Reflections from the Church Planters’ Exploratory Conference
Mark Shivers, Conference Participant
The parable of the prodigal son is one of the best known and widely told stories in all of the New Testament. At the beginning of Luke 15, the religious leaders grumble and complain that Jesus is spending time (even sharing meals!) with those the leaders believed God shouldn’t be seen with. In response, Jesus tells three stories culminating in this narrative about a son asking for his inheritance to go off into the world. The son takes everything that has been invested in him, all the religious practices, symbols and doctrines that the family has long embraced. He then takes the sum of his lifelong faith formation out into the world to put it to the pragmatic test, to see if the religious symbols and practices that have shaped his life have any power in the world outside the walls.
While he makes his share of mistakes, like we all do, I read this narrative as a powerful witness to the failure of those symbols and practices. The son entered a part of our one shared world that the culture and language of his faith was unprepared to engage and powerless to change. When all he had known came up empty, he returned on a missionary journey to share the depth of these inadequacies with his family. He came back to testify that they must rethink their symbols and practices in light of his engagement with a culture their walls had protected them from for so long.
This return brought about immediate change. We see the father outside the home for the first time, even venturing out to the wild chronotopic image of the road. New celebration customs are created and we even end the night on the dance floor. There would be much dialogue, heated conversation and negotiation that would ensue but one thing is clear; the younger son had returned as an emerging producer of theological knowledge and that home would never be the same. The son’s encounter with difference, with those the religious leaders wished Jesus wouldn’t spend time with, forced the family to begin a journey towards openness and change.
As a new call towards cultivating and curating a faith community erupts in my own life, I want to be a part of a wider missional community who intentionally makes room for fathers who need to get outside, older sons and daughters who desperately need to dance, younger sons and daughters who are turning from consumers to producers and for unnamed mothers whose voice we desperately need to hear. I want to be part of a network who has room for those just beginning to ask difficult questions arising out of doctrine-challenging life experiences while also being bold enough to be on the cutting edges of theological, missional and ecclesiastical paradigms that are pushing us outside of the walls of our established houses. The CBF’s passion for being a large enough tent for all of these communities as well as a space and people in which diversity and difference does not necessitate violence or exclusion but respect and dialogue is especially compelling to me.
As I seek to join with the CBF in being a part of God’s work in the world, I was honored to attend their annual Church Plant Exploratory Conference. The conference was a provocative and engaging experience in which I found the table to be large enough for multiple and diverse perspectives and traditions. Uniquely structured to embody the CBF’s desire to be bottom up instead of top down, the leadership humbly acted as the servants of the Lukan narrative. They pulled up chairs, brought out the fattest calf, put on the dance music and gently guided the conversation, dreaming and vision casting that blossomed around the table. Fashioned from years of experience and expertise, they gracefully served up the plates, silverware, glasses, appetizers and main dishes. The leadership provided the substance of the dialogue without dominating or forcing constricting models of etiquette when it was engaged. It was beautifully clear that their heart was in service to the church and that they viewed those attending the conference not as pupils to be didactically instructed but as co-laborers in the mission field that they could powerfully resource, encourage and support. Along with the servants and those of us just beginning the journey, the conference intentionally included older brothers and sisters at various stages in their church plants as well as fathers and mothers who would remind us how important and faithful established faith communities are to the process.
After we shared the last meal, I walked away with new tools and resources (knives and forks) that I can begin to immediately leverage towards beginning a new work. I also left with the gift of new relationships that were formed around our many hours at the table together. We laughed over our own misdirections and mistakes, shared tears arising out of our lonely times feeding pigs in a distant land and experienced our hearts exploding with hope and pride when we shared visions of what we prayed would come. We all danced differently on the dance floor but did so to the ever graceful rhythms of Christ’s call to love the world in the same way that his own incarnation, life, death and resurrection so faithfully embodied.
I left the exploratory conference with an enflamed passion to be involved in the formation of a new community of faith that seeks to be both a refuge for those who are looking for a more moderate expression of Baptist faith and endeavors to be a community who is willing to operate at the edges of faithful practice and service. I also came away confident that the nimble character and unique structure of the CBF positions it to be the most prepared sending network on the emerging American theological landscape. It is an honor to stake my energy, call and ministry within a network and community who intentionally strives to understand their identity through the relationships of their partners. As these relations shift and realign through the return of younger sons and daughters, fathers and mothers heading outside to the road and older brothers and sisters getting on the dance floor, the CBF movement stands ready to flexibly respond through sending and supporting those who in response to the call of God are cultivating new communities of faith where all those the religious leaders complained about are welcomed.