I’m presently in Washington DC—the place where very powerful meetings take place. On the TV I hear the constant reference to the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the history of the world, from the various contenders for nomination for the presidency.
My reason for being here is the annual executive meetings of an organisation called the Baptist World Alliance. It’s the world-wide body formed by the voluntary association of local and national clusters of Baptist churches. It has no power over the local and national churches, but is rather a forum and structure for international co-operation. It co-ordinates such things as international aid, work for justice and a strong body working on Human Rights. Another branch of the operations involves international study groups, and I am the leader of one such group. It is both a privilege to be involved, and a big ask. This body runs on a shoe-string and that basically means we have to find support from our own community or contribute our own fares and so on. Unfortunately that means that sometimes the best people to help with these projects never get to be here.
Having been involved with this work for 15 years now, I have to say that the best things about it, and the most enjoyable parts, have often been in spite of the meetings. You meet some truly impressive people, who have done amazing work or have exceptional stories of struggle and achievement to share. Just yesterday I had lunch with a man who left his very large and ‘successful’ church work in the USA to go to a small and struggling project in Hong Kong—and his stories of people helping each other (not him being the big man with all the power and ‘aid’) were deeply moving. That’s a wonderful counter-example to the many times when we westerners have indeed been ‘the big man’ acting out of an essentially colonial model of ‘mission’.
Reference to ‘the big man’ bring me to acknowledge that there are so many things that could be criticised about this organisation and its meetings. It is overwhelmingly male, white and northern-hemisphere, or more specifically from North America and Europe, plus several Australians. And a majority of those present are older people. The mix of people is often dependent on where in the world we meet, so if it’s somewhere in Asia there will be very few Africans or South Americans, and vice versa. But these Executive Meetings are always held in Washington, where the headquarters are, and that tells its own story. Here there are almost no Asians, South Americans and Africans.
More than that, one could criticise the organisation as a whole, for its processes: sometimes bureaucratic, sometimes unduly hierarchical, sometimes very conservative, and the worship events and overall theological flavour is fairly conservative and not very creative or adventurous. Behind all that are the politics of the organisation. Why am I surprised by this?
It is tempting to describe all this as unnecessary. Why would one bother? I feel this, especially at 4 am when struggling with jet lag and unable to sleep! Is it actually worth it all? Today, so many people simply avoid such meetings and institutions in general. Young people just don’t want to be part of these things.
What, though, is the alternative? While I think this and most such organisations need a radical shake up every now and then, I think it is only fair to say that everything that ever achieved anything substantial in human society requires meetings.
Any kind of development, social project or business organisation needs planning, a strategy for implementation, and the co-operation of those involved and affected. That’s why we need meetings—and these are the things that should determine the nature, purpose and style of the meetings. Meetings must never be held for the sake of it. And for effectiveness they should always engage (by some means) those who are genuinely affected by the outcomes or project.
Good meetings require many things. I’ve written about this before: a purpose, and attitude of engagement by those attending—like, have you read the papers before you arrived?—and a common understanding of what we are hoping to achieve. That’s why they must have an agenda!
Can we do without such structures, organisations, meetings? There is no doubt that society has moved from large numbers of groups, clubs, societies and many such structures. All kinds of groups and parties are finding it impossible to get members. Does this mean that all such groups will fade away? I think not. It may well be that in the future very different groupings will emerge Today many functions which previously involved organised meetings and structures are achieved by other means. Crowd funding is one such example. Internet groups, and very small non-profit groups are fulfilling social tasks that previously involved large structures with local ‘branches’ and meetings. Will the political parties adjust to these changes? What will they mean for the church?
My reflections are simply to welcome these challenges and to make several key observations.
First, a disembodied idea always remains just that. Nothing is achieved until some people get together and do something.
The Christian faith has never been only an idea, or words. If it were, it negates itself. Fundamentally the Christian faith asserts ‘the word came flesh’. God takes on human form. If that doesn’t happen, continuously, with our faith putting its boots on and doing something, then it is false and empty.
Equally, though, such action and engagement should always be reflective and self-critical, open to change and always willing to say: We don’t own this, we do not claim to know all the answers, we are willing to meet with others and change our approach. Meetings and organisations are never for their own sake. There is a saying of Jesus that is relevant here: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ (John 12. 24)
What I take this to mean here is that every organisation and meeting and project has to be prepared to die. It always has to consider that perhaps it is not the best way to do things, or to achieve its objective. Maybe others have a better way, from which we can learn, or to which we could contribute our resources and energies. If this was our attitude, we would never act as if we control or ‘own’ things. Rather, we are the servants of the goal, constantly open to self-critique and improvement in how we do things.
And if our meetings were conducted in that spirit, they might be a lot more interesting. Sometimes more difficult, perhaps, but overall more worthwhile.