We’ve all been there. The meeting that begins with the same agenda as every past meeting to time immemorial. The gathering that gets hijacked by one overbearing guest. The party that peters out like air going out of a balloon.
And yet we’ve also been there when it’s gone, remarkably, right. When some purpose sparks a vibrant discussion. When a host creates a space that sparkles with real conversation. When an ending comes with a bang rather than a bust.
There’s an art to getting gatherings right and Priya Parker describes it in her new book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. Parker has been gathering people all over the world for conferences and events that address everything from race relations to global peace. In her book she offers the fruit of her experience in a ways that made me think about the countless church meetings and worship services I’ve enjoyed and endured over the years.
While Parker’s book is meant for a general audience, she often mentions churches in her examples. The book is roughly organized around the elements of a gathering: determining the purpose, setting the invitation list and venue, the opening, the creation of a temporary world, the closing. Reading through it, I had a sense of how good liturgical practice addresses these things well.
For instance, every worship service ought to have a clear sense of why it is happening. The ‘why’ should be a little unsettling. After all, good worship, as the liturgical theologian Urban Holmes once said, “leads regularly to the edge of chaos.” Or as Parker puts it, “Most purposes for gatherings feel worthy and respectable but are also basic and bland…they fail at the test for a meaningful reason for coming together: Does it stick its neck out a little bit? Does it take a stand? Is it willing to unsettle some of the guests (or maybe the host)? Does it refuse to be everything to everyone?” (17)
Even on seemingly mundane issues like announcements Parker focuses on purpose. In a chapter titled “Never Start a Funeral with Logistics,” she argues for a housekeeping-free opening: “Your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people. And in grabbing hem, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.” (178) Your extended directions on how to get to the quilting group social next Saturday are probably not going to fit the bill.
Preachers and hosts of every kind will benefit from Parker’s practical advice, (e.g. “Gatherings need perimeters. A space for a gathering works best when it is contained.” (65)), but perhaps more important are her psychological insights that explain why so many of our gatherings disappoint.
In one section titled “Don’t Be a Chill Host,” Parker considers the contemporary phenomenon of hosts who hesitate to guide a gathering because they don’t want want to impose. This ‘ethic of chill’ invites danger. “Hosts assume that leaving guests alone means that guests will be left alone, when in fact they will be left to one another…Those others are likely to exercise power in a manner inconsistent with your gathering’s purpose.” (74-5) Hence, Parker’s advocacy for hosts as benevolent authority figures protecting the space of the temporary alternate world they are trying to create.
And a temporary alternate world is what we should be aiming for in our gatherings. From the invitation to the crossing of the threshold to the encouragement for vulnerable sharing to the transition back into the “real” world, our gatherings ought to move us to some place new. In this I couldn’t help but think of the Orthodox Church and its emphasis that in worship we are entering the kingdom of God.
There’s a lot of wisdom in this book. Some will bristle at Parker’s thoughts on questions like who to exclude from gatherings, but hear her out. She’s convinced me that gathering should not only be functional but transformational. And if it means a few less mind-numbing meetings and a few more high, holy moments, I’m ready.