Monday, October 01, 2007

The Treasure of Our Life Together as American Baptists

Recently I was privileged to speak at the annual meeting of the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey. This was my message.
Dwight Stinnett

Listen, dear friends, to God's truth,
bend your ears to what I tell you.
'm chewing on the morsel of a proverb;
I'll let you in on the sweet old truths,
stories we heard from our fathers,
counsel we learned at our mother's knee.
We're not keeping this to ourselves,
we're passing it along to the next generation—
God's fame and fortune,
the marvelous things God has done.
Psalm 78:1-4 The Message

Have you ever “Googled” the word “treasure?” There are over 66 million entries on the Web (I expect there are more by now). Technorati found nearly 350,000 blogs by the same, simple search.

The number 1 result from a Google search is the Wikipedia entry for “treasure.” That entry defines “treasure” as “a concentration of riches, often one which is considered lost or forgotten until being rediscovered.” This may not be a proper dictionary definition of the word, but I think it is a fair explanation of the popular understanding of “treasure.” There are two main points to this definition: first, it involves materially valuable things; secondly, it was lost or forgotten, but now found or remembered.

That “lost riches” understanding of “treasure” is reflected in the websites identified by the search. The first page includes TreasureNet (The Original Treasure Hunting website), Lost Treasure OnLine (a magazine for treasure hunters; did you know there was such a thing?); Mel Fisher’s Treasures (the story of the recovery of famous sunken treasure ships); and several websites for metal-detecting gear. I didn’t bother to check them all, but you get the point.

We find both elements of lost, forgotten or unrecognized riches in Antiques Roadshow. I hate network broadcasting, and Antiques Roadshow has become one of my few staple TV shows. For those of you who may not be familiar with the show, it travels around the country. Local residents are invited to bring their treasures (both real and imagined) to the show, where professional appraisers can tell them something about their treasure and put a dollar value on it.

I love watching the surprises. Like the story of the man who stopped to pick up a chair on the side of the road, and learned it was an original Chippendale worth thousands. Or the story of the woman who brought an antique Chinese vase for which she had paid $10,000, only to discover that it was a fake, probably worth $500 as a decorator’s piece.

But the real fun stories are the persons who bring in a family heirloom, merely out of curiosity. It has been handed down from generation to generation. Sometimes the story of its origin or significance has been lost. The article has not been cared for. Children have played with it. It may appear modest and simple. It has not been insured or protected in any way. I remember such a story in which a family quilt was valued at $70,000. These people did not understand what treasures they had.

I am talking about “treasure” today. Not material treasure, but treasure like a family heirloom that may have been forgotten, neglected or ignored.

While I grew up Baptist, I did not grow up American Baptist. Coming from outside 25 years ago, my perspective may be different from those who have always been here. Because they are so familiar, you may not see or recognize the treasures among us. I have discovered four “treasures” in American Baptist life. I will not presume to give them any kind of relative value, but will talk about them in the order in which I became conscious of them.

Women in Ministry

The first treasure I discovered was women in ministry. American Baptists are unapologetic in their support and encouragement of women in ministry. I know this is not true in every place. And I also know this is an anomaly among Baptists in general. It is a debate I find puzzling.

One of my very earliest memories is sitting in a rocking chair with an elderly woman while she read a child’s storybook about Daniel in the lion’s den. I know in retrospect that this must have been the church nursery on a Wednesday night while my parents were in choir practice. Was this a woman in ministry?

The New Testament tells us that women were the first witnesses to the Resurrection. They evangelized the 11 Disciples with the Gospel of the Risen Christ.

The New Testament tells us that the four daughters of Philip were known to “prophesy,” which is one of the Greek words for “preach.”

The New Testament tells us that it was Priscilla and Aquila who corrected Apollos’ in his preaching. It is not irrelevant that Priscilla is named first.

As the Apostle Paul concluded his letter to the Romans, he gave a roll call of twenty-five persons by name. Eight of those names are very clearly women—including the first and last in the list. Paul commended these women as deacons, ministers, and co-workers for the sake of the Kingdom.

John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, commonly identified as the first Baptists, commended women as church leaders, specifically deacons, in 1609.

But something happened in the 1700’s and women faded from leadership in Baptist churches. The Spirit broke through in the 1800’s.

Joanna P. Moore was commissioned as a missionary by the American Baptist Home Mission Society during the Civil War.

As far as we know, May Jones was the first woman ordained by a Baptist church in the North. That happened in 1882.

About the same time, Lulu Flemming was appointed as a medical missionary to the Congo by the Women’s American Baptist Foreign Mission Society.

Helen Barrett Montgomery, was born in 1861. She went on to be a biblical scholar and licensed minister. She served as President of the Women’s American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. She was finally honored as President of the Northern Baptist Convention in 1921.

Historically, Baptist women have served as church teachers and leaders, deacons, missionaries, and pastors. Some were ordained, others were licensed, still others were commissioned. Too many more had no such recognition at all. This treasure is more valued in some places than others. Still, I celebrate because the treasure of divine calling to ministry--including both women and men--remains intact among American Baptists.

