We gathered in the sanctuary of one of the oldest African American churches in the United States to talk theology. We dug into the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, humanity, Gospel, discipleship, mission, and more. We talked about theology. Why? Because we believed that we needed a theological alternative to both the neo-reformed and emerging church perspectives.
Missio Alliance worked hard to bring in diverse theological perspectives. While Scot McKnight and David Fitch provided solid presentations, lesser known practioners and thinkers like Cherith Fee Nordling, Howard-John Wesley, Jo Saxton, Amos Young, Todd Hunter, Mary Kate Morse, and Bruxy Cavey multiplied the perspectives.
My conference highlight was hearing from Missio's women. Mary Kate Morse's leadership in publically praying the Scriptures, along with Cherith Fee Nordling's passionate plea for her listeners to hear the invitation of Jesus to participate in God's mission were powerful. Jo Saxton's stories of the interruptions of the Holy Spirit in the life of her community captured us.
The content—in and out of the main sessions—was great. Even though I missed many of the breakout sessions because of conversations with colleagues, I wanted to be in three workshops at once. I was thankful to be able to by recorded presentations for those I'd missed.
It turns out there is a lot to say about "missional-anabaptist-evangelical" theology. While I wouldn't own all of those labels myself, I found myself saying a lot as well. In fact, I think I became that annoying guy in your workshop that barely waits for you to finish what you are saying before launching into my own thoughts on the topic (apologies to Tim Keel on that one). I felt the importance of the topics being discussed because I know what's at stake in my local church. I know that the answers to some of the questions raised about the Gospel, about leadership, about multi-ethnicity, sexuality, and about whatever missional means have concrete implications for the lives of the people in the church I serve. There is a lot at stake. And the conversations are really important.
Because this is true, I walked away on several occasions feeling like I wanted to participate more in the conversation. I wanted to hear from the other people in the room who undoubtedly had brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to any one of the topics. I walked away wishing we could learn how to do conferencing differently so that we could spend our time gathered together in mutual conversation about these issues rather than primarily by receiving content from presenters. Let's watch videos of our presenters online before we travel from around the country to be together, and then take advantage of the fact that we are together by hearing from each other. That was a tension I felt, simply because I wanted to learn from as many people gathered as I could.
I left the gathering with a simple question that hasn't left my mind since. That question is, "Is the missional church movement mostly white?" The word missional was common language at this gathering, and many were familiar with the perspective that God is on mission and we are invited to participate in that mission wherever we are. Those who planned the gathering invited an ethnically diverse group of people to present and lead. But it was mostly white, social-media savvy church leaders who attended (at least they looked like they were savvy with a smartphone).
We were gathered in the sixth oldest African-American church in the country. Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley spoke frankly about the challenges this church faces to reach out to a generation of African Americans with little to no church background. He also said he knows that this is a challenge many of his friends in "non-black" churches are also facing. It seems to me that God is doing something new in the North American context, and it is essential that we do not hear only from those who are like us, but also from those who are not like us. I went home with a renewed determination to find more conversation partners who are not like me in an effort to discern what God is up to in this critical time. For that, I am deeply grateful.
Michael Binder is co-pastor of Mill City Church in Northeast Minneapolis.