Ever been cruising along, minding your own business when suddenly you bump into an announcement that someone has just done, said, written, started or released something that you had been thinking about for months (or years?). Me too.
Today I stumbled on this video clip from Donald Miller. It’s about a thing he’s put together called “Open Table”. It’s my idea. WAS my idea.
I’ve been working on this concept for about 2 years now. I’ve been calling it, “The Friendship Experiment”. I settled on that title because I decided that Christians, by and large, just wouldn’t go for something simply called “Friendship”. Since starting to work with adults full-time in the church I’ve noticed this frightening reality that most adults, when placed in a room full of other adults, don’t have a clue what to do with themselves. It’s honestly proven to me that we have some primitive instinct as I’ve watched people circle each other, seek dominance, refuse to be themselves and seek the camouflage of a pasty smile and “go along to get along” personality.
In my local community of Jesus followers I’ve tried to pass along this simple idea that relationship is all that it’s really all about. The idea for the “Friendship Experiment” started forming a couple years ago when I had a gathering of people from our community and asked everyone to bring a dessert. The dining room table was filled with sweet treats and for 20 minutes a warm buzz filled the air as people grabbed food, chatted with each other and shared stories in big and small clusters around our upstairs. Then after about 20, maybe 30 minutes, in a seemingly coordinated effort, the various sized groups became silent. One of my friends spoke up and said, “O.K., what’s the agenda?” And everyone pushed into our living room and looked at me with expectation. I looked over at my good wife, the elusive Donna, whose twinkling eyes and sardonic smile silently said to me, “See, I told to have something ready just in case…” “This is it,” I said, “we’re just hanging out, being friends….” And a very uncomfortable moment stretched on.
“Really?” Someone else asked. I clearly joke around too much and I felt the room looking back and forth at each other wondering if I’d suddenly declare they’d been ‘punk’d’ and pull out my list of things we needed to cover.
“Really.” I assured everyone. “This is it.” Oddly, everyone seemed a little disappointed and I couldn’t figure out why. I hate meetings, I really do. Most times they’re long exercises in silliness. I love the commercial that features a room full of firemen discussing issues. What if firemen ran things? Is the question the spot poses. “O.K. gang,” the Chief reads off, “The question is whether or not everyone should have clean, safe drinking water. What do you think? All in favour?” And everyone raises their hand, “That wasn’t so hard…” meeting adjourned. The point, which I appreciate, is that we talk about a lot of stuff for lots of time that shouldn’t really take that much consideration. It just requires action.
Back at my living room we mumbled through a few more stories but within 20 minutes people began excusing themselves to get home to kids, pick something up before the stores closed or get off on something tangible, something do-able, something with a little more structure to it.
And I started wondering how we’d lost the ability to just be friends. To hang out without the T.V. telling us what to feel or laugh at, to share our lives with each other and not just space. At that moment, as I watched entropy take hold, the “Friendship Experiment” was conceived. It was an “experiment” because I knew if I just invited people to engage in friendship it wouldn’t seem sexy, cool or intriguing. Somehow, I thought, tagging on “experiment” will make people think it’s a program and, let’s face it, if the church knows anything it knows programs.
So I’ve talked about this with a few friends for the last 2 years. As our community has gotten better at it because we refused to give up on the idea, the “program” part has seemed less urgent. I’m watching friends sharing life with friends all over the place now and on a typical gathering day, whether it’s a Sunday morning or some other time, you can hardly get people to disengage from conversations to get to my agenda! And I love it!
I met with a group today. We were introduced to a new program that’s going to take people from point A to point J. I bit my tongue so hard it might be pierced now. I bit it when the words “program” and “transformation” were used in the same sentence. In 25 years of working with people on a day in, day out basis there’s only one word I’ve found that goes with “transformation” and it’s “relationship”.
So that takes me back to Donald Miller. Look what he’s done. It’s called “Open Table” and he’s found a very clever way to give something to the church that smells like a program so much that it’s marketable but, and please keep this a secret, it’s really an excuse for relationship. So I’ll blame myself for being too slow on this one and give thanks that Donald Miller wasn’t and he took this simple but elegant grace from God, found a way to package it for mass distribution and then invited us all to engage. Believers, believers in other or all the above and none of the above, friends first, then see what happens. Dear God, what a radical idea! I’m so glad he thought of it.
Please, whoever you are reading these little words, take a chance on Open Table. Take a chance on relationships that go beyond being in the same room and doing something together and into letting each other into our heads and hearts and lives. Risk the awkward moments on the way to rediscovering the lost and mysterious grace called friendships.
And yes, in case you’re wondering, I completely agree with what he’s talking about. After one go at this I hope folks will forget the whole curriculum deal and just trust what happens with real life.