“When it comes to discussions of faith and spirituality, what makes you lean in?”
This was one of several questions asked during a panel discussion at this year’s “On This Rock” event hosted near Smith Rock State Park by the Common Ground church plant. If you aren’t familiar with On This Rock, it’s an annual event focused on connecting with the outdoors community in Central Oregon and inspiring all who attend to consider Jesus. Pastor Randy Folkenberg, who has been helping plant Common Ground since he returned from seminary a couple of years ago, described it this way: “Our mission for On This Rock is to improve accessibility, experience belonging, and consider Jesus in the climbing space. Those three dimensions overlap and are emphasized in various ways over the course of a long weekend – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.” Instead of the traditional “Come to our event and do the fun stuff with us only if you came for worship,” the organizers of On This Rock chose to give their community more agency in deciding when to participate and how. “The whole event is designed in an ‘opt in’ way,” said Randy. “Some people are there mainly because they want to find belonging with others who come for the weekend. Others are really just looking for opportunities to learn how to rock climb and be guided by professional guides at no cost, and don’t really engage with the content that’s directly related to spirituality or faith or Jesus. We’re really up front with all of the aspects of the weekend, and we encourage people to plug into the parts that would be meaningful to them.”
On This Rock provided many different opportunities to be involved; from food and fellowship to on-site camping, to accessibility resources for those who could not generally afford to participate in many outdoor climbing activities, a free film screening, and discussions on faith – and it has grown since it first launched last year. According to Pastor Randy Folkenberg 48 people participated in guiding climbing activities for a full day at no cost in 2022, but in 2023 that number rose to 72! “Many of these people would likely never have had those climbing experiences or access to that opportunity otherwise due to the cost,” he shared.
The highlight of the weekend, however, was a multi-faith panel discussion moderated by Pastor Randy. One prominent panelist was local climbing legend and author of the book Rock Climbing Smith Rock State Park: A Comprehensive Guide to More Than 1,800 Routes, Alan Watts. Pastor Randy estimates that around 200 people joined them for this segment – the most highly attended portion of the event. “Instead of a keynote speaker this year, we invited six different leaders from our local climbing community to be on a panel discussion for an hour,” said Randy. “We talked about their personal practices and perspectives on spirituality. Among the panelists, two would identify as Christian or followers of Jesus. We had a couple of goals with this panel; number one, we wanted to show that these local leaders who are so loved and valued in our local community are who they are in part because of their spirituality – their perspectives and practices both past and present. So often we don’t know how to navigate conversations about spirituality without being insensitive, offensive, or narrow-minded, so we were hoping to be able to demonstrate that to everyone there. We wanted to celebrate each person’s story. The second dimension of the panel was to model what it might look like to engage positively in conversations about one’s spirituality. We wanted the people who came to listen to think, ‘Wow, I want to go ask my friend or my climbing partner or whoever about their spiritual perspectives and practices, and now I have an idea on where to start.’ We wanted to equip our community with the ability to be a place that listens to people’s spiritual perspectives better than before. The closing question we asked the panelists was, ‘If you were going to be engaged in a conversation about your spirituality, what would make you lean into that conversation?’”
It was this question especially that seemed to resonate strongly with many in attendance. Crystal Kielman, who works as an accountant for the Oregon Conference, shared this: “The panel discussion was really good, and just being able to dialogue about it afterward with my husband and reflect on our own spiritual journeys was really meaningful.”
Michelle Phillips, who grew up in the Catholic faith tradition, was attending for her second year after being invited to help organize the event by two of her friends from the Common Ground church plant. “The panel discussion was so special and awesome,” she said. “It was such a rare thing to see because it was people of all different spiritual backgrounds with such different spiritual lives, and they were all talking to each other and expressing different ideas. A lot of what people said was stuff I really connected with, because a lot of the people on the panel shared that they were still figuring their spirituality out themselves. Some shared that they want a spiritual life, but they aren’t sure what that looks like – and that was so cool and connecting to hear because I feel like that’s where a lot of people are at. I would love to see more stuff like this in the future – just welcoming people of all different faith backgrounds and holding really intentional space for them.”
Michelle especially resonated with the final question asked during the discussion – What makes you lean in? “The kind of consensus was that what makes you lean into a discussion about spirituality is genuine, open-hearted questions and a willingness to be vulnerable in conversation – that and usually an established relationship. Then just patience and not trying to get into a super deep conversation just right out of the gate. Let some time pass before you try to dive in with people.”
Long term, organic relationships are what Common Ground is all about. “There were people of all sorts of spiritual or religious backgrounds that came,” said Pastor Randy. “People who haven’t gone to a single church function since they graduated high school or others who have never gone to anything related to a faith community at all. Some others have been sincere followers of Jesus for a long time but have been longing for a place they felt safe inviting their friends and peers to where they would experience the heart of Jesus. But no matter what background, one thing we’ve heard over and over was that the people who came to On This Rock experienced love, and they grew in their understanding of how to reflect that to others through this event. From an organizer’s perspective, the goal of this event was to point people toward the heart of Jesus and that the outdoor community of Central Oregon would experience His heart.”
One thing the Common Ground team has learned about their local community is that people are far more willing to come out and connect with someone they have a relationship with locally, than an out-of-town speaker, and they took that lesson to heart this year. “On Friday evening I shared a reflection titled ‘Imagining a Better God,’ said pastor Randy. “We asked the question, ‘If God exists, whatever our belief systems may be, what would the best possible God look like?’ I shared how important that question is even for those who are followers of Jesus, because when we read the Bible we see so often that even professed followers of God imagined a god that was worse than He really is. It was a discussion that Christians could really find relevant, but it was also something really stimulating for those that didn’t identify as Christian and we had so many more people like that who came out on Friday evening for that reason.”
Common Ground’s mission is “To grow a movement of Jesus followers who reflect His heart in the outdoor community of Central Oregon.” You can learn more about them, including their annual “On This Rock” event and local group activities, by visiting their website at https://commongroundbend.org.