O ver the past couple years, we have had to practice a level of resiliency that has felt systemically unfair. From heart-breaking losses and cancelations due to COVID to human rights violations across the globe, we as a society have been through the wringer. In the midst of all of this—and maybe, in part, because of this—I have grown more appreciative of how we gather, connect, and make meaning of our lives. This is especially pertinent because we spend our whole lives gathering—at home, at school, in the workplace, in our communities, and beyond. Unfortunately, all too often these occasions and get-togethers are lackluster, unproductive, and sometimes even harmful. Yet, we continue to gather. Why? I believe we gather to engage, to mourn, to make meaning of what happens in the world, and to learn how to take action. Gatherings allow us to sort through the questions of life together.
How, then, do we create meaningful and even transformative gatherings? In her book, The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker offers a human-centered approach to gathering that can help us design experiences with greater care, clarity, and creativity. I found this book profoundly grounding and impactful; it continues to be my go-to book recommendation for adaptive leadership. Whether you are the greeter at your church, hosting a Bible study group at your home, or trying to build meaningful relationships across culture, identity, generations, and more, I am optimistic that these helpful points from Parker can be grounding principles for all of us in making collective meaning and in creating more hospitable spaces.
Parker says that the first step of creating meaningful, everyday gatherings is to embrace a specific, disputable purpose. This principle is grounded in this question: What is the need in your life right now that by bringing a specific group of people together you might address?
I was recently at a Rwandan gifting ceremony, which is a great example of a gathering with a specific purpose. In a gifting ceremony, two families gather and one family gives a gift to another family or a specific member of the family as a show of continual friendship. The recipient family receives the gifts (money, cow, clothes, etc.) and also receives stories of generosity, faithfulness, and commitment to continual friendships. Not all of us will be able to attend gatherings like this, but in whatever ways we can, we ought to bring people together with purpose. As a host, address a specific need and allow guests to come with their own needs. This is a true marker of hospitality.
The second part of creating meaningful get-togethers is to cause good controversy. Many of us grew up with family gatherings where certain topics were off the table in the hopes that it would preserve harmony. However, an “off-limits” discussion list often means there is a missing key component of bringing meaning to conversations. Discussions will likely miss urgency and relevance. Instead, a good gathering works to avoid both unhealthy peace and unhealthy conflict.
What might causing good controversy look like for you? A great place to start is creating opportunities to share stories and to address underlying fears. This is a healthy way to see and receive each other. Causing good controversy can look like asking people for their stories and experiences instead of their opinions. Ask curious questions, and encourage storytelling. In doing so, we model our behavior after Jesus Christ, who throughout his ministry did the very same in order to better see and know people. All human life is shaped by story, and the human experience can only be understood in the context of a narrative framework. Therefore, taking the time to know one another’s stories allows us to see how others fundamentally think and feel because a worldview always comes through a story.
Lastly, Parker emphasizes that another crucial element of creating meaningful, everyday gatherings is to create a temporary, alternative world through the use of “pop-up rules”.
We live in an increasingly multicultural, intersectional world where we don’t always share the same etiquette or behave in the same way as one another. Therefore, unspoken norms can be troubling to gatherings. Parker describes pop-up rules as “one time only constitutions for a specific purpose.” Pop-up rules allow us to connect across diverse backgrounds and make meaningful connections without having to be the same. A pop-up rule can be as simple as instructing everyone at an intergenerational gathering to put their phones in a basket. Different generations have different approaches to technology use; having all the phones in a basket creates a temporary reality of not constantly being connected to (and distracted by) a smartphone. Another example of a simple pop-up rule might be asking pastors not to talk about their job at a gathering where the focus should be elsewhere.
What do these principles mean for people who are weary of making meaning in groups, or for those whose intentionality is overlooked and by-passed? They mean that we should keep trying! Maybe you are thinking, “Ruth, I just want to gather my family or friends together so we can eat, laugh and be together without having to think about how conversations flow, or about who is and isn’t here.” I hear you, and I say to you, “Yes, you can do that!” But there’s a reason I encourage all of us to lean into reimagining gatherings. It’s about hospitality. The concepts of hospitality and of gathering together are woven throughout Scripture. God desires for God’s people to welcome, to protect, and to honor the embodiment of God through radical hospitality. In his ministry, Jesus embodies warm welcome and he emphasizes gathering as a sacred act of God-centeredness when he said, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also” (Matthew 18:20).
Gathering together with intentional hospitality not only anticipates a shared understanding of doing life with others, but it also creates the space to approach one another through the lens of our stories and shared experiences. Stories give us the latitude to acknowledge the messiness of life so that we may better enter into God’s grace. It is through our gathering that stories take shape and give us the framework to help us better understand God, ourselves, and one another.
Meaningful gatherings take courage, but gathering well is a learnable practice. We have an extraordinary moment before us here to pause, observe, and reimagine how we gather. How might we move into fully embracing one another and lean into being more hospitable people? That answer is critical because how we gather, especially as Christ followers, is part of our calling to love, to serve, and to empower, and to see Christ in one another.
Ruth Langkamp serves the Reformed Church in America as next generation program specialist. You can connect with Ruth at firstname.lastname@example.org.