Ethnic Diversity

The second treasure I discovered was ethnic diversity. My experience with ethnic diversity in the church was quite unlike my experience with women in ministry, which was positive from the very beginning. I grew up in a racially segregated society and a racially segregated church.

While my family had African-American friends and I played with African-American children, we lived in, internalized, and uncritically contributed to a culture of segregationism. I attended a “whites only” public school. I drank from “white” public water fountains. I watched the grotesque racial caricature of Amos and Andy on television and saw only a harmless comedy. And my church was lily white.

We were social segregationists, not theological segregationists. By that I mean there were no Sunday School lessons or sermons advocating the superiority of the white race. Violence against anyone was rejected as sub-Christian. There was no attempt to provide a biblical or theological underpinning for the racially segregated, discriminating, and, consequently, unjust society in which we lived. There truly was a spirit of charity and care for all persons.

The issue was not even theologically considered or biblically examined. Segregation was simply and uncritically accepted from the culture as the norm. And that was our failing. Our culture was not adequately critiqued on the basis of the Bible that we claimed to believe. Some have called this “soft segregationism” or “velvet glove racism.”

I listened to preachers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I did not know at the time that he was associated with American Baptists, or had attended an American Baptist seminary. Still, the words he spoke, loaded with powerful biblical images, were consistent with what I had heard in my own church. But he applied the Word in a way that had not been considered by my own pastor. He drew consequences from theological reflection that had remained undeveloped in my own church. It sounded right. It moved me.

Ultimately, the inconsistency between what was preached in our pulpits and what was actually practiced in our lives drove me away from the church. There is not time, and this is not the place, to outline my rehabilitation. Simply suffice it to say I returned to the church—but I was not the same as when I left.

I tell this story not because I want to defend the South of my childhood, or because I deny the reality of vicious and violent racism, but because we need to understand the complexity of the issue and the ways in which it has wounded all of us.

Today I can celebrate the fact—the treasure—that no other denomination in America today even comes close to our ethnic diversity. Numerically, there is no ethnic majority among us. We truly are a reflection of the Kingdom of God. Praise the Lord!

At the same time, I know that we cannot rest on self-congratulation.

I grew up in an era of “social segregationism” that included the church. Today I fear American Baptists are at risk of believing our “social ethnic diversity” is a satisfactory answer to the very real, deep-seated, heart-poisoning problem of racism.

What do I mean by “social ethnic diversity?” I mean we diligently put a public face on our ethnic diversity. We can be obsessive and legalistic in presenting a platform of rainbow faces. We carefully scrub and purge our public language. We look good and we sound good.

But we resist doing the hard work of personal conversion. We rarely speak honestly with one another because it might undermine our public persona of openness. We are covered by a façade that often hides parentalism, condescension and mistrust. There is a public conversation--then there are the private conversations. Ironically, our public persona, our social ethnic diversity, actually prevents us from getting to the heart of bona fide ethnic diversity. Consequently, Sunday remains the most segregated hour in America—even in American Baptist churches. Yes, there are many “integrated” churches among us; I attend one. But I know that in most of those churches there is a dominant culture to which the minorities adapt. There are very few true multicultural churches among us.

If we are going to get past this superficial integration, then we must learn to talk about very real differences. Together we must also expose our differences and cultures to the penetrating light of the Gospel. We must learn to discern and speak to the good and true within one another, as well as the ugly and false. Until this is a fully engaged two-way (actually multiple-way) conversation we will remain stalled where we are—looking good, sounding good, but unconverted. The beloved community will come only through conversion.

American Baptists have taken the first step. And that makes me proud to be an American Baptist. We are positioned to teach the rest of the world something about how profound community can grow out of broad ethnic diversity. It is risky business, but I believe in my heart that there are many of us who are ready to take that next step.

The events of Jena, Louisiana break my heart. They take my mind back 40 years. What happened? Or, to be more precise, what didn’t happen? Can we take that next step together?

As much as I treasure what we have become, I long for the day in which “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Whole Gospel (evangelism, prophetic)

The third treasure I discovered among American Baptists was a commitment to the whole Gospel.

The Baptist churches I grew up in took the Sermon on the Mount seriously – they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and cared for the sick. Those very same churches were just as serious about Jesus’ command to “make disciples.” An “invitation” concluded every service, and we worshipped with the expectations that persons would respond in repentance or renewal. The heart of the Gospel is the story of the Cross, and each of us must personally confess Jesus Christ, no one can do it for us. It was never either/or; it is always both/and. It is bad enough when Baptists choose only one over the other, and inexcusable when one side identifies itself exclusively as the “real” heritage of Baptists.

Baptists were born out of the very concrete practice of believers’ baptism, not by following a script of principles someone had penned. We all know, don’t we, that “believers’ baptism” means a public act of baptism following a personal repentance and confession of Jesus Christ.

We are the heirs of late 19th and early 20th Century “evangelicals,” who not only practiced believers’ baptism, they had a profound sense of social responsibility that was rooted in and sustained by the Bible. They cared for the down and out and forgot about because it was an essential part of the Gospel.

