You bring into this position a very specific and articulated vision, “Centered in Christ.” It calls American Baptists—and the general secretary—to live out a ministry that involves a personal faith commitment, evangelism, discipleship, mission, justice and an affirmation of the tenets of our Baptist tradition. What will be your “gauge” for assessing how well that vision is becoming a reality?
One of my gauges is whether pastors are asking the question, “How do we make disciples out of believers?” That is a key missiological question for us in the U.S. right now. And as I hear pastors formulating that question or talking in terms of how they are making disciples—whose lives are centered in Christ and who give their lives in ministry for the sake of the work—I think that is one of the key gauges that I will use.
Another way is how we continue to articulate and live out our stewardship of the ministries here at the national level-and, further, how out of our common work here congregations see us as assisting them in their efforts to make disciples. It’s hard to identify concrete ways other than NEW LIFE 2010, where we set some goals for the number of new churches, the number of new disciples, and the numbers of caring ministries we will institute or revitalize. Those are the very concrete numbers that speak to whether or not we are living this out. I think there are also intangibles-the quality of our life as disciples, for example. I hope that we will see the goal for NEW LIFE 2010 fulfilled and then go even beyond that in our quest for what God wants to do through us.
What would you say to those who are convinced we are in a “post-denominational” era, where effectiveness in Christian witness can best be realized in para-church and non-traditional religious organizations? What do denominations, and specifically American Baptist Churches USA, need to be doing differently or better?
I think it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t have accepted this position if I didn’t feel that denominations were relevant to the life of the church today. That is not to say that denominations are exactly where God wants us to be, but I believe that our organic unity as the church is something that is a given. It’s not something that we create because it’s nice. It is a given by the fact that we are called to serve the same Lord and be a part of the same Body. I think denominations, for all of their faults, are the expression of that organic unity given by our common confession that Jesus is Lord. They have been very effective as organizations for mission.
I think there are areas where denominations in the U.S. have to reassess their ministry and how they do things. Every denomination in its history has primarily been a vehicle for the funding of mission work in other places. One of the great paradigm shifts of the last part of the last century—and certainly going into this century—is that the U.S. has once again become a major mission field. So the challenge is how do we help churches understand their roles as mission outposts in their community and help them with the resources they need to be strong in that ministry.
We also now are global communities. My experience in New Jersey as executive minister was that our congregations were becoming not only merely multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, they also were becoming multi-national in makeup. The easy division between home mission and over-seas mission did not necessarily pertain to our life in New Jersey. We had large waves of new immigrant groups coming in who we wanted to reach and who we wanted to join our churches. But they also were reaching back to their homelands as members of local congregations, connecting with their churches in their home country in mission and ministry in ways that we could never orchestrate as a denomination or as ABC of New Jersey. But what we could do was to help embrace those ministries, provide some of the resources they needed to do them effectively, and free people up to do ministry instead of trying to control ministry.
Several years ago I read an article about how denominations began as mission organizations, then tended to evolve into bureaucracies and then into regulatory agencies. The challenge for us is to come back full circle again with our primary identity being that of a mission enterprise where the local church is at the very heart.
These are challenging times for us as denominations, with some people seeing us as dinosaurs. But I see a rich fabric of connectedness, a rich history of mission, and rich distinctives that each of those families bring to the church universal—and also the world—as a gift. I’m not ready to give up on those things. I am heavily invested in seeing us become more effective in supporting the mission of the church both within the North American context and the world.
You describe yourself as an “adoptive son” American Baptist who came into denominational life as an adult. What distinctives of American Baptist life and mission drew you into this family?
There are a number of things that are very precious to me that I found in ABC life. One of them is that it is a believer’s church, rooted in both the radical reformation on the continent and then the continuing reformation of the church in England. The focus is on a very personal relationship with God available to each and every person, and that one is invited into that relationship by this gracious and loving God. I found a deeply warm and evangelical spirit that is in American Baptists emphasizes the love of God and God’s invitation to each of us to be made new in Christ.
I also found wedded with that a very strong commitment to, and deep concern for, the shalom of the world—for the well being of our neighbor and for living in justice and peace with one another. That part of being a Christian calls us to work for those issues of justice and peace that confront the world; God desires for us to be a people who manifest justice and righteousness in all aspects of life. I found those two things wedded together in American Baptist life in a way that I did not see in a lot of other places. So for me it became a very, very wonderful home.
The denominational emphasis NEW LIFE 2010 is ambitious-and specific-in its goals of evangelism, church planting and renewal. It is now well underway, and many ministries have developed to fulfill its objectives. As one long active in denominational leadership and especially now, as general secretary, are you encouraged by what you see happening in NL2010?
NEW LIFE 2010 has served to call us again to our roots as a family and has given us some very clear goals to achieve. I think the underlying strain supporting those very specific goals is this call to be centered in Christ. These goals are no ends in themselves; it is not that we’re notching numbers on a spiritual pistol. Rather it is that we are trying to live out faithfully what it means to be those who are called by Jesus Christ. At its heart it is a call to renewal of our family, a call back to that which has always bound us together as American Baptists—our sense that we are first and foremost a missionary people called to serve others.
I’m encouraged by the way in which local congregations and regional bodies within the family are asking, “How do we do these ministries?” “How do we start new congregations that will reach people who are not within the fold of Christ?” “How do we give goodness to our faith through a multitude of caring ministries?” “How do we become renewed so that the world might be renewed?” It has regenerated that conversation among us and has provided a focal point for our mission energies, and for that I’ll be grateful.
We claim to be a “bridge” denomination, with feet planted firmly both in the evangelical and ecumenical traditions. What do you see as our specific ministry to and with other denominations and faith bodies in this role?
We are very privileged being a bridge people, serving as a reminder to the main-line ecumenical community that works without faith are of no avail and as a witness to the evangelical community that faith without works is equally as dead. We are able to represent the rich tradition of social justice and concern for our neighbor as we enter into the life of the National Association of Evangelicals and groups like that. Likewise, as we work within the National Council of Churches we are able to represent the concern of the evangelical church for the uniqueness of Christ Jesus as Savior.
And our Baptist heritage informs this interfaith culture in which we live; with our emphasis on religious freedom and the right of conscience we have a word of peace to speak in a world that is so often divided by religious principles.
Our Baptist tradition compels us to share Christ and also to respect the right of conscience of others. As we work today in very contentious atmosphere between world religious, we are committed to lifting up Christ as savior of the world. I pray that we do so with genuine respect for other religious faiths. I also think we bring an important gift by our being not only ecumenical but interfaith as well in our dialogue.
As you look ahead a bit into this third millennium of Christian life do you see specific “high profile” challenges, old or new, that Christians will need to meet effectively in order to have a viable witness?
I think one of the major issues that the church faces in the western world is the credibility of our witness. In my preaching I have said from time to time that it’s hard to have confidence in a doctor that a friend recommends when your friend never gets any better. I think it’s hard for some people to have confidence in the message of the church when their perception is that disciples of Christ Jesus are