2016-06-30
Hey, pastors, lay leaders, and Christian educators! Pack the fried chicken, get the kids, and pile in the Buick! We're off to the Baptist annual meeting!

Whether you are Methodist, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or any one of the 27 Baptist sects, the annual summer denominational meeting has a certain retro feel. They hark back to horn-rimmed glasses, "fellowshipping," and long discussions on whether women should be allowed to wear open-toe shoes to church.

Fast forward to the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, and the meetings have a different feel. You could call it "bloodletting." Women, gays, abortion--everyone is fighting over them. And to a lot of people, these battles are the beginning of the end of the denominational structure.

My denomination, the American Baptist Churches, with 1.5 million members, fits nicely into both these stereotypes.

We had the "Holy Grounds" coffee shop; a mission group called the x-treem team, with the x shaped like a cross; and little lambs on each of the tables at the largely blue-haired American Baptist Women meeting (lamb of God, get it?).

At the same time, we're the most racially diverse of all mainline denominations which involves a cultural learning curve. We consistently try to distinguish ourselves from the Southern Baptist Convention, which in the last 20 years has turned increasingly conservative. And, of course, the ABC has its share of contention over the question of gays and lesbians in the church.

And so it was with some trepidation that I decided to brave the American Baptist Biennial in Providence, R.I., last weekend. I came away surprised at some of the innovative projects my denomination is engaged in. Here is a sampling:

  • One group of teenagers was eager to talk about an ABC ministry at Curtis Park Community Center in urban Denver. They are studying a 12-week curriculum entitled "Tell It," which trains youth in digital journalism. The seven kids on what appeared to be a major field trip were having a great time interacting with the conventioneers in the exhibition hall.

  • We also got to hear Marc Marer from The Sentencing Project, a ministry that studies black men and the criminal justice system and questions of race in the penal system. Delegates also met Chaplain Lorraine K. Potter, brigadier general, USAF, an ABC chaplain who is the only female chaplain in the military to be promoted to general officer.

  • Within the exhibition hall, there was a prayer service in a space designed after a cell an inmate might inhabit, which focused on prison ministries and reform.

    Those who roll their eyes at the word "denomination" tend to forget that these conventions are made up of the leaders representing organizations with literally tens of millions of people connected to them. The reach of these groups is surprisingly wide--and they affect the world in ways that are often unseen or taken for granted.

    "Denominations are not as dead as they say they are," said the Rev. Bob Roberts, interim general secretary of the ABC. "They are like sleeping giants that are beginning to stir again."

    But what does a delegate get out of coming to a meeting like this? Some families take a chunk of their summer vacation to attend the five days of meetings, worship, and debate. Why? In addition to finding out about the various ministries of the denomination, people come to socialize.

    "I come to find out what is really going on in the denomination," says the Rev. Doug Harris, of Chicago. Harris has been coming to these meetings for 20 years. "I got up early this morning and took a walk, I was so excited and energized to be here."

    James Dunn, the recently retired executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, goes to some 14 Baptist conventions a year. "They are like family gatherings. Everybody knows each other," he said.

    This is an opportunity for people who don't get to see each other all year embrace and exchange stories, only to get interrupted by new friends coming along and saying howdy. It has the feeling of a family reunion on a grand scale, and instead of the speeches about the history and importance of the family, you get worship services and Bible studies on the denomination's role in spreading the word of Jesus Christ. As Roberts told me, "It allows individuals and smaller churches to remember that they are part of a bigger whole."

    Not everyone is already a member of the family. I unexpectedly ran into an acquaintance of mine from seminary who was at the convention just to decide if she wanted to pursue her call to ministry within the ABC. Leslie Callahan is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York and is now finishing her doctorate at Princeton University. "I have never been to an American Baptist convention before," she said. "I thought now that I am considering ministry within the ABC, it is time." Conventions allow denominations to impress potential clergy and congregations.

    Or not.

    A clergy colleague of mine chafed at some of the offerings of the weekend--such as a skit featuring a Native American woman who cloyingly proclaimed: "I have something more important than a tepee--I have Jesus."

    Others might not appreciate the overtly pious tone offered by many participants. "So what is your witness?" was the first words out of one well-meaning woman to a seminarian who was still recovering from a particularly conservative Southern Baptist upbringing. The seminarian said, "It was the first thing in the morning, and I just froze thinking, 'What does that exactly mean, and what do I have to prove?'"

    Of course, on the other side of the coin, the ABC's more evangelical congregations were confronted at one point with a choir made up of members of pro-gay "Welcoming and Affirming" churches. At these conventions, there is something to make everyone uncomfortable.

    However, this discord-and-unity dance is true for any family and political structure. One of the main statements passed over the weekend called upon American Baptists "to strive to maintain unity and participation in mission in spite of our disagreements...." The Presbyterian Church (USA), which also met in June, passed a similar statement, which helped them deal with their differing opinions.

    In some ways, these disagreements make for an interesting convention and association. One of the sad things about the evolution of the Democratic and Republican conventions has been how mandatory uniformity of opinion has conquered the combative conventions of the past. Entire conventions scripted to show one unified vision end up being dull and nothing more than infomercials.

    Sure, denominational conventions entail conflict, sure they are at times wordy, and for some of us the piety can get tedious. But we stay together like a family stays together, because we share a common history and, while we may often lose sight of it, a common purpose--spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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