By George Bullard
All my life I have loved attending denominational celebration events and conventions. I love least the formal meetings. I love most the networking. I love seeing my friends in ministry and meeting new friends in ministry. It is part of the cultural DNA of my life as a lifelong denominational person. I am a sucker for these gatherings.
But these days I wonder if the Church needs more of a call to action than a call to meet. Are we meeting too often, talking with one another only, spending precious time and financial resources non-missionally? I am not sure if the new or renewed actions that result from our meetings justify the investment of scarce Kingdom resources.
I say this knowing that fellowship, networking, collaboration, trust, inspiration, shared experiences and common vision and values are the currency of great movements. Deep relationships can make the critical difference between an institutionalized organization and a synergistic movement reaching its full potential.
As I write this I am in Atlanta attending the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in my role as the general secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship. It is great to see old friends and to make new ones. It is a wonderful gathering. The celebration — and fundraising — appear to be working.
In the next hotel — accessible by an enclosed walkway so we do not have to endure the heat of Atlanta — is the Quadrennial Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Women. In town this week is the International Christian Retail Show at the Georgia World Congress Center. I also saw signs in one hotel pointing people to a Jehovah’s Witness gathering.
One gathering in another city happening at the same time is the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., International in Memphis, Tenn., where a presidential election is taking place this week.
These are just the meetings of which I am aware. Who knows how many more are going on this week.
Next week I leave for Izmir, Turkey, to join several hundred Baptists from around the world at the Baptist World Alliance Annual Gathering. It is going to be a grand occasion. I will love it. I am aware that around 115 people from North America will be traveling to this gathering. Based on what I know about the total cost of this gathering, these North Americans will spend between $400,000 and $500,000 in direct and indirect costs to attend. I likely would not go if I did not have a significant role at the meeting as part of my responsibilities with the North American Baptist Fellowship. The price tag is too great.
It is not that great things do not happen at the BWA meeting in Turkey, the CBF meeting in Atlanta, the NBCA meeting in Memphis and various other denominational gatherings. It is not that something significant won’t happen out of these gatherings that will enhance the fulfillment of the Great Commission in the spirit of the Great Commandment. I am not calling for an end to these gatherings. Yet, I am calling for an effort to seriously rethink them in the current 21st-century world of high tech and increasingly personal communication.
What we actually need is a greater call to action rather than another call to meet. We need to use the knowledge, resources and relationships we build to empower more spiritual formation and missional engagement.
In our call to meet we learn more how to talk with one another and less how to talk with preChristians and unchurched and hurting people. We hone our church-culture skills and move farther away from missional linguistics. At a time when we must be bilingual — speaking church culture language and non-churched culture language — we practice our secret handshakes and our tribal speak.
In our meetings we celebrate what we are doing for God that fits our tribal traditions, and further insulate ourselves from other Christians or other cousin denominations that are not part of our specific tribe. We even laugh when someone suggests we are not like those other people. This laughter sounds like a Pharisee and publican in the temple story from Luke 18.
Denominational organizations need to audit the amount of financial, material and people resources they pour into annual gatherings and seek to redirect those resources to focus on Kingdom progress. Some denominations already meet only every two or three years. Creative collaboration in the intervening years could be focused on putting into practice the inspiration and information now gained in annual gatherings.
We need a greater use of technology to connect people to one another through virtual meetings, and to connect people who cannot attend large group gatherings through simulcasting various gatherings. Many parachurch organizations are using systems that allow for interaction and collaboration in the cloud.
Finally, we need commitments and accountability for those commitments, to engage in missional engagement that befits the increase seen of the five and the two in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.