December 07, 2017 / Issue Volume 29, Number 2, Fall 2017 / Thought to Action

How to Start a Local Reformation

By Kirstin Johnson

Kirstin Johnson

Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson is a George MacDonald scholar passionate about the (re)integration of faith with literature, art, and daily life. Her literary and theological mentors emphasize both responsibility towards, and deepening relationship with, creation. She lives on a hobby farm with her husband Greg. She lectures internationally and writes for academic journals and for websites such as ArtWay and Patheos. She is on the Advisory board of Inklings journal SEVEN, the board of the George MacDonald Society, and is an Associate Member of the Inklings Institute of Canada. More: More: Linlathen Lectures

The Story of the Linlathen Lectures

My husband and I have had the privilege of living in some theologically-rich and relationally-oriented communities both before our time together—via Regent and InterVarsity—and in the early years of our marriage, at the University of St Andrews. None of these communities were perfect, but looking back we realize the uniqueness of interactions there with friends, colleagues, mentors, and teachers: conversations could start in a certain place, and go to certain depths—or heights. Similar engagements have been infrequent in our other places of residence, unless during visits from some of those “Regenty” friends. (“Regent-y,” “Regent-ish” are adjectives about which I feel awkward, but which I’ve heard even non-“Regentites” use. I hope enough of you have a sufficient sense of what I mean [or simply, the grace!] for them to be functional in this context.)

When we moved to our current home, a rural part of Canada known as the Ottawa Valley, we expected that Regent-ish conversations would continue to be rare. A combination of health/mobility issues and lifestyle choices meant that my active involvement in academic communities would also lessen considerably. My husband suggested that maybe we would just have to bring conferences to us. Four years in, that’s exactly what we did.

It kicked off with much less planning than one might deem prudent. A bit of spontaneity during a catch-up phone-call with friend and colleague Sharon Jebb Smith (St Andrews & Regent alum, now Regent adjunct), and suddenly, with only months to prepare, a weekend conference on “The History, Theology, and Spirituality of Reading” was in the works—to occur in our house! A couple of intrepid Regent alum in nearby cities and a daring new friend from a local church met with me to sketch out a plan. We found a small grant, hired a caterer, and drafted an invite. Sharon Forsyth of Alumni Relations helped spread the word in the region, and we contacted potentially interested local ministries. Success with grant applications enabled us to offer a TA-type scholarship to a grad student, as well as a “free clergy lunch”—a pre-conference gathering for interested local clergy of any denomination, to discuss the topic with the speakers. Needing help to facilitate all this, I snagged a few neighbour teens (some in high school, some in university) to serve food and drinks, assist with the programme, and be generally hospitable. We even came up with a name: the Linlathen Lectures—in tribute to Scottish divine “Erskine of Linlathen,” whose practice of hospitality in conversation, fellowship, and open-home incurred a quiet Regentish reformation in the 19th century.

Although not without “learning bumps,” the venture was a decided success. The gathering wasn’t huge: we decided that, volunteers included, our maximum would be however many we could manage to cram together for one sit-down meal—no more than 30 (all other meals are buffet-style.” Yet there, on the last weekend of June, our dining room, our living room, our deck, were full of Regenty people having Regentish conversations. Some were alumni, thrilled to have a mini-Regentish conference within driving distance. Some were friends of alumni, urged to check it out. Some were locals who had been longing for years for such conversation, teaching, and communion: clergy, chaplains, teachers, social workers, professors, retirees, stay-at-home parents, and more.

Four years on, I’ve realized that the conversations, the lectures, and the discussion groups are but a portion of the goodness this venture has brought to our local community; relational riches are already beyond recounting. Unique friendships and mentorships are often event goals, yet I did not anticipate how much Linlathen would also affect our (non-Regentish!) neighbourhood. Although many of our neighbours are still somewhat bemused (even confused) by “Kirstin & Greg’s summer-conference-thing,” they are also oddly proud of it. They know that speakers who usually frequent events in big cities come here to our wee neighbourhood, and that folk actually pay to attend. The curiosity is mixed with an eagerness to help, and to be hospitable to these incomers. This manifests in multiple ways: from offers to mow grass or set up chairs, to an influx of surprise muffins, cookies, and desserts—even loans of lawn seats, picnic tables, and wine glasses. Unexpected housing emergencies have resulted in delegates overnighting in neighbours’ spare rooms.

