Between September 24th and October 1st, there were four different events that occurred within our American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin family and touched the lives of those beyond our congregations. I want to highlight them here:
I had the honor of attending Greater Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Milwaukee’s 38th Anniversary on Sunday, September 24th, preceded by a revival the week before. At least four other churches attended with their pastors preaching. It was wonderful to hear different choirs and musicians, to listen to the word preached, and to celebrate with other congregations, including other Baptist churches that are not ABC.
The next day, I was at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church’s event commemorating the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, a powerful and moving service of remembrance with a call to action. This event brought together community organizations and other local congregations and pastors, along with those who have lost loved ones to gun violence. A theme that came up repeatedly from the speakers was that we cannot do this alone, and we must work across denominational lines, and even with congregations of other faiths to practice nonviolence and work for justice and peace in our neighborhoods.
On October 1st, World Communion Sunday, Underwood Memorial Baptist Church, Milwaukee Myanmar Christian Church, and First Baptist Church of West Allis joined together on the lawn of First Baptist to celebrate and worship together. This gathering brought together three of our own ABCWI congregations, and represented our diversity in pastoral leadership, language, culture, and worship styles. They even met at a new, neutral time of noon—a time that none of their congregations usually met at. The offering was given to help Karen refugees from Burma (Myanmar) that have crossed the border into Thailand.
On the same day, I participated in The Federated Church of Green Lake’s 75th anniversary, beginning with a commemoration of the 1948 walk from the three founding congregations to the new church building. We gathered in the locations of the original churches and joined in a parade to the current church building. Each congregation was led by a float worn by a person—a miniature replica of the Methodist Church building, the Congregational Church building, and the Chapel Car Grace, which founded the Baptist Church in Green Lake in 1946. Representatives from the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ (Congregational), and myself for American Baptist all shared greetings, prayers, blessings, and a hope that perhaps our churches could learn from Federated Church on how to reach out across denominational lines.
However, it was walking in the parade that all of this came together for me. These tiny building replicas reminded me that we as a people are the church, and not the building. The building is too small to carry the kingdom of God! The church is the gathering of the faithful, the body of Christ. For far too long we have tried to be our buildings. We have much more in common than what can divide us. There is so much more we can do together. These three little churches also reminded me that the body of Christ is much bigger than any building, any institution.
We have focused on our own survival as institutions for far too long. Jesus doesn’t call us to build up institutions; he calls us to build up the body of Christ. Imagine what we can do if we let go of our own survival as an institution, as a building, as an organization, but work instead for the building up of the body of Christ. Could we share leaders and resources for faith formation? Could we have joint ministries, Bible studies, youth groups? Could we join together for services like World Communion Sunday but also Easter, Christmas, a special summer service? Could we partner with a congregation that is not ABC but involved in community service that we would like to help? Can we reach across denominational, even interfaith lines—or even partner with community services that have no religious affiliation to help the most vulnerable in our community?
Wouldn’t it be great to not try to reinvent the wheel, not try to do what others are doing, with fewer resources such as money, time, and people? If we are building up the body of Christ, it’s not about us in our individual congregations, but about us together as Christians.
We all know that these ideas sound great in theory but in practice are more difficult. Sometimes there are theological or cultural differences that need to be learned and understood. Often, though, power and privilege get in the way. “We are welcoming of everyone—IF they come to us.” “We would love to do things together—IF we do it our way!” Far too often those are the dividing lines rather than theology or culture. And even if we have differences, can we learn from each other, honor and respect each other even if we disagree—if we are serving Christ together?
Hospitality and humility must go hand in hand. Hospitality says everyone is welcome, and we’ll do what we can to make others welcome, but with humility, it means we are willing to let go of the power we hold. It means we give over to God the authority. It means we examine ourselves and recognize that the way we have done things is not necessarily the only way, or even the right way. It means recognizing that the body of Christ is far more diverse and wonderful than we might have imagined in the past.
This is one of the strengths of our Baptist identity: because we believe in soul freedom (individuals can relate directly to God without imposition of creed or clergy), because we practice believer’s baptism as our own choice in our faith journey with Christ, we are actually more open to ecumenism than many other denominations. We know who we are and what we believe, and we believe that each church is autonomous and interdependent. We believe we must be in relationship with each other, but we do not need to conform to each other. We are the perfect partners in ecumenical relationships!I have shared four examples from within our ABCWI family of hospitality and humility, and the legacy of one community that made the decision long ago to come together. We can look to these examples of relationship with other congregations, coming together with community partners, and sharing across cultures in worship and fellowship.
Your region office is here to help you explore ideas, find partners, learn about hospitality with humility, and grow in your ministry together. We are here to serve you, as you serve Christ together.