A Post Pandemic Reflection
These paragraphs offer my thoughts concerning a broad unpredictable future. Nothing I say should be considered exhaustive. It is written from the standpoint that the COVID-19 pandemic, our society’s reckoning with racism, and prolonged economic recession, will exponentially increase the rapidity of change. It is also written from the perspective that we are most faithful to Christ living out the Great Commission, and witnessing fully to the reign of Christ. While living out our timeless faith, we will experience changes we will recognize, those that will surprise us, and we may find answers while being within the changes rather than having answers in hand before changes. Within all this in mind, I offer my thoughts, however simplistic, concerning regaining our historic Baptist passion for being a mission movement. God’s people have often traveled not knowing where we were going, and for the Western Church in particular, we are now speeding along this pathway.
Several weeks ago, I listened into a webinar from a ministry leader in Seattle Washington. Secular Seattle looks similar to secular New England: 5% of people attend church, 5% used to attend church, and 90% of people have never attended a church. This is a reasonably accurate description of what we mean when we speak of a secular society. But in secular Seattle people are tuning into worship services, prayer times, spiritual formation groups, and joining in church based efforts to take care of one’s neighbors and city. People who have had little or no connection with the Church are curious and receptive to Christianity. As we practice being genuine, safe, caring, and honest Christian communities, confident in the Gospel, I believe Christianity will appeal to countless searching people. God’s grace unfolds giving salvation and hope while society wrestles with grief, anger, and uncertainty. There are projections that societal and economic upheaval may last anywhere from two years to a decade. I believe the truth will be somewhere in the middle.
Last fall I spent some time reading histories of Vermont Baptist Churches. My interest was sparked by attending an anniversary celebration at the First Baptist Church of Starksboro VT. Our Baptist history in both states is one of evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and the reformation of society. By the late 1800’s there were 160 Baptist Churches in Vermont birthed by our forebearers in both the Northern and Free Will Baptist movements. Today I count 58 churches in Vermont associated with ABCVNH. Some of those first Baptist Churches closed, and others over time disassociated from the original Baptist movement. But the energy and sacrifice that could plant 160 churches was the result of a frontier mission movement.
The Holy Spirit birthed and nurtured a mission movement from within congregations and associations. A few of their leaders become known as “secretaries” who help coordinate and encourage the movement. There were evangelists and pastors, almost exclusively without seminary training. The Baptist pastor/farmer was foundational for the movement - what we in the last several decades began to call “bi-vocational ministry.” I wonder if what we are learning in a pandemic will cause us to draw from our history. I ask if ABCVNH can once again become a mission movement in association with one another? At the present moment, American Baptist Churches, reflect a post-World War II church culture. I believe reaching back a couple hundred years will serve Christ better than reaching back to 1950.
But as we embrace a timeless Gospel, we are faced with new language and descriptors. We are trying to understand what a post-pandemic world and Church will be like. Some of the language will prove true, some partly true, and some outright false. The frequent wordage I hear is: “decentralization,” “distributive,” “hybridized,” and “networked,”. I really like Bolsinger’s title “Canoeing the Mountains.” One of my favorite descriptors is: “We will not be a church of either/or but rather both/and.” We will see more churches close. There will be renewal in traditional church sanctuaries. New Christian communities will come into being, looking more like early churches than churches meeting in buildings on village greens. Often these “back to the future” Christian communities will reach the most disenfranchised and broken people with Christ’s love. I believe the Holy Spirit will work and form a wide range of venues and context where people will become Christ’s disciples. The commonality of all these streams will be an ecclesiology and missiology anchored in a confident timeless Christology.
Our ABC covenant speaks of “seeking the mind of Christ through the authority of Scripture and the counsel of the Holy Spirit.” The covenant speaks of “establishing new churches and renewing existing churches.” It refers to our mission as including “Christian service and discipleship of all peoples.” Christian history testifies we are at our most faithful when engaged in discipleship and servanthood. From costly discipleship flows the labor and sacrifice to see individuals saved and the transformation of society. Discipleship does not avoid individual and community ethics and morality, manifesting the Gospel of Grace and the Reign of God. Regaining a passion for the Great Commission is foundational to being a mission movement.
I once heard a former ABC general secretary say that American Baptists were really good at compassion but not very good at evangelism. I have often thought about how over time our denominational culture eclipsed an evangelistic/discipling imperative. Often it was the common trajectory of institutionalism. Sometimes it was a belief that the Great Commission was only applicable beyond our communities and borders. There also evolved the false dichotomy of evangelism and discipleship versus the reformation of society. A consumer society could even separate evangelism from discipleship and from the patient journey of spiritual formation. Believing in theses false dichotomies brings about a selective obedience to Christ’s commands and instructions. For a saint like William Wilberforce evangelizing the world and abolishing slavery were one and the same Christian passion. Our selectivity corrupts Agape and avoids Imago Dei. A passion to see others come to know Christ as Savior and Lord remains foundational to who we are as disciples. To paraphrase John Wesley, to evangelize without discipleship is birthing babies to feed to the wolves.
Authentic generous Christian community is paramount to becoming Christians. Redeemed persons together transform culture and society. We are on the cusp of a new/old missiology where community will proceed conversion. Christian community will become more “deinstitutionalized”, becoming more approachable and compassionate. In Christian community the cognitive lives in tandem with the experiential. To quote Mark Green “They are organically connected. Growth in Godly character is likely to lead to acts of love and grace. Acts of love and grace may well lead to an opportunity to talk about the love and grace Jesus has shown you” (Fruitfulness on the Frontlines. P.55, IVP.). Mature disciples embrace a broken world, and mature churches raise disciples. As Bonhoeffer writes in Cost of Discipleship, “Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ” (Cost of Discipleship, p. 59, Touchstone Press). As we leave behind the age of Christendom, our faith in a secular environment will entail an intentional and transparent discipleship. The “secular city” has been found wanting and the City of God still stands juxtaposed to the city of the world.
As citizens of Christ’s Kingdom, we are compelled to ask the questions that others Christian generations have asked: “How do we serve Christ, make disciples, and participate in common grace during uncertainty and disruption?” My question, “Is the Holy Spirit, even as we converse and pray, sowing the seeds for a hundred year awakening during a hundred year pandemic?” Can we love a world that Christ so loves, a world conditioned toward self-interest, greed, and hatred? Can we move beyond myopic ideologies to re-embracing a timeless Gospel? And in so doing can we be a radical timeless counter-culture who is truly Christ’s body? Can American Baptists in particular rediscover ourselves as a passionate mission movement in the name of Jesus? I do believe the Holy Spirit is fermenting a new awakening. As one formed by the post-World War II church, it both warms me and makes me anxious. My experiences in church renewal have paradoxically been exhilarating and exhausting. Yet I believe a new awakening may not look like the last three or four, but the elemental unchangeable will be Christ reforming and forming His Church.
In Jesus name,
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