Why I Am an American Baptist Part Two: A Missiology That Has Kept Me in the Family
As I shared in part 1, I have not always been an American Baptist. My first experience of ministry shaped by a clear set of denominational values and practices came as a summer student missionary between my sophomore and junior years in college. I worked with a local Baptist church in Michigan, who was attempting to plant a church in a nearby community. I was told not to contact any other church in that small community because they were not “Word churches.” Only our brand of Baptists had it right. It dawned on me that part of our work was to supplant ministry already being done in the area by other churches. I felt uncomfortable; this was not a missiology that resonated with my developing (at that point two-year-old) faith.
Later, among American Baptists I found a missiology that was humble and recognized the value and authenticity in the work of people from other Christian groups born of different histories and places. I delighted in the way American Baptists celebrated the particular cultures and practices of the places where they minister, be it in “Little Italy” of South Philadelphia or the villages of Congo or the cities of Europe. American Baptists, when we are at our best, have respect for the diversity of the human family and, in particular, respect for the ongoing ministries of believers who have lived there faithfully long before we arrived.
My church in Ohio went on a mission trip to Mexico, where we worked with ABC-USA missionary Tim Long at the seminary in Mexicali. I was impressed by the gentle but determined way Tim taught us to respect the ways of the locals and to follow their lead. He made it clear that local believers knew more about ministry (and construction) in that place than we ever would. We realized that we were guests in someone else’s homeland; we had come to partner with an ongoing ministry.
The following year my church went on a mission trip to an ABC-USA Christian Community Center in Hamtramck, Michigan, run by former ABC-USA Home Missionary Sharon Buttry. Forty-one percent of the residents in that community were foreign born, coming from the Middle East, south Asia, and southeastern Europe. The collection of languages being spoken and the variety of restaurants that lined the streets were mesmerizing. Sharon’s sensitivity to the diversity of the community and her appreciation of the cultures represented in the neighborhood was obvious. We realized that we were guests in someone else’s community; we had come to partner with an ongoing ministry.
My wife Debbie and I spent 10 years as American Baptist missionaries in Europe. We tried to model what we had learned from other American Baptists. ABC-USA missionaries are almost always invited in by national partners to come alongside them and strengthen their ongoing ministries. The national partner sets the agenda and determines the priorities. There is respect for their traditions, history and values. American Baptists recognize that the best wisdom for ministry in a particular place is found among those folks who have been ministering there for generations. They work with a spirit of humility, seeking to be helpful where they can, and leaving as small a footprint as possible.
Too often North American missionaries enter a place of ministry with the mindset of a benefactor who already knows what people need and distributes benefits as a patron handing out Christmas hams. In some cases we met missionaries who worked in the land as a type of occupying force, with little regard for what the local believers were doing or thought was important. In some instances, they refused to work with any national group and even tried to stay “under the radar” of local Christian groups. Some had a subversive mentality; unfortunately, they were subverting the efforts of local Christians who had worked and sacrificed for decades in that place.
American Baptists, whether in a foreign land, an American city, or their own community, have a listening, appreciating cooperative missiology leavened with humility. This is why I have remained an American Baptist and always will be. We have always been a people on mission. I like the way we travel through the world.
Why are you an American Baptist? Share your journey with me, and I’ll share it with the larger Regional family. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Might I suggest that you make November American Baptist Identity Month in your church? You can find resources to assist you at http://www.abc-usa.org/inspired/resources-for-churches/ and brief video clips at http://www.abc-usa.org/inspired/video-archive/. 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.)