The modern debate over personal Gospel versus social Gospel, “evangelical” (typically meaning an emphasis on witness and conversion) versus “prophetic” (typically meaning an emphasis on the peace and justice issues) would be foolish to early evangelicals. American Baptist history is full of evidences that we have struggled to keep the Gospel whole, with all its implications.

John Mason Peck and his wife Sarah Payne were the first American Baptist home missionaries. They served in what is now the Great Rivers Region. John Mason Peck was a tireless traveler and preacher, determined to bring Christianity to the Wild West. He started and strengthened churches. He built Sunday Schools. He vigorously promoted cooperative missions and Baptist associations. But Peck also started one of the very first colleges in Illinois. Peck was among the Baptists who fought slave-holding as a practice inconsistent with Christianity. He has been credited as one of the persons responsible for Illinois being a “free” state.

In our history I see persons like Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Thurman, Jitsuo Morikawa and Harold Stassen who worked to help us see the far-reaching, institutional aspects of sin and the imperative that Christians must address social sin. And I am aware of the large collection of resolutions and statements of concern directed toward a variety of both social and personal concerns.

Even while we addressed social sin, American Baptists sent out the first colporters to do evangelism work, beginning in 1843. The first railroad chapel car, the “Evangel,” was commissioned in 1891 to provide preaching stations in far-flung communities along the railroad network. American Baptists declared 1926 as the “Year of Evangelism.” We launched the “Evangelistic Lifestyle” emphasis in 1973. And held a national convocation on evangelism in St. Louis in 1981. Our 10 Facts You Should Know About American Baptists, (published in 2000) still lists as #1: “American Baptists believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior … the events of the first Easter week are the cornerstones of our faith.”

I treasure the fact that, by and large, American Baptists as a group have tried to be faithful to both the personal and the social demands of the Gospel. The division and antithesis between so-called “evangelical” and “prophetic” ministries is unbiblical and ultimately undermines Christianity. They are like two sides of the same coin—one without the other is unthinkable. Each informs and corrects the other. In my opinion, the continued emphasis on the whole Gospel is potentially one of the greatest contributions that American Baptists can make to Christianity in 21st Century America.


The fourth treasure I discovered was our partnership missiology. “Missiology” is just a 50-cent word that means the science of, or the study of missions. American Baptist missiology—our approach to missions—may be the hardest to explain, but also may be our most valuable treasure.

The emergence of the world-wide missionary movement in the 19th Century left its mark on Baptists. We were not especially “missionary” before the Judsons went to Burma in 1812. In fact, you could say the first American Baptist missionaries were adopted after they were already on the field, because we did not begin supporting them until 1814 at the instigation of Luther Rice.

But something about world-wide mission work resonated with the very nature of Baptists. I think it is related to that emphasis on the whole Gospel that I just talked about. Baptists have been shaped forever by international missions. Most of us, regardless of which peculiar Baptist family we claim, have survived to this point in history as missionary churches—some are cooperative, others are not so cooperative.

American Baptist missionaries preached the Gospel, translated the Bible, baptized believers, strengthened disciples, brought medicine, improved agriculture, built schools, and helped emerging countries in all kinds of ways.

At the same time, there was something unsavory about world-wide missions as it was rooted in the 19th Century. Intended or not, we quickly became parental if not down-right colonial. Missionaries from America—regardless of their denomination--were unwitting captives of Euro-culturalism and its sense of superiority, and “mission” was often justifiably identified with Western imperialism. Anyone who has seen or read Michenor’s Hawaii knows that.

But American Baptist missiology matured—and that is the real treasure. We have not escaped all cultural bonds, but we are much more sensitive to them than our 19th Century forebears. The arrogant days of missionaries arriving to take control are over. All around the world, American Baptist missionaries are in countries because they have been invited by local Baptists. Our growing partnership approach to missions invites our hosts to tell us what they need and how best we may serve them. We respect local leaders as the real experts of their own culture.

As a consequence, American Baptist missionaries are respected all around the world in ways that almost no other Western missionaries are. The treasure of American Baptist missions is not the number of missionaries on the field, the number of countries in which we have missionaries, or the number of dollars we raise and spend on international missions. The real treasure of American Baptist missions is the way we participate in God’s world-wide mission. We are poised, like no other denomination, to face the mission challenges of the 21st Century. More than that, I believe our international experience will prove invaluable as we consider the United States as one of the most important mission fields in the 21st Century.

I am proud of American Baptist missions.

In conclusion, I believe these four specific practices within American Baptist churches more accurately describe who we are than any academic study of so-called “Baptist principles.” These are the practices that I have come to treasure.

The Apostle Paul said we “have this treasure in jars of clay.” I know he was talking specifically about the ministry of reconciliation, but it is a good image for us to remember.

We don’t want to confuse the pot with the treasure! The clay pot remains a clay pot. It is common. It is earthy. It is fragile. This clay pot we call American Baptists is especially earthy and fragile right now.

At the same time, we do not want to forget the treasure that is held in this clay pot. It is not a treasure of our own manufacture. It is not one we have earned. It is not one we are free to hoard or hide. It is the gift of God.

Let’s remember, celebrate, and share the treasure that is within us.