People of a certain generation will recognize that as a lyric from the song “A Long December” by the Counting Crows. And goodness, haven’t we been saying this for so long now? This next year must be better than last year.
It’s December, and it’s natural for us to reflect back on the last year with both joy and regret. We know that the changes that came with the Covid-19 pandemic are here to stay. Some of us will always mask, some will always participate in worship from home via online tools. Some of us will only give online now and can’t remember the last time we carried cash. And we know some have gone away from worshiping every Sunday and it is not the priority in the same way. We could argue until we’re blue in the face that in-person regular worship attendance is the best way for us to grow together and grow with God, but others may not believe it (and … what if we’re wrong and there are multiple paths to growing together and growing with God?)
So, before we start talking about resolutions, what I’d like us to do as the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin is recognize three truths heading into 2024:
- We are not alone. ABCWI is not an office, or staff people, or an arm of the denomination. The region is YOU. All of you. Your congregations and ministries, and each of you individually. We are never alone. We may not look alike, think alike, worship alike, act alike, or speak the same language, but we are the body of Christ. And we need each other. Remember that you as an individual (a member or pastor or leader or …) and you as a church or ministry are NOT alone. We do have each other and there are 58 of us. And some of you have good relationships with other churches who are not ABC and might be considered extended family—National Baptist and United Church of Christ and United Methodist or Presbyterian or Lutheran—or other. And there are a multitude of community partners, other ministries you support and who support you.
- We need each other. Very few of our churches can afford to think they can go solo. We all need support in different ways. Whether it’s partnering to do a joint worship service together, or to bring our ministries together, or to volunteer to work together—whatever it is, we can’t do it alone anymore. This is the time for us to start forging relationships with each other. I’m especially calling upon our Milwaukee churches to embrace one another. If we look back at 2023, we did see some amazing things happen. A kickball game between four different church youth groups. A World Communion Sunday service between three congregations. A Thanksgiving service with several churches together. A prayer walk with churches and community partners to address violence in our neighborhoods. Pastors preaching in each other’s congregations. I hope we continue to grow with one another, for we are never in competition with each other.
- We have much to hope for. We received a Palmer Grant for $25,000 toward Inclusive Hybrid Ministry. Remember what I said above about perhaps there are multiple paths to growing together and growing in God? Inclusive Hybrid Ministry assumes the following: that digital community is just as important and real as in-person community, that worship life ought to be engaging whether in-person or online, and that digital space and community will only grow as we head into the future. And we know from multiple studies that while there is still a growth of people who do not believe in anything, 82% of US Americans still identify as religious or spiritual. Though the number of “spiritual but not religious” has grown to 33%, that is a population that has not given up searching for something greater than themselves. They may have given up on traditional church and institutions, but not on God. And 84% still view Jesus as at least an important religious figure. To me, this is hopeful.
It is also a challenge that we cannot continue to do things as we have always done them if we truly wish to live out the Gospel in the world. We are also reminded that the needs in our communities continue to grow, as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, access to resources becomes scarcer—our churches can partner to fill in the gaps and collaborate to raise collective voices for systemic change in the community. We can live out the Gospel for everyone, that all who are hungry are fed, all who are thirsty have something to drink, all in need of clothing and medical care will have their needs met—and all those in prison will have someone to advocate and care for them.
I leave you with those three truths. I have a lot of hopes and dreams for ABCWI in 2024, but the greatest hope I have is to recognize that we are not alone, we need each other, and we can be living hope for the world—we are the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin, together. Together, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Together, we can share the Gospel in new ways and live out Christ’s call on our lives to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
And maybe, just maybe, next year will be better than the last.
With you on the journey of faith,
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell