by Rocky Supinger
A colloquium is a buttoned-up thing. Professors in blazers present scholarly papers to a small audience that takes hand-written notes (you don’t tweet a colloquium). Panels of presenters lean into those short table microphones as they “push back” or “affirm” or “wonder.” People nod but don’t interject. The plural of colloquium is colloquia. Like I said: buttoned-up.
All of this was lost on me as I strolled (late) into the opening session of Moderator Neal Presa’s third Colloquium on Ecclesiology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, last Monday. I was there as a respondent to one of the papers (which I hadn’t read yet), but I was mostly looking forward to hanging out with the Moderator and the gaggle of theologians he had called together (see note above about professors in blazers).
Only this was no gaggle, and the focused, quiet attention of the gathering I strolled into caught me a little unprepared. Fuller’s new president, Mark Labberton, was speaking from the podium in serious and measured tones about God’s vision of justice in Isaiah 58, and the 35-or-so people in the room were intensely still in observance. Soon, the panel of respondents were invited, and I gulped as I listened to respondents speak with detail about the nuances of President Labberton’s address, and I gulped again as he carefully responded to their responses.
I go to a couple of conferences each year, and I’ve noticed digital and participatory trends. Keynote addresses are shorter and Q & A sessions are longer. They’re egalitarian; anyone can say anything, and most everybody is using the now-indispensable event hashtag to tweet quotes from speakers or criticism of the organizers. Some even broadcast the Twitter feed behind the speakers. The conferences I go to are free-flowing idea exchanges that engage a variety of learning styles and aim to be as much fun as they are informative. (The day after the colloquium, I wistfully read about the Progressive Youth Ministry conference – #pym14 – where participants decorated a poster with their own definitions of “progressive.”)
There were no posters at Moderator Presa’s ecclesiology colloquia. There was a hashtag (#modce), but only the Moderator seemed to be using it. Despite a live stream of the event on YouTube and Moderator Presa’s repeated invitations to those watching to interact with the speakers using Twitter, nobody ever did.
Instead, conversation was limited to people actually in the room, any of whom could contribute, but not until after the presenters and invited respondents. And the conversation was long; each presentation and response panel was given a two-hour block of time. Two hours? That’s a planning decision to test the limits of contemporary conference goers.
Yet colloquium goers were unfazed, even resilient. Presenters spoke slowly (and without PowerPoint!) and made nuanced observations and suggestions about the opportunities and challenges facing the church today. President Labberton’s address explored the intersection of worship and justice. David Gambrell, of the Office of Theology and Worship, spoke about “Identity and Mission at the Thresholds of Christian Worship.” Jennifer Lord made proposals for preaching that can “Equip Liturgical-Missional Congregations.”
These were serious conversations that needed the two hours given. They could have easily extended to three or four hours. Diverse respondents from Fuller’s faculty and student body – as well as “area respondents” like me drawn from nearby churches – had ample time to probe presenters’ ideas, and presenters were mostly diligent and engaged dialogue partners in response.
Maybe a colloquium’s exchanges are too big for Twitter (despite Moderator Presa’s persistence). Maybe the church is leaving behind the lecture-driven conference in favor of greater participation and ever-expanding event options. Maybe we’re moving more and more toward an “open space” ethic in which participants craft their own experience based on the issues they care about and the questions they’re asking. I’ve experienced a bit of those things, and I like them. Like, a lot.
Yet, in its length and depth, the Moderator’s Colloquium on Ecclesiology also provided something uniquely valuable to a Presbyterian church discerning God’s future into the 21st century: dialogue. Not tweeting and retweeting, and not the breathless brainstorm of a breakout session. Dialogue: extended face-to-face conversation on difficult and complex subjects where presenters plan intently, speakers speak slowly and participants listen carefully.
Rocky Supinger is associate pastor at Claremont Presbyterian Church and blogs at yorocko.com.