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Hands in dialogue: sharing and listening. Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

Hands in dialogue: sharing and listening.

The 5Ws and 1H of Christian Conferencing

By Crystal Caviness

Christian Conferencing dates back to John Wesley, when the founder of the Methodist movement sought to engage members and clergy in small groups to encourage listening and learning from one another, with a focus on mutual understanding. With Wesley’s Christian Conferencing, there were no winners or losers, only those who desired to discern God’s will.

The 864 delegates and thousands of others who meet in Portland, Oregon, for General Conference 2016 to discuss the future of The United Methodist Church are encouraged to enter the quadrennial legislative gathering amid a spirit of Christian Conferencing. What that looks like and means has been and continues to be the topic of numerous conversations.

Following are excerpts from a recent interview with Bishop Christian Alsted (Nordic-Baltic Episcopal Area) that address the 5Ws and 1H of Christian Conferencing:

Everyone can participate in Christian Conferencing, especially “Christian brothers and sisters who are listening for God’s voice and God’s direction for the church,” says Alsted.

The conversation about what Christian Conferencing is — and isn’t — has been happening for years. Arriving at an understanding, Alsted says, means being aware of the role God plays in our interactions and relationships with one another.

“Christian Conferencing is a way for us to discern the will of God, to try to listen for God’s voice as we are in conversation with one another,” Alsted says. “Christian Conferencing is about growing together in holiness. It is not about doing, it is about being. So it’s much more in the attitude towards each other than it is about following a specific technique or process.

“Christian Conferencing is a means of grace,” says Alsted. “Just like when we read the Bible or pray, God is always present. In that same way, God is always present when we practice Christian Conferencing.”

What isn’t it?

“Christian Conferencing is not a technique, not a particular process or a set of rules to regulate our conversation,” says Alsted. “Christian Conferencing is not something we vote on. It’s a part of our theological DNA, like praying.”

Christian Conferencing is more than what happens at a specific date and time.  In fact, according to Alsted, Christian Conferencing should be occurring all of the time.

“We do Christian Conferencing through Plenary, through legislative committees, so that everything that takes place at General Conference is in a spirit of Christian Conferencing,” he says. “We would like to see the spirit of Christian Conferencing really flow through all of General Conference in all that we are doing.”

The short answer to the question of where Christian Conference can take place: everywhere. Christian Conferencing should not be relegated to General Conference meetings or plenary sessions, Alsted says. Christian Conferencing should permeate all places where Christians are living out their faith.

“Our worship, our community building, even our breaks around a cup of coffee, when we are listening to reports, when we are voting, everything is Christian Conferencing,” he says.

In Wesley’s day, Christian Conferencing most commonly occurred in in small communities of faith, where people knew and built trust with one another over time. The challenge of General Conference, Alsted says, will be the large number of people involved.  Alsted encourages delegates to call on God to create a space where people are open, he says, “to allowing others to speak into their lives and where they have been given permission to speak into others’ lives.”

Christian Conferencing is part of our heritage, Alsted says. When Methodism sprang up in America and conferences began developing, there were some adjustments from the original British conferences. The American version of Christian Conferencing became a way to shape governance and discipline and encourage evangelistic outreach. “So the American version of Christian Conferencing,” Alsted says, “became polity, unity and revival.

As Christian Conferencing has evolved over the decades, Alsted suggests we keep the three parts in better balance. “I’m just wondering,” he says, “if we would need a little more of the revival part and the unity part and a little less polity?”

Although Christian Conferencing was designed initially by Wesley to be used in small groups, Alsted is confident the discipline can translate into the larger General Conference setting. Doing so, however, requires that participants be well prepared spiritually.

“If we take prayer and discernment just as seriously as we take preparing the material for General Conference, then we have taken quite a step in coming to General Conference with the right attitude,” Alsted says.

Once at General Conference, Alsted suggests focusing on more than the agenda and legislation.

 “Don’t think of yourself as being at General Conference to make decisions. Don’t think about being there because you won an election or you want to get your preferred petitions approved by the General Conference,” Alsted says. “Think of yourself as being at General Conference to grow in holiness and, together with Christian brothers and sisters from across the world, listen for God’s voice and God’s direction for the church.

“Yes, we are going to make decisions. Yes, we are going to vote. But our main purpose should be to grow together as brothers and sisters, as the church.”

It’s a tall order, Alsted admits, readily acknowledging there will be differing opinions and, perhaps, strong disagreements, all of which can take place amid Christian Conferencing.

“I think the challenge is are we able to disagree in a way that still honors God?,” Alsted says. “We need delegates, bishops and everyone who participates in any way to come with an open heart and open mind.”

Crystal Caviness is a Public Relations Specialist at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee.