American Baptist Churches USA gathered for their Biennial Mission Summit June 23-25 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Using the theme from Esther 4:14 “For Such a Time as This,” the Mission Summit gathered over 1,100 participants from around the world to celebrate their shared ministry, connect with one another, and hear from a variety of American Baptist leaders and ministry partners.
Beyond the usual denominational reports, parliamentary procedures, and votes to affirm new officers and board members, ABCUSA General Secretary Rev. Dr. C. Jeff Woods reminded us that the Mission Summit is a place to celebrate what God is doing in and through American Baptists. “It is so enriching to see the American Baptist family gathered together in Puerto Rico for the first in-person Biennial in four years. The reach of American Baptist mission is incredible, and it is even more evident when the family is gathered in the same place sharing with one another,” he said.
ABCUSA celebrates our unique identity as the most ethnically diverse and politically balanced denomination in the United States. We may even be the most theologically diverse Christian denomination in America. This creates great opportunities and great challenges for American Baptists.
Our diversity through interdependence was on full display during the Mission Summit. Women and men preachers, teachers, and leaders from multiple ethnic backgrounds, languages, and geographic contexts were reflected in the 31 different workshops, events, and keynote speakers within the schedule.
Primera Iglesia Bautista de Cupey (First Baptist Church of Cupey, Puerto Rico), Pastor PJ Morales Rosado, and their congregation’s worship team and choir united the Mission Summit participants in dynamic multilingual and multicultural worship.
Friday night’s keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. Frederick Douglass Haynes III of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, TX, challenged the participants to stay alert and focused on the ministry opportunities all around. “Spiritual regeneration and social responsibility go hand in hand … we are too woke not to weep, but our weeping will lead us to protest.” “Woke,” he explained, “is when you are self-aware and conscious of what is going on in the world contrary to the laws and justice of God.”
American Baptist Churches USA actively supports women in ministerial roles through a variety of pathways, including our historical track record, our continued encouragement of women in ministry, and the creation of empowerment opportunities for women in ministry. Three women preachers provided keynote addresses during the 2023 Mission Summit and three women pastors led the communion experience on Sunday morning. Additionally, women fill many of the leadership positions within the larger American Baptist ministry partner organizations and regions. There is more work yet to do to bring about more female representation and equal financial compensation in our churches, regions, and national organizations but ABCUSA is fully committed to this ongoing work.
Rev. Miriam Mendez, Executive Minister for the ABC of New Jersey Region, powerfully shared the importance of meaningful lament during her Saturday evening keynote: “Lament is a heart issue, it causes us to confess and repent … When there is no lament there is a loss of memory.”
Rev. Laura Ayala-Alvarez, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Rio Piedras, reminded those gathered of the importance of being aware of the context in which we dwell. As a native Puerto Rican, she reminded the guests visiting Puerto Rico of the importance of recognizing the ongoing colonialism, economic challenges, and remaining trauma from devastating hurricanes like Maria strengthened by climate change. Communion was led by Rev. Gina Jacobs Strain of American Baptist Women’s Ministry, Rev. Dr. Christine Rausch of the American Baptist Foundation, and Valoria Cheek, Esq. of the American Baptist Extension Corporation.
Rev. Joy Martinez-Marshall, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln, Nebraska, concluded the Mission Summit with a masterful call to action, proclaiming that God can turn our hesitations, excuses, and fears into reasons and ways to share the knowledge, giftings, and experiences into ways of revealing the kingdom of God in our midst. “The work of loving God and loving our neighbors is a serious matter … What if it doesn’t work out? But for the love of Christ, what if it does? Let us gather to pray knowing that it leads us to action. For such a time as this. Well, it’s time and it’s here. The opportunity is to be part of God’s work in a hurting and broken world. Wake up then. Cry out then. Dare to hope. Get on moving. God is sending us and inviting us to be people that embrace the power of what if because our God is with us.”
The American Baptist Churches USA Mission Summit is unique in its purpose of gathering the denomination, supporting congregations, regions, and national organizations, and creating space for local and global issues that reflects the motto, “by the whole of ABC for the whole of ABC.” To fulfill this task even more fully on Monday, June 26, representatives from all ABCUSA regions, national partners, and institutes of higher learning came together for “Mission Table Conversations” where they established a handful of key priorities for all American Baptists to focus on until the next Mission Summit in 2025. They include: empowering young adults and youth, peacemaking in a culture of violence, mental health, creation care, building beloved communities through collaboration, discipleship and disciple making, and proclaiming the distinctive markers of American Baptists.
I feel that the ABCUSA Biennial Mission Summit is the time and the place where American Baptists bring together the best version of our Baptist selves in a kaleidoscopic cacophony of mutual interdependence marked by loving fellowship. A healthy tension is held between varying theological, social, and missiological perspectives. American Baptists are an example of how the people of God can gather to bear witness to complex and often difficult Christian unity rather than acquiescing to the ease of dogmatically crude uniformity. Every aspect of our past and present American Baptist story is cherished and honored even as we work together to craft meaningful unity of mission and ministry for the future.
No community of faith is perfect. We still have our moments when we wound, belittle, dismiss, and misunderstand one another. But we keep coming back to the table where Jesus is host. In doing so we receive mercy, grace, and forgiveness from Christ and extend them to one another for what we have done and left undone. We keep bringing our diversity to the fore, especially when it is difficult. We talk. We work together. We listen. We make actionable steps and hold one another accountable. We do not cast out or remove from fellowship anyone. Sometimes people leave because the work is difficult and it’s often easier to live in the comforts of uniformity rather than endeavor and wrestle for unity. But we do not seek to actively push anyone away. The 2023 American Baptist Churches USA Biennial Mission Summit is an example of just one step in the direction of a hard-fought unity in the name of Jesus.
You can learn more about the ABCUSA Mission Summit here.
Rev. Dr. Greg Mamula is the Associate Executive Minister for the American Baptist Churches of Nebraska and a contributing writer for Word&Way. He is the author of Table Life: An Invitation to Everyday Discipleship, published by Judson Press in print and e-reader versions from online distributors including Amazon. To learn more information visit www.table-life.org.