Reflections on the Re-Imagining Faith Conference

Georgetown College, Georgetown, Kentucky, January 9-10, 2014

I recently had the privilege of attending and presenting a paper, “Church Outside the Walls: The Global Growth and Meaning of Markeplace Ministries,” at the Re-Imagining Faith: For America and the World conference at Georgetown College (January 9-10, 2014). It was a bit (but only a bit) outside the vein of my normal climes but a welcome opportunity.

The tenor of the conference, at least to many of my contacts and acquaintances in the Church, would have sounded decidedly “liberal,” with content some might consider all but blasphemous and dangerous to Christian faith. But it was largely a healthy conversation open to embracing, or at least intellectually considering, alternatives to how we are currently practicing our Christian faith . . . in ways that are too often failing to transform the world or even provide sound witness to the glory of God. There was significant discussion of “hot topics,” including environmentalism, sexual orientation, “re-branding” Christianity, faith in vocation and the marketplace, evolution, inter-faith dialog, and otherwise openly challenging what many of my friends would consider orthodox positions of the Christian faith. There were even invocations of Buddhism in general and Ghandi specifically, frankly, a welcome breath of fresh air for many who seek the wisdom that God has granted to those outside the Church who are (like us Christians!) created in the image of God.

I think what I appreciated most was that this was an environment where one could safely introduce such topics without fear of being shouted down or labeled as a blasphemer or heretic. It was like attending the opening brainstorming session of an organization bent on redefining itself for adaptation to a changing environment and perfectly apropos. I appreciate fully that the idea behind the conference appeared to be considering re-interpretations of the Gospel for ministering in the 21st century to a globalized, diverse, multi-faith and multicutural world.

I came away from the conference with a plethora of notes. I often capture big picture ideas in pithy statements, almost in article or book title form. Hopefully, in the coming days and weeks, I will be able to re-visit many of these to reflect and offer my own thoughts. But I think the over arching themes in my immediate response to the conference were along the lines of replicating the experience in other places:

  • How do we create such a thinking environments in our local contexts?
  • How do we create a safe place for such volatile conversations to advance Kingdom relevance and impact in our communities without creating greater alienation?
  • How do we overcome the political and ideological divides within the Church itself, especially where we have largely disconnected from any dissenting voices, shunned the questioners, and locked ourselves into narrowly-focused homogenous groups?

I hope, now, given what I have left to say, that no one will think I thought the conference in any way a failure. I do, however, think there is considerable opportunity for expansion and impact.

What I did not see at the conference was diversity. The representation among attendees that I could casually identify was predominantly Protestant (Methodist / Wesleyan, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal, in particular). I specifically did not see representation of the Roman Catholic or Orthodox traditions, though they may have been present. Even so, if they were in attendance, they must surely have been in such distinct minority to elude the casual eye. Given the title of the conference was “Re-Imagining Faith: For America & the World,” and the theme of inclusivity was very strong throughout, invited speakers could have intentionally included Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, or adherents of other faith traditions to enhance the interfaith theme.

I also did not see appropriate representation outside middle class whites. As far as I could tell, there was only one African-American (an immigrant from Cameroon, I believe) attendee. There may have been others but their attendance was by no means apparent in simply scanning the crowd during the plenary sessions. The only strong connection to the indigenous black Church in the U.S. was the choir from the First African Baptist Church of Lexington which performed beautifully before and after Walter Brueggemann’s keynote address on Thursday evening. The Asian-American and Hispanic representation at the event was also of such distinct minority as to be, for the most part, lost in the sea of white faces. Leaders of predominantly minority churches must be given their voice at every opportunity, especially considering that, collectively, minorities are now in the majority but are still underrepresented in the halls of the “ruling powers and principalities” (governance, finance, academia, etc.) both domestically and internationally.

As is likely the case still in many academic and ecclesial settings, the male / female divide of the presenters was decidedly male with female presenters being a little more than one third of the total. The plenary presentations were evenly divided (with exceptional speakers, I might add – Drs. Walter Breuggemann, Molly T. Marshall, Stephanie Paulsell, and Miroslov Volf). The crowd appeared to be roughly a 60-40 male-female split, which could have been a balancing of the male domination of the academic and ecclesial disciplines by a strong representation of women in the field of social service agencies, though many female attendees were members of the clergy and academia.

Finally, as mentioned, the progressive leaning of the attendees and many of the presenters in general seemed weighted, even if not intentionally. Granted, one might expect that progressives are typically more open to new ways of thinking and doing Church. However, though I do not recall exactly how I first became aware of the conference, one must wonder how and where the conference was advertised. While it may not have been by any intentional measure, as said, toward progressive inclusion in this conference, advertising may be planned that would be more inviting to the conservative and ethnic strains of the Church to help with healing and collaboration across racial, doctrinal, and ideological divides, and toward Kingdom advancement in general, within the whole Church in the future.

However, again, I would have no one think I am denouncing or was disappointed in the conference given the critique that I offer. I walked away with a dozen pages of notes for further reflection and writing, which I hope to publish in the coming weeks (www.edensbridge.org). Overall, I thought the conference was a great success and worth the time and money to attend and I would do it again if possible.

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