Faith Works 7-18-15
A Family Reunion Writ Large
Today my religious tradition, the denomination known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), begins a five day event in Columbus we call a General Assembly.
It's "General" and not national, because we are a church that has members in both the United States and Canada; it's an "Assembly" because it's not a legislative conference or session as some communions have.
We hold them every two years, but we've held them annually in the past, and there've been gaps in the sequence when major events (Depressions, wars) interrupted, and we're having a debate right now about whether we should shift to every three or four. So the frequency isn't sacred.
What's important about the General Assembly, in my tradition, is that it's more a family reunion than a business session. Anyone can come, and registration fees aside, there are business sessions and the occasional vote where we have to check and see who is a voting representative for a congregation and who isn't, but not often. Every congregation gets at least a couple of votes, some as many as a half dozen, and all clergy in good standing (including retired) get to vote. So even the voting part is, well, kind of sloppy. We don't vote on doctrine or beliefs, anyhow, more on polity (which is structure, more or less) and procedure.
We had a slow motion split, in what's known to scholars and some theologians as the "Restoration Movement," between 1927 and 1968, creating an even more independent wing of that movement which holds the North American Christian Convention (NACC). They vote on even less than we do, but you'll note they avoid the term "national" as well, and I've been to their gatherings, and it's more of a family reunion than a business session, too.
They have also seen, while being more traditional and conservative than my wing of the movement, a decline in attendance. The NACC used to have 30,000 each summer, and now they struggle to get 6,000; the Disciples of Christ gathering every two years as a General Assembly is just nudging past 4,000 in registrations for this week, but we had over 11,000 when I first attended them almost thirty years ago.
Mass gatherings in convention centers are becoming less, well, exciting. Not so long ago, it was an honor to be asked to go attend one of these; now, it's more "who would go for us?" and generally you're asked to float most of the cost yourself, which with hotel and parking and meals, let alone assembly registration, can quickly pass a thousand dollars and more. That's a large amount of money for the dubious privilege of having a vote in a business session that doesn't actually vote on much.
But then there's the reality of face-to-face meetings with peers, with seniors who have been leaders of days past, and young people who will lead us in the future. There's singing with four and five thousand and more in unison, or even in harmony, and communion as a congregation writ larger than most of us will experience anywhere, ever.
What's to become of General Assemblies? I'm not sure. I'd hate to see them vanish altogether. They will probably keep costing more (sigh) and they'll probably happen less often (double sigh), but they will also keep happening in some form (long sigh).
We're hoping, at Newark's Central Christian Church, to host a hatful of guests tomorrow who trek over from Columbus, having traveled from around the United States and Canada to be here in central Ohio. There will be services each evening with communion in the convention center, after some strong preaching and deep searching of Scripture and Tradition, right through Wednesday evening.
What will this event look like in two and four more years? We don't know, like so many other transitions taking place right around us in America these days. But I hope to be there to see it, and see the others of my tradition who rejoice in the Lord as Disciples of Christ.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's having some fun helping put on this year's General Assembly in Columbus. Tell him what you think about church meetings at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.