(image by suburbanbloke, cc via flickr)
Just over three months ago, on-site and on-line, some 700 Christian leaders convened for the inaugural, North American Missio Alliance gathering, The Future of the Gospel: Renewing Evangelical Imagination for Mission. Participating in this conference was an interesting experience for me. On one hand, as one of the main organizers of the initiative and gathering, I was in work mode from start to finish. On the other hand, as someone who has been shaped by a “missional vision” of theology, church, and leadership formation emanating from a range of writers, institutions, and groups, seeing this initiative begin to take shape was incredibly gratifying and exciting on a personal level. All that being the case, I’m not sure how perfectly I can segment out my own reflections into neat categories, but I think it’s important to try.
To be sure, we’ve received (directly and indirectly) no shortage of feedback – all of which has been most welcome!
See below for a list of links to other blog posts from folks commenting on Missio Alliance and our inaugural gathering. If you are aware of others, please feel free to leave them in the comment section.
From the online and offline comments of others, a few things have stood out to me…
- Some have applauded us for going out of our way to diversify our presenters in terms of gender, ethnicity, theological heritage, and areas of expertise; others think we didn’t do enough.
- Some have congratulated us for cultivating such a unique context for the confluence of robust theological reflection and practical expertise; others felt the gathering was too lopsided.
- Some were overjoyed that we opened up space for constructive presentations, dialogue, and proposals regarding human sexuality; others were embittered that not all positions were given equal attention.
- Some were enormously thankful that we chose to develop the maximum number of workshops possible give our space and time; others believe it would have been more helpful to have developed far fewer and repeated them several times.
Amid these and other reflections, it seems wise to move forward along parallel lines: 1) Hey, we can’t please everyone, so don’t sweat it too much, right? 2) It’s vital that we listen to what people are saying, engage in dialogue about the issues that are raised, and submit it all to the Holy Spirit as we discern what God is saying and how we might respond most faithfully.
Lord willing, this is the posture we’ll adopt as we move forward with future projects, gatherings, and work.
Speaking more personally, here are a few of the things that most encouraged me about this gathering…
Diversity was Relational, not Contrived
Over 1/2 of our presenters were not white males. Including female and minority voices was of unique significance for us, but more important was that we not manufacture diversity for diversity’s sake. Rather, we invited those to whom we had relational connections and could speak meaningfully into the issues driving the development of Missio Alliance and the inaugural gathering. Best as I can tell from my experience and the reflections of others, some serious learning and perspective/paradigm shifting took place as a result of this feature of our gathering. Major props goes to our non-majority culture friends who, through a shared interest in mission-shaped theology and eccelsial practice, came and humbly used their gifts and experience to lead us! Our attendance, though perhaps much more diverse than would by typical for a gathering such as this, was still not as diverse as we would have liked. But again, we have no ambition to develop a contrived diversity. It’s my sincere hope and prayer that God will continue to diversify (perhaps even as a result of the workshops we offered on developing multi-cultural expressions of the Church!) our relationships and partnerships on-the-ground and in-the-trenches of mission and ministry.
Gifted Female Teachers and Preachers Shone Brightly
If I am being honest, and on a strictly personal level, this might have been the most encouraging aspect of our gathering. I can’t go into here the ins and outs of why I find the traditional complimentarian and egalitarian arguments re: gender and leadership misguided (see this excellent post by David Fitch). Suffice to say, the suppression of gifted female leadership in the local Church grieves me deeply and in my estimation, one of the defining marks of local churches living into their Trinitarian essence and vocation is the co-laboring of men and women in all aspects of their life. At the #FutureGospel gathering we got to see that in action! Cherith Fee-Nordling, Jo Saxton, MaryKate Morse, Deb Hirsch, and still other female leaders, alongside similarly gifted men, preached and taught all of us in Spirit-inspired ways. Seriously, if Missio Alliance did nothing else besides engender (pardon the pun) the advance of a core value for shared leadership amongst men and women in churches, networks, and organizations, I’d feel pretty satisfied.
The Historic, African-American Ecclesial Venue Radically Shaped Our Experience
I love that we landed in an ecclesial venue for our gathering. I think that was an important aesthetic element in marking the shape of this initiative. I was even more encouraged that it was through God leading us into a relationship with Alfred Street Baptist Church (the 6th oldest AA church in the US) and its pastor, Howard-John Wesley that this opportunity came about. From start to finish, through the planning of the gathering as well as the execution of the gathering itself, it put us (as organizers as well as attendees) on unfamiliar territory – different power structures, different rules and expectations, different kinds of space to use, etc. In all of this we were blown away by the hospitality of ASBC and the various teams who were guiding us, but the decision to embrace the cross-cultural elements of the venue itself added a value that’s difficult to express.
I also need to say here that I think the address that Pastor Wesley offered was one of the most compelling parts of our gathering. I don’t mean the content of his address specifically – though he gave us plenty to reflect on! Rather, as I stood in the very back of the sanctuary, at the back of the balcony as a matter of fact, and looked out on a largely caucasian crowd listening to and learning from an African-American pastor and preacher who began by talking about his lifelong experience of being raised in an African-American context and in an African-American church, I thought to myself, “This is SO important and needed – a largely caucasian crowd, steeped in the “missional conversation,” sitting in an unfamiliar context, listening to a very qualified, yet unfamiliar, voice speak to shared concerns from a perspective that requires us to suspend our own assumptions and judgments in order to receive.
Relationships and Networks were Catalyzed, Deepened, and Expanded
As a consumate networker, this one’s got a special place in my heart. One of my favorite activities leading up to the gathering was watching the registrations roll in and getting to connect, via email, people who I thought needed to meet in person. During the gathering I was flying around like mad, but my favorite part of that was getting to glance out of the corner of my eye at online connections taking on flesh, overhearing people discuss follow up meetings, and brainstorming collaborative work. Aside from individual connections, I was also encouraged by the organizational ones. Truthfully, I never imagined that we would sell out of seating space. The only thing that could have been more unimaginable was that we would sell out of space for partnering co-sponsors, but that’s exactly what happened. We had 20+ partnering organizations packed into a Commons area, but the best part of that was that was seeing the interaction that took place as a result of the close quarters. There was an energy that I don’t think could have been produced any other way. The last encouragement on this level is tied to the sub-gatherings that took place. We were able to make it possible for a range of networks, denominations, ministries, and groups of shared interest to connect and interact around the themes of the gathering as well as build their own ties.
Room to improve? Sure. Things I am disappointed we didn’t or or do well? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, I’ve been asking one central question of myself, others, and the Holy Spirit, “Did our time together honor God by creating space and resources for the theological formation of Christian leaders to more fully and faithfully participate in God’s mission?” And I feel like the answer has been a resounding, Yes! So, as people have asked me how I feel coming out of the gathering, my main response has been a simple, but enthusiastic, “Thankful!”
Here are some links to the reflections and feedback of others…
Thoughts on Missio Alliance Conference, Karina Kreminski
Three Perspectives of the Missio Alliance Gathering, Joshua Rhone
Unofficial Cherith Fee-Nordling Fan Page, Chris Morton
Did I Get What I expected from Missio Alliance, Kevin Scott
At Missio Alliance, Alistair Brown
Eight Game Changers Observed at Missio Alliance, Chris Morton
Theology at Missio Alliance, Ken Schenck
Bringing Unsexy Missional Back, Zach Hoag
More on Unsexy Missional, Zach Hoag
Sow, Meet Reap, Zach Hoag
Smokin’ Hot Wives & Water to the Soul, Zach Hoag