Sixth: Missional Table
First, what it is not. The Missional Table is not a rehabilitated General Board. It has much more in common with the Seek It gathering from several years ago in terms of purpose and authority.
I am uneasy with the name “Missional Table” because I don’t know what we mean. “Missional” is a hot word in church circles. Strictly speaking, “missional” is an ecclesiology rooted in the work of Lesslie Newbigen (a former missionary to India) and Elton Trueblood (founder of Yokefellow). It has four main components: (1) “Mission” is fundamentally God’s work (missio dei), and we are invited to participate in it; (2) The inescapable nature of the church is to be sent by God into the world; (3) The church is called to be counter-cultural; and (4) Western society is now a mission field demanding the missiological insights of over 100 years of “foreign missions” experience.
However, “missional” has come to mean everything from evangelism to how we make coffee in church basements. A Google search turns up nearly 800,000 disparate entries. It has become the fashionable phrase as old mainline denominations rethink and restructure (!) who they are. Alan Roxburgh said that the phrase has moved “from obscurity to banality in eight short years and people still don’t know what it means.”
I embrace the four-point understanding of “missional church” given above (but not everyone does). But, is this really what we mean by the “Missional Table?” Is the denomination implicitly endorsing an ecclesiology? Will it impose that ecclesiology on its churches? Will its services and programs exclude those churches that have chosen another ecclesiological focus? More than that, in what sense can a Baptist denomination, which is created by churches and accountable to churches and intended to serve churches, be truly “missional” without usurping the authority of those churches?
Honestly, I do not believe any of this is the case. “Missional” is being used because it is a fashionable word today, and it speaks to the Baptist heart for missions (which is not the same as missional). That is not a good enough reason. We need to be more accurate and descriptive in the title of this group.
The Missional Table (whatever we end up calling it), is a good idea, just as Seek It was a good idea. However, I still have questions. I worry about its composition, authority, costs, and participation.
I see no need for an elaborate nomination and election process that concludes with a “filtering” of candidates at the Biennial—especially since the Missional Table has no governance authority. Seek It was the most carefully, intentionally representative group of American Baptists that I have seen. Let’s simply use a formula for proportional representation and trust the partners choose their representatives.
I am uncertain about the authority of this group. Overall, it seems to be intended to function as a “think tank” for the denomination, producing recommended goals, etc., that the partners then pursue. It also apparently will review and evaluate what those partners actually do. Based on past experience, it does not seem likely to me that any program or region board is going to be compelled to pursue goals set by the Missional Table, and is going to be less than enthusiastic about any subsequent review. While I embrace the idea of such a group expressing the voice of the denomination when it comes to programming, I do not believe it is structured adequately to resolve our misalignment problem (and I am not sure that is possible). In the absence of clarity about what they can and cannot do, I believe there is strong possibility for frustration among those who commit their time and energy to the Mission Table.
If the work of the Missional Table is primarily advisory, I wonder about the necessity and costs of a rigid meeting schedule and a standing group. It seems to me that a carefully chosen, representative group could gather to do this work every three years or so.
Lastly, if the point I raised above about frustration is true, I wonder how long it will take members to decide that the Missional Table is not worthy of their time, effort, and money.
Having said all that, I need to be clear that I am not opposed to the concept of a missional table. I think it is a creative way for us to bring together denominational leaders, pastors, and lay leaders to discuss the role of the denomination. I am more concerned that there be a clear understanding of limits and that there really is appropriate authority for the task.