Friday, October 10, 2014

Why I Am American Baptist: Part 1

How did I become an American Baptist?  By the providence of God.  That is the short answer; there is a longer one, and here it is:

My family attended a different brand of Baptist church while I was growing up.  I learned about the love of God in Christ among those people.  I memorized the books of the Bible; I still have the red-letter King James Version Bible I received upon the mastering of that list.  It was a good and nurturing place for me.  Perhaps for others, everything they needed for Christian formation was present; but, even as a child, I sensed something that I needed was missing.

The Seeds of an American Baptist:  Integrity Between Life and Faith
One hot summer night an evangelist came to our church and preached about the evils of television and asserted that all houses should be purged of this menace.  People all over were saying “amen.”  Yet I knew that nearly everyone in this suburban middle-class church owned a television and suspected that all those televisions would remain in those homes long after this evangelist had moved on to another city.  As a child, I found this confusing.  I wondered about the connection between what was said in church and how folks lived their lives.

Several years later, in the early morning hours of September 1, 1966, a thirty-nine-year-old African American named Lester Mitchell was shot to death while sweeping the sidewalk in front of his house.  The shotgun blast that killed him came from a pickup truck with three white men in it.  Mitchell lived in west Dayton, a community that was 96% black at the time and mired in poverty.  The civil unrest that gripped the city following this killing filled the news.  I remember the paranoia that spread throughout the metropolitan region.  I assumed that this would be the main topic of discussion at church on Sunday.  Yet not a word was said; it was as if none of this were happening.  Again, I wondered about the connection between what happens in church and what happens in the broader world.

I was attracted to American Baptist life because, when we are at our best, we make connections between what we say we believe and what is happening in the world around us.  In other words, there is an organic link between religious conviction and discipleship when we are honoring our denominational family values.  American Baptists believe that being used by God to make whole what is broken in our society and in our lives is central to our calling as disciples.  In our denominational brochure 10 Facts You Should Know About American Baptists it says:  “American Baptists have been called to be witnesses for justice and wholeness within a broken society.’  This value of integrity between the faith we talk about in church and the lives we lead in the broader community attracted me to the American Baptist family.

This particular family value can create tensions within our ABC family because we do not always agree on how to apply the teachings of scripture to some of the events around us, but we do agree that making that application is very important.  We agree that there should be room within our churches and broader religious community to talk about things in an appreciative and listening way.  Each of us must then exercise our responsibility under God to form our convictions and live them out in the broader world.    In 10 Facts You Should Know About American Baptists it says that we have “rejected creeds or statements that might compromise each believer’s obligation to interpret scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and within the community of faith.”  In our document We Are American Baptists, it says that we are a redeemed people “who honor the priesthood of all believers; and who live their faith as visible saints.” We work to balance the twin values of our freedom in Christ and our responsibility as disciples, relying upon the Holy Spirit to guide us.  This is one of our principle strengths as American Baptists.

The Seeds Sprout and Take Form:  Humility of Spirit
I became a committed follower of Jesus Christ during my freshman year in college and immediately became involved in the campus Baptist Student Union.  These fellow students became my first formative community of faith.  Although we were the “Baptist Student Union,” we Baptists were in the minority.  There were Methodists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Christian Missionary Alliance, and even a lone Episcopalian.    Here I learned that the Christian church was much larger than my own Baptist family.  We were very earnest in our theological debates, arguing the minutia of the faith with great stamina; the word sophomoric comes to mind.  I found that I could learn from people shaped by different traditions and experiences.  This helped me to better understand and commit to my own convictions and practices.  (We Baptists did, however, forcibly immerse the Methodists and Presbyterians in the Little Miami River on our annual canoe trip by tipping their canoes; but being ecumenically inclined Baptists, we helped them get the water out afterward.)

I was attracted to the ABC family because American Baptists realize that we are not the only ones out there doing good ministry in the name of Christ.  American Baptists have the humility to appreciate the value of what others are doing and learn some valuable things from it.  We are willing to work with others when we find affinities of purpose and opportunity.  American Baptists, when we are to our best, see the magnificence and wonder of God’s character in the breadth of God’s family and the many ways that God works through the various limbs of Christ’s body.  It was the humility of American Baptists that drew me to them.

Diversity:  Celebration of Our Creator God
As I lived in different places and came to know a variety of people, I came to appreciate the wonderful diversity of the human family.  American Baptists are the most racially and ethnically diverse Protestant denomination in the country, and we celebrate this diversity as a strength and do not simply accommodate it as a problem.  This gives us a richness and a resiliency that is not found anywhere else.  For me, this cinched the deal.

Decision Time:  American Baptist by Choice
I deliberately chose to become an American Baptist in 1990 and went to my first ABC pastorate in Philadelphia in 1992.  In my next article I will talk about the missiology of American Baptists and how that has kept me in the family.  Why are you an American Baptist by choice?  Share your journey with me, and I’ll share it with the larger Regional family.  Email me at

Might I suggest that you make November American Baptist Identity Month in your church?  You can find resources to assist you at and brief video clips at  I suggest the following videos:  Jimmy Carter talks about American Baptists’ work on behalf of the equality of women in church and society; Suzan Johnson Cook speaks to the importance of preparing the next generation of church leaders; Tony Compolo reminds us of American Baptists pioneering and ongoing work in cross-cultural missions; and Luis Cortes Jr. raises up the biblical mandate for practical ministry in the community.  Let us celebrate our American Baptist family next month (or any other month you choose.)

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister ABC/NYS