In consequence, our neighbours end up having conversations with more Regentish Christians than just ourselves—which not infrequently results in deconstructions of “church-folk” stereotypes. Every speaker has been spontaneously hosted by neighbours in some capacity: fireworks at a cottage; waterskiing on the lake; Ottawa’s Art Gallery (with local teens); bushwacking on ATVs; horseback-riding lessons…! Four years’ worth of late-teen/early-20s youth have not only served coffee & tea, washed dishes, set tables, and rearranged chairs; they’ve also welcomed and conversed with Regentish folk, and sat in on lectures, seminars, and discussions over topics that had never before crossed their cognition. Welcome to sit quietly and observe, they are usually tempted into engagement by attendees wanting their input.

The majority of these youth—our neighbours—come from mostly (or completely) unchurched families. The very thought that adults might enjoy talking about theology was novel to them. But they love what they hear. Whether in agreement or not, they are fascinated—as much by the tenor of the conversation as by the topics. After the first conference I asked one what she’d thought of it all, and she said: “I’ve never met so many adults who love life. Every single person there was excited about living!” Each year our volunteer youth urge friends to join: “The people are amazing, and the conversations are so fascinating; you’ll learn so much!” These kids from unchurched homes love the expressions of “life more abundant” that they see. They love learning that this kind of life is possible.

How to Start a Local Reformation

Can you do it? Yep: you can. As a volunteer venture, we’re far from perfect—and you likely will be too. Don’t let that stop you! You may not have space for 15-30 people (though it’s striking how many old stacking “church chairs” fit side by side in a room), but maybe a neighbour does. What about a community hall or local church? Obviously being in a house lends an intimate feel, but there are other ways to achieve this: comfortable chairs, creative seating, and always, always, food. Coffee or tea is never enough: eating together facilitates community and comfort in a manner you’ll not achieve otherwise. (It’s a theological thing!)

Grants: All manner of possibilities exist. Start exploring online. Sketch out costs of flights and honoraria for your speakers, and a food budget: those are your major costs, and possibly rental fees. By hosting the speaker and the grad student in our home we keep costs down; cooking meals would do so further, but we choose to support a local catering company, and avoid cooking and cleaning time. Once you figure out the major expenses you can decide how much each attendee costs, and later, depending on grant success, how much to charge.

Teaming up:  Consider local organizations that might be interested in sharing costs in exchange for sharing speakers—education committees, local seminaries, etc. The church that hosts our annual public lecture does not charge, but instead receives a registration spot. We have a high number of volunteers, and are non-profit: IMAGO has taken us under their umbrella so people can make donations. And every conference includes an “A Rocha walk,” integrating engagement with creation into the conference theme, which benefits Linlathen and A Rocha both.

Speakers: A surprising number of speakers are interested in small events like this. The lower-key, personal element; a limited number of students with whom to engage; space for casual conversation, restful contemplation, regrouping and rethinking—are all very appealing to many speakers, especially if paid appropriately! Contact fellow alumni who are now teaching. If they themselves are not available they can recommend colleagues who are. Ask Christina Lui at Regent if any profs or teaching alum are visiting your region or are interested in doing so. (Whilst our focus is on overseas speakers otherwise unlikely to visit rural Canada, speakers from your own country will decrease costs and increase options.)

“TA-ship”:  I highly recommend establishing a grad student scholarship. It is a way to connect with and encourage young scholars in your region who are interested in theology; it allows them to share their passions with (even mentor) youth volunteering on your team; it connects them—early in their journey—not only to locals also interested in thinking theologically, but to a practicing theological scholar (which, for our Linlathen grad students, has led to further introductions, guidance, and opportunities in their chosen field).

Clergy Lunch & Public Lecture: We host two free events in conjunction with but outside of the conference. Both attract people who are not able to set aside a whole weekend, and connect locals with similar interests. The public lecture is a safe venue for the simply curious as well as the hungry-&-thirsty. The lunch facilitates rare ecumenical engagement for local clergy in a non-work environment—and for some of them, conversations with our lecturers have been transformative.

Neighbours: Invite those who live around you to help, to participate—whether they “get” what it’s about or not. (And if you don’t yet know any neighbours well enough to do so, maybe that’s a priority before the conferencing). It’s delightful to us that a bunch of our neighbours have hung out with Sharon Jebb Smith, Trevor Hart, Ivan Khovacs, Bruce Kuhn, and Jason Lepojärvi. But truly one of the most beautiful outcomes of these conference adventures is the gradual transformation of some of those early neighbour volunteers into, well, rather Regentish folk. Right here, in our home. 

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