Having thawed out from the annual meeting, I am beginning to look at the whole scene from a different angle.
My primary frustration with our convention is the growing fundamentalist spirit that continues to “define and exclude.” Without a doubt, the gospel message “defines and excludes” quite a bit. Jesus boldly said that He was the only way and that no one comes to the Father except through Him. He defined the gospel and excluded those who would not accept it. However, there seems to be a movement in the SBC to continue defining and excluding beyond the gospel. Eventually, we will define and exclude out the Calvinists and charismatics. I believe in the doctrines of grace and the fullness of the Spirit, so I don’t want to exclude either. I think the IMB policies fit into this move, as does the Baptist Identity movement. Pretty soon, there will be no one left but me and thee, and we’re not sure of thee.
However, I see in the annual meeting a microcosm of the local church. Simple put, the annual meeting failed to engage me.
There is an old saying, “The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.” By Tuesday night, my seat had endured about 21 hours of speeches. But the problem is more than the paralysis of my posterior, the problem is that the annual meeting is based upon a model of the congregation sitting while we get preached at for hours on end. What could be better than an endless stream of some of the best preachers in our denomination?
Looking back, I realize that the two most engaging moments of the annual meeting were the NAMB Missional Network Dinner on Monday night and the NAMB Annie Armstrong Luncheon on Tuesday. The reason that I found them to be engaging had nothing to do with their association with NAMB; it could have easily been hosted by the IMB or even Lifeway. They were engaging because they were different than the spectator model or the “you sit and listen while we talk to you” paradigm.
In both settings, we were sitting around a table and sharing a meal. In both settings, I was able to engage in a conversation. In both settings, there was genuine interaction between me and the information being presented.
At the Missional Network Dinner, I sat with a church planter, two men who worked in the church planting division with the North Carolina state convention, and one man who worked with a local association. Being the lone “non church planter” at the table, I got to ask question after question about church planting. As a result, I got to hear story after story about what God is doing in the northern part of our country. When it came time for the “official speakers” to talk, it was a discussion based presentation where the panel answered questions from those who were attending the luncheon. It was highly engaging.
At the Annie Armstrong Luncheon, I sat at a table with a pastor and his wife from Arkansas, a pastor from Georgia, an employee of NAMB who worked as an assistant to the Director, and a NAMB missionary. I got to meet John, who works in inner city ministry in Idaho. Not only did I get to pepper him with questions and hear about how state missionaries work, but we also had a table discussion about how to raise the awareness of the NAMB mission offerings in our local church. When the official speaker spoke, he was another NAMB missionary who told story after story of lives being changed by the gospel.
Contrast this with the actual meetings in the convention hall. I was sitting in a room with about 9000 chairs. We were all facing the same wall, and we listened to speaker after speaker. Nothing was required of us except for an occasional congregational song (or “congressional singing” as Dr. Page kept saying by mistake). I sat. I watched. The only thing expected of me was to raise my ballot now and then. Totally non-engaging.
Upon which model are most local churches based? You guessed it, the convention model. My numb seat is telling me something about how we do church and how we are failing to engage those who are longing for an engaging experience with the gospel. I don’t know if our convention meetings will ever change (though I think that was the point of one motion), but I know that I must lead our church to change. There is a world out there that is not engaged with by passively watching activity on the stage. They want to engage in the context of community and to hear the life changing story of the gospel.