Back in January, I was one of close to a thousand faith formation leaders from across the ELCA to gather in Houston, TX for the annual Extravaganza conference. While we did talk about the upcoming Youth Gathering, our actual focus was around the theme Finding Forward. We spent four days immersed in the Emmaus Story (Luke 24:13-35) digging into what it means to walk alongside, have heart burn, and discover God in the breaking of bread.
One illustration that stuck with me was the description of riding in the “way back,” those backwards facing seats in the rear of the wood-paneled station wagons. Sitting in the “way back” is a little disorienting; you’re en route but can’t see where you’re going, all the signs are facing the other direction, and any milestones fly by before you can even recognize them. Sometimes that’s how we feel navigating life; we’re not finding forward, we’re fumbling forward. When we think about the direction of the church, it can sometimes feel like we’re in the “way back” and even though we’re moving we’re not sure how we’re getting there.
In the company of other youth, family, and children leaders, we wondered what it looks like to live in the tension, in the messy, muddy middle. The term we learned was ecotone (eco=life, tonos=tension). An ecotone is the overlap between two biomes; think about where a pond and a forest meet, that’s your ecotone. Ecotones are where there’s the most biodiversity, where the earth is most fertile, and where you find the integration of two bio-communities. We thought about living into the tension of where we’ve been as a church and where we’re going. That space is rich; we have the best of what we’ve been and what we’re becoming. It’s also a prime time for new things to emerge and thrive nurtured by the things that have already gone by.
We were challenged to think deeply about questions like:
- How can our community of faith be a tangible witness and authentic expression of Christ’s love?
- How can we actively participate in what God is doing in the place we live?
- What would bring abundant life to all people in our community?
Sometimes we feel like we have all the answers, that we can easily solve other people’s problems if they’d only listen. Sweeping in, we’re on a mission; we’re looking to bring God to people rather than recognizing that God is already there. Rather than asking God to follow us into what we’re doing…we should be wondering what God is already doing in the world, noticing where God is, and following where God is going. So often our default position is “be good and do well” when really it should be about “being well and doing good.”
The messy, muddy middle is a hard place to be, it squishes between your toes and clings to you long after you leave. But the good news is, if the future of our church, especially its young people and families, is in the hands of those who were in Texas over that weekend, then there is a lot of hope for Finding Forward together.
Allison Pate, Faith Formation & Service Director