By Norm Gordon and Guest Blogger Andrea Gordon
If you’ve ever been to a church with any sort of formal liturgy, you’ll notice a specific cadence to the responses and prayers when the congregation reads them altogether. In fact, if you listen closely, you’ll notice breaks in the congregation’s reading where there are no grammatical indications. There is a sort of unwritten code of how long a phrase should be and where to mark off clauses with a corporate pause that a seasoned worshiping group creates on the fly, even if they couldn’t articulate how or why.
I recently attended the inaugural service for a “church for skeptics.” A shiny, new, hopeful ministry dedicated to re-evaluating every doctrine upheld by traditional institutions and “deconstructing” them. Despite the digital bulletins, the free merchandise, extensive welcome team, and enthusiastic worship band, their opening liturgy was messy. The familiar cadence I expect from an established Protestant congregation was nowhere to be found. We made it through just fine, but we began phrases at different times, paused at different places, and emphasized different words. There was no uniformity in cadence. I winced, careful not to look up or around at the others.
It occurred to me that those assembled that day had never ‘performed’ a liturgy before as a group. No tradition of breaks and pauses had been set. Although the church’s leaders had worked hard to make the space comfortable and appealing, the development of something unprecedented inevitably led to this verbal mayhem.
Which is the sort of thing that can happen with new programs, projects, or endeavors. When starting something which is the first of its kind, you are often building a community with no template. You’re provoking communication without an unspoken, collective, rubric for people to rely on. Your results will be, in a word, awkward.
We overlook this awkwardness. We are embarrassed to admit that our hesitancy towards new experiences lies in something so mundane. Our feelings are exacerbated when we consider the usually very worthy goals of our endeavors.
When you have something revolutionary, something that defies the norm to foster necessary conversations, explore the harder questions, and make a difference in the community, you’re operating in a new kind of space. One with new routines, with leadership in its development, and with an identity that has yet to surface.
Awkwardness will likely become your most dedicated member. A powerful one at that.
How do we address this? Well, a start is acknowledging that people’s discomfort, no matter how inane, is normal and impacts what you do.
Discomfort motivates and can push even the most enthusiastic participants away.
Still, acknowledgment gets us only so far. What also helps is getting used to awkwardness. You’ll never feel totally at ease with it – by definition, it’s uncomfortable – and, if you’re doing anything of meaning, you’ll never avoid it altogether. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get easier or that you won’t become more accepting of its reality. It can also be useful as an indicator of a group’s tolerance for change or the rate of change around them.
Accept the discomfort. Trust that it’s worth it. If you believe that what you are providing or building positively impacts people in ways you can see, lean into that faith. If you know that what you have is sought out by others it will bring you the confidence to handle the exchange in a helpful manner.
Upon leaving the service that day, I’m happy to say that awkwardness was not my overarching feeling. I heard a timely and impactful sermon and came away with two new friends, encouraged and more connected.
Awkwardness is unnerving, but often temporary. By acknowledging its weight, we can diminish awkwardness as an obstacle and understand it as a sign that what we’re doing may just be groundbreaking.