I had the privilege of attending the first Converge conference hosted by American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) in Valley Forge, PA, April 8-9, 2019. I went as an observing member of the ABHMS Board of Directors.
In his introductory letter in the program book, Executive Director Dr. Jeffrey Haggray called it an “unprecedented event” convening “partners from three diverse and highly valued ABHMS-related affinity groups.” These three groups were:
- Presidents or representatives of American Baptist-related colleges and universities
- Recipients of the 2018 ABHMS Palmer Grants
- The first cohort of the Co-Creators Incubator, an 8-month supportive program for entrepreneurs exploring new and unconventional ministry ideas
Journalists and religion commentators are usually quick to jump on a story of the latest statistics showing church decline, the public’s disillusionment with religion, etc. A very different story emerges, however, when you are among groups of today’s Christian leaders who are on the ground, seeking to be faithful to that which they feel called. Clarity and resources are not always forthcoming for these leaders, but I’ve found there is no shortage of passion and competency. God is raising up new leaders for a new day, even if their stories don’t hit the magazine stand.
I would like to highlight four encouraging and promising trends that I observed in my interactions with these Christian leaders and entrepreneurs at the Converge conference that are also representative of many other pastors, teachers, and servants, and that give me much hope for the Church of the 21st century.
First, I sensed a remarkable level of resilience. I’m reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (NIV). I found in some of the servants I met this spirit of giving of themselves fully in spite of hardship, resistance, or closed doors.
I spoke with two women from Puerto Rico whose facilities (and community) were significantly damaged in Hurricane Maria, and who saw up close the devastation and loss of life. Despite the crippling effects of this storm, their own family health concerns, and the exponentially-increasing level of need in Puerto Rico, they have not stopped seeking new ways to meet the needs of their community. This includes work through a faith-based non-profit that will be using new grant money to consolidate and coordinate services to the citizens there, while intentionally ministering to what they describe as heightened levels of loneliness and depression.
Though others may not have had to weather a devastating hurricane, plenty of them have found themselves having to persistently adapt to changing times, distrustful communities, and even circles of family and friends who question what they’re doing. Leaders of the colleges and universities face many challenges as well, including rapid changes in how students learn, and financial/economic instability. The challenges are great enough that one may expect a certain despondence, but not so. To use Ron Heifetz’s language from his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, they know that doing ministry and education today are adaptive rather than technical challenges, and they’ve put themselves on the front lines.[i]
Second, so many of these servants and ministries are deeply imbedded in their community within cross-sector partnerships. In their book Externally Focused Quest, Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw said that churches need to be willing to partner with other organizations that are “morally positive and spiritually neutral,” and that doing so results in “tremendous leverage.”[ii] Swanson and Rusaw wrote this to try to convince traditional, institutional churches to put themselves out there. So many of the entrepreneurial leaders I meet today, however, including those at Converge, seek out these partnerships almost naturally and have a sense that they are limiting the work of God if they don’t. Some in the Co-Creators group expressed hesitation to refer to themselves as “entrepreneurs” but as one small piece of a puzzle that God was putting together.
That is the right approach. Gone are the days when churches and ministries can keep to themselves, existing as their own separate entity in the community, and expect to flourish. Gone are the days when Christian leaders can assume they will be a trusted, esteemed person by virtue of their title without going out and earning that trust. In my sabbatical research on how churches were finding ways to engage in Christian Community Development, one of the major common threads I found in all my site visits was deep, abiding relationships of trust (that often take the church or Christian organization some time to form). Just as Jesus sent out the 72 (Luke 10:1-12) to other communities as the strangers without an agenda or sales pitch, so must we go out.
One American Baptist region represented at Converge will be creating “Healing Circles” in which churches will serve as catalysts to bring together “state, county, and local professionals in their respective settings to heal and support survivors of domestic violence.” Other ministries were partnering with community organizations ranging from schools, prisons, police departments, and local business.
Third, I saw people and ministries that don’t just serve poor and vulnerable populations but know and love them. Jesus not only identified himself with the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned, but in the parable of Matthew 25:31-46, he predicated judgment on how one treated these populations. Unfortunately, some churches still struggle to find their way into such ministries, and some of those that do keep needy populations at the safe distance of a Saturday morning service project. These ministries and servants, in many cases, work with their community’s most neglected populations, most vulnerable people groups, and/or those that others may have written off. These groups include at-risk youth, food-insecure citizens, refugees and immigrants. Others are ministering directly to groups of people that are statistically less likely to attend a traditional church. One ministry is dedicated to the surfing community, for example, and another to artists and content creators.
Finally, and perhaps most unexpectedly, I saw an encouraging fidelity to the local church. Although the turn of the century was, in some ways, characterized by Christian leaders starting new projects separate and away from the institutional church, these leaders covet the partnership of local faith communities, and in many instances, already depend on them or are serving in the local church themselves. They are trailblazers, for sure, and they are no doubt all too aware of the church’s faults and shortcomings, but they are not anti-church, rogue Christian visionaries. Instead, they faithfully work within and alongside the local church, all over the United States and Puerto Rico. They patiently hold in tension the traditions of the local church and the fresh vision God has given them, believing that God has not given up on either. I suspect they are right.
The Rev. Dr. Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Del.