challenging and calls us to pray about and recognize the realities we face as churches in the twenty-first century. Large numbers of people of all ages and huge percentages of those who are the younger generation have grown to see churches as a problem and something they can, for better or worse, live without.

Eric Weiner shared his faith journey and how, as a spiritual seeker, he studied different faith traditions as a correspondent for NPR and as a religious writer. As someone who has grown up Presbyterian for longer than I can remember, it was a great help to me to hear what Eric and Gabe shared.

Speaking from a different perspective, Dr. Allan Boesak was our preacher for the conference. Both through the sermons during worship and the discussion times, Dr. Boesak shared about the struggles he lived through during apartheid in South Africa. His witness about the development of the Belhar Confession and his charge to the church to be present during the struggles today wherever injustice and oppression are taking place called those of us present to move from places of privilege to more faithfully be the church. To be the church that those outside it might value or want to call home. To be the church that Jesus Christ taught us to be.

The Rev. Dr. Katherine Rhodes Henderson, President of Auburn Seminary shared about engaging with the younger generations. It was through discussions with her, that many of the younger participants passionately spoke about their own ministries and ushered a call for their involvement not as tokens but full partners in the church and as conference leaders.

I give thanks for the vibrant leadership I saw in worship and at the conference as an artist created painted banners in our midst throughout the week. The music leaders led us through many of the new song styles shown in the Glory to God hymnal and a choir sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Rocky Ground” as communion came to a close during the final worship.

As Rodger Nishioka spoke about the ways churches minister to each other and continue to welcome those who are in the midst of devastating illness and traumatic loss, I thought of the congregation I serve. I thought of how that story is one I have heard from our own parishioners. The church has so much to offer. And through More than None, we better learned how those outside it might offer the church new ways to live out our faith and God’s calling at this time in places throughout the country and the world. People came together from twenty-six states to learn together and be the church at this conference.

To say that it was a challenge to attend, participate, and then write about it, is an understatement. While we have attended many adult conferences at Montreat, this was our first with our twin girls. A little over a year old, we navigated the dining hall and were blessed by not only the child care offered by the conference, but also by all those participating. We received so many offers of help from those without children present and also developed relationships with others who had brought their own children. Beyond the discussion online during the conference, dialogue has continued as people unpack what they have learned and what that may mean for the congregations and campus ministries they serve.

Montreat Conference Center offers profound opportunities for people to come together and engage in meaningful discussion about the most pressing needs the church and community. As More than None ended, we were invited to stay for a day with Henry Brinton as he gave practical explorations about becoming a more Welcoming Congregation. Henry shared his experiences and findings about hospitality and reconciliation so that churches might better do outreach and evangelism. And Friday having returned home, I watched online as Dr. Boesak and others discussed racial reconciliation from the Belhar Confession of South Africa through Ferguson today.

I am excited to see that next year’s conference Neighbor: Being Christian in a Multi-faith World with leadership by Brian McLaren among others will continue this tradition. At More Than None, Rodger Nishioka shared his experience of being a part of a multi-faith dialogue. It is one I recognized in myself through seminary travels through Turkey and Egypt. Through being better able to share about our own Christian witness, we can better dialogue with those of different traditions. Having experienced Brian McLaren’s leadership and interest in listening to younger generations at Montreat, I hope that you will plan now to attend!

May we seek to better understand and be present with our neighbors as we share our own witness. May we continue to learn from those outside the church as we seek to better model being Christ’s hands and feet here and now. And many thanks to Montreat Conference Center for being an ongoing blessing, inviting us to love God with all our mind and with all our heart and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves!