Sunday, June 30, 2013

Why a prison cell and a ship's prow matter: Reflections on the 2013 Mission Summit and Biennial

The American Baptist Mission Summit and Biennial just completed its successful weekend of activities and events in Kansas City. Gathering at the Overland Park, Kansas, Convention Center in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area, American Baptists from all over the United States and Puerto Rico enjoyed the hospitality (if not the humid heat) of the American heartland.

The 2013 event offered many reminders of what it means to be an American Baptist, the United States’ most racially and ethnically diversified denomination. The 2013 event rolled out the new format for ABC/USA national gatherings. The “Mission Summit” model gathered American Baptist laity, pastors and national/regional staff around key questions about our ministry and mission.
Mission Summit participants
explore issues of adaptive change.

In good Baptist fashion, participants reviewed the listing of discussion topics offered and opted in to whichever issues interested them. Out of these dialogue sessions, the denominational and regional leadership will be developing responses and resources to help meet the needs of our congregations.

To learn more and read the reports of each dialogue group, visit (NOTE: Keep visiting this website, as more information will be uploaded over the coming days.) A follow-up meeting will be held in November for regional and national leaders to convene and reflect on the Mission Summit learnings.

The Mission Summit model demonstrates a concerted effort by our General Secretary, the Rev. A. Roy Medley, to remind us of our basic understanding of American Baptists in mission: strong local churches empower our denomination. 

As I learned myself growing up in Kansas, the local church is “the fundamental unit of mission” among American Baptists. From my observations of the Mission Summit structure, I believe we have arrived at a more generative and engaging way to address the problems many congregations deal with: lack of resources, vision and mission impairments and myopias, etc. 

With good conversation and a willingness to share the strengths and challenges from our own perspective and context, we begin to weave together a greater understanding of being “not alone” and moving forward, together with partners in ministry and mission. This year’s Biennial focused on the strengths we draw one from another. It is not an easy time for mainline Protestants, dealing with the ever-changing rapids of a culture growing less engaged by the long-time forms of religion. Nonetheless, the Mission Summit and Biennial reinforced why even a smaller denomination can make a big difference with our partnerships and missional efforts.

The American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS, formerly “National Ministries”) offered a number of opportunities: chaplaincy/pastoral counselor training, TED Talk-style events with Judson Press authors and national staff as well as a powerful opportunity to learn and become engaged in the challenges of mass incarceration and aftercare ministries. A prison cell was set-up to symbolize persons who are incarcerated and in need of our prayers and care. The first evening’s plenary featured Dr. Michelle Alexander, author of the best selling “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. To learn more,
International Ministries' recreation
of the ship bearing the Judsons to Burma.

One of the highlights of the Mission Summit/Biennial gathering was the great exhibition hall, featuring the various affiliated ministries of our denomination. In one hall, you can discover the ways we serve the world, our nation and our communities. Prominent in this year’s exhibit was the prow of a ship.

This year, American Baptists celebrate the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Judsons in Burma. Among our first missionaries, the Judsons are honored many times over in our denomination’s life (i.e. churches, a publishing imprint, and even at least one baby to my recollection have been named “Judson” in honor of this story). The International Ministries staff fashioned a display meant to evoke the Judsons’ boat, complete with sails and rigging and surrounded either side of the boat with IM staff and volunteers talking about the ongoing international mission partnerships of American Baptists.

As I stood in the midst of the hall taking in the spectacle, I considered the boat a welcome reminder of our heritage as well as our future. Out of one boat came many stories of ministry and mission.

           Indeed, our region is enriched by the Karen and Chin congregations and the missional efforts of Tabernacle Baptist (Utica, NY) and Central Seminary’s Judson Communities educational project. Our Saturday evening Biennial worship was enriched by a large choir, filled with those who have benefited from our long partnerships in Burma and now in the United States. For one perspective on the many opportunities about these partnerships and denominational vitality, read:

          Out of one boat came much good. Just think of your own local congregation and just imagine the treasury of stories already poured forth into the world from your church. May we be inspired anew with new hope, vision and mission, working together for the Reign of God.

P.S. Space precludes further reflection on other Mission Summit events and learnings. I note them as an opportunity to affirm how delightful and rewarding this year’s national meetings were for those who attended!
FYI:  Steering a model of a 200 year boat--
in a landlocked state even!--
is harder than you think....