By Jerrod Hugenot
Over the years, I have heard the persistent worry of the sinking of the American Baptist Churches USA and its other mainline Protestant counterparts. Since the mid-1960s, “decline” has been shaping the narrative we tell ourselves and one another. The heady days of mid-1950s euphoria have faded away. Worse, some Christians try our best to imitate what worked then.
In these early years of the 21st century, scholar Diana Butler Bass has championed the idea that mainliners aren’t down for the count or gone into the night. Bass’ research points to a number of smaller to medium-size congregations who are embracing spiritual practices that go way back in Christianity’s history: hospitality, welcome, compassion, prayer, service to others, discernment, listening intently to the Word, you name it.
The ways Christians live out their faith may vary, yet, in such intentional efforts to connect belief with action and gospel with mission, churches in local neighborhoods are finding new life and vitality.
Some of us call it “missional.” Others may say, “We’re getting closer to the core teachings and values of Jesus.” We learn to reach out into our neighborhoods with more care and less chance of misinformed paternalism. We learn to journey alongside one another in Christian fellowship and how to be neighbors to the Other.
Bass was once asked how to wade into such a way of living and acting out the faith. She suggests that we “pick one — one activity that tugs at your heart.”
“Start there,” she says in Christianity After Religion. “Just one thing. Not all of them. Do one thing well, with passion, with depth, with openness and understanding. Engage it intentionally, pay attention to the practice. See where it takes you.”
With these building blocks in hand, congregations find new life and deeper meaning in why we believe and “live and move and have our being” in Christ (Acts 17:28).
I was reminded Sunday before last of my readings of Diana Butler Bass and others when I spent the morning as the guest preacher at the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Utica, N.Y.
Over the years, Tabernacle has been the second-longest ABC/USA congregation to have ministry and partnerships with the Karen, people originally from Burma/Myanmar who left the country due to the political climate there and immigrated to places all around the United States. Like many other congregations, Tabernacle found Karen families arriving on their church steps in search of support and friendship.
Thirteen years ago, the first family arrived at Tabernacle, looking for help. They knew where to look because of the long mission history ties between Burma and the American Baptist Churches USA.
In fact, this year is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson in Burma to begin their mission. After much hardship (and I would wonder if we could be as faithful), they began seeing the mission field slowly develop as they became accepted. Deep faith practices are much evident in the making of these hardy servants of the Lord!
The Judson legacy gave these Burmese refugees their hope. Arriving as “children” of the Judsons many generations later, they knew that American Baptists would be a welcoming body of believers.
Tabernacle itself is revitalized, with a present-day Sunday morning schedule of an English service (with a high percentage of Karen attending) followed by a service in Karen.
The church provides a variety of services through their facility, serving the many Karen living in the greater Mohawk Valley area. Through such intentional practices of compassion, hospitality and solidarity, the congregation’s identity has changed and blossomed.
A Sunday morning service at Tabernacle shows how these basic ways of living the faith lead to the faith becoming incarnate in the care, friendships and shared mission.
In 2008, Senior Pastor Mark Caruana was interviewed by PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.
“This is a congregation that’s been willing to embrace a new group of people — have been willing to go with changes that set people’s heads spinning,” he reflected. “There have been times when I’ve wondered if the whole thing would just kind of blow apart. It hasn’t yet, and actually, I think we’re at the best place we’ve been as a congregation in years.”
Another great element of Tabernacle is multiplying its mission through theological education partnerships. The American Baptist Churches USA provides teachers and educational offerings thanks to Duane and Marcia Binkley — two dedicated missionaries affiliated with American Baptist International Ministries, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Central Baptist Theological Seminary and support from the American Baptist Churches of New York State and other ABC/USA mission partners.
Tabernacle hosts sessions for Karen church leaders and pastors to build skill sets and enhance the various ministries. The day before my visit to Utica, 53 attended a workshop at Tabernacle.
In Diana Butler Bass’ words, see where it takes you!