A few years ago in my first church, I was asked to offer a Wednesday night Bible study. Like many churches, the Bible study was long a part of the weekly schedule, yet just a few would turn out for the evening. I decided to spend some time with the book of Ecclesiastes, which turned out to be quite popular. Many of the participants knew the “for everything there is a season” reading, but little else. I introduced the idea of the writer of Ecclesiastes taking a frank view of life, as noted in the observation “there’s nothing new under the sun”. The mostly senior citizen Bible study participants loved reading Ecclesiastes and in turn, I learned how it’s probably a book of the Bible best appreciated by those who have gained a great deal of life experience, something that I am still slowly gaining my way toward. As we discussed the text, stories connecting life with Biblical wisdom flowed as elders told their stories and sometimes laughed a bit about how they thought things really hadn’t changed now that they read the pondering of this anonymous teacher from long ago.
I keep Ecclesiastes’ reminder about “there’s nothing new under the sun” close when reading Baptist history. I just finished a new Baptist history written by two Baylor University scholars. While my review will be posted in the coming weeks, I thought I’d note that I kept thinking of Ecclesiastes’ wisdom as I read of Baptists struggling with being accepted early on and the irony of by the 20th century, Baptists were the major Protestant faith (if you count all of us in our doggedly autonomous separation and don’t tell us that we have to stand too close to one another unless we feel individually led to do so.)
Now out on the road, traveling to the American Baptist Mission Summit (aka “Biennial”) in my native Kansas, and actually in the Kansas City metro area where I attended seminary and taught the aforementioned bible study in a church there, I spent some time this week in Iowa City, IA, where my wife attended the University of Iowa and served as a work study student in the library. We visited the special collections department and requested some materials to read from the vast Archive there at the University.
As part of a collection of papers from a noted Northern Baptist with New York roots and a distinguished career in helping churches start up in Iowa, I found the minutes of an 1856 meeting held by congregations gathered as an Association of churches. As part of the proceedings, the minutes record the business of the sessions as well as notes on the sermons preached on the occasion. The format is somewhat familiar to the American Baptist Association meetings I attend even today, even though I note said meetings are felt to be less exciting and in need of reframing to make them more engaging for participants, especially as fewer and fewer feel interest in attending them. Of course, the irony here is the veritable ease of travel attending a meeting such as an Association meeting or even a national denominational gathering. By plane, by train, and by car, we can traverse great distances to meet or even set-up a web cast or webinar session to shorten the distance and costs even more. However, just as in 1856, each congregation has to choose to participate. Otherwise, a congregation or individual pastor/congregant can decide to stay home or find it less important to expend the time and energy getting there and participating in the meetings. Starting up a car or hitching up the wagons require ironically the same start-up: the interest and motivation to get there.
(I note that church gatherings are also a difficult experience when people disagree on matters of theology or polity. You can also feel marginalized or invisible when part of a minority that others have made feel less welcome through their inattention to hospitality or that a group of Baptists, properly understood, will have more interest in common ground connections than drawing up lines in the sand that cannot be crossed. The 1856 Association ends its minutes with a document later known as the New Hampshire Confession, common among many Baptists in the 19th and 20th centuries, though by now, the Confession has a certain history fraught with misgivings about how it was used over the years to divide rather than define Baptist identity.)
As part of the Association meetings (in 1856 and somewhat today), letters from each congregation of the Association were requested and received, except for one church that sent no information nor any delegates and nobody at the Association meeting had the foggiest what was going on in that church. (Some things never change, I suppose….) As I read the summaries of each letter, I found the one for the Coal Ridge congregation quite interesting. The church wrote that they had “enjoyed some refreshing seasons, but mourn their coldness as a body. Their Sabbath School has lost much of its interest—they say pray for us.”
Here a church notes its successes and its challenges to its sister congregations. They do not ask for what seems like much: “pray for us”. And in that earnest request, the local church asked for the other congregations around them to help them be “the Church”. I have read Association minutes from various parts of the United States and from different time periods and Baptist denominations. In this simple request for prayer, I found the best reason for Baptists to remember that they benefit from working together in ministry and mission. It’s not about uniformity but unity that congregations really need when relating to those well beyond their own church’s four walls. While Baptist churches sometimes seem to revel in their autonomy to the point of insularity, a congregation calls out for help and implies as well a level of trust that such a request will not go unanswered.
The Church in its many forms is less than perfect, yet in the midst of trying times, Christians can sometimes surprise one another with compassion and a readiness to help. While the meetings of such churches, gathered from near or far away, can be sometimes marked with contention, there are many times the sessions help us connect more with a greater understanding of what it means to be a “gathered people” (an early English Baptist term for its churches) and a people with something more in common than we sometimes remember when grumbling about one another: one Lord, one faith, one baptism.