Stephen Bouman, more than any other leader in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, capably articulates the ELCA approach to missional church, congregational life, social justice ministry, and community organizing. His first book, "From the Parish for the Life of the World," brought the daily life of the church into conversation with a mission-focused model for healing the world. His second book, They Are Us: Lutherans and Immigrations, offered the most concise history of immigration policy in the United States and its relation to religious non-profit ministry for immigrants and refugees.
His new book, The Mission Table: Renewing Congregation and Community, is inspired by the work he does leading domestic mission for the ELCA. Like many mainline Protestant denominations, the ELCA recognizes that our numeric decline is both a sign of our failure in missional focus and a lack of imagination for evangelism in the 21st century. However, from Bouman's perspective, this is not reason for fear or anxiety, but rather inspiration to rely once again on the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through local communities as we listen to their deepest hopes and dreams and form tables centered in the Christ's meal that then are energized for mission in God's world.
The book is designed to be read by congregational leadership teams. It includes a brief three-module format for reading the book as a congregation over the course of a year.
For Bouman, the mission of the church is "God's reconciling and restoring action in the world."
Bouman has an inimitable style. He weaves together biblical reflection, community organizing concepts, stories of ministry in action, all connected to the daily and weekly ministries that center the church (baptism and Eucharist).
Here's his outline for discussion, which gives a sense of the topics Bouman covers in this short and readable book:
Module A: Tables (introduction chapters 1-3)
Session One: Mission and the Mainline (introduction)
Session Two: The Table of Creation (chapter 1)
Session Three: From the Kitchen Table to the Altar Table (Chapter 2)
Session Four: Seeking Hospitality at New Tables (Chapter 3)
Module B: Exploring the Biblical Marks of a Missional Congregation (Chapter 4)
Session Five: Mark 1-3
Session Six: Mark 4-7
Session Seven: Mark 8-10
Module C: Rerooting in the Community (Chapters 5-7)
Session Eight: Mission Table Leadership (Chapter 5)
Session Nine: Setting Mission Tables (Chapter 6)
Session Ten: Restoring the Broken Table (Chapter 7)
In module one, you can see Bouman's commitment to lifting up the connection between the Eucharistic table and God's care of creation, the deep connection between faith in the church and faith in family and household life, and the oppenness we are called to have to new tables being formed in our midst.
In this section, I found particularly refreshing a meditation Bouman opens up on the etymology of two words often abused in our culture. Religion, which he says means originally "to connect again," and synod, which at root means "together on the road." He writes, "Renewal in mission involves leaving our table and seeking companionship at new tables, our neighbors' tables, living and sharing the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus for the life of the world" (34).
He follows up this theological definition with three vibrant stories of how he saw this kind of movement active in parishes he has served or visited.
Also helpful is this list Bouman creates of the Ten Biblical Marks of a Missional Congregation:
1. A congregation in mission is always listening.
2. A congregation in mission mentors and trains its leaders.
3. A congregation in mission nurtures communal leadership.
4. A congregation in mission faces paralysis with courage.
5. A congregation in mission reroots in the community.
6. A congregatoin in mission risks new things.
7. A congregation in mission makes all decisions based on its mission.
8. A congregation in mission is clear about money and relationships.
9. A congregation in mission is propelled by the resurrection of Jesus.
10. A congregation in mission is shaped by Word and sacraments.
And Nine Characters of a Missional Leader:
1. A missional leader is relational.
2. A mission leader pays attention to insittutional relationships and networks of support.
3. A mission leader has an entrepreneurial spirit.
4. A mission leader is clear about the power of money.
5. A mission leader builds a strong cadre of local leadership.
6. A mission leader is a witness to the presence of the risen Jesus.
7. A mission leader roots deep in the community.
8. A mission leader is adaptive.
9. A mission leader is a servant leader.
Bouman believes that the path to renewal of a congregation is directly connected to the renewal of its community.
This happens by doing the three great listenings:
1. To God.
2. To the church.
3. To the world around us.
Bouman believes that this kind of listening happens best when it is organized as area mission tables and congregational mission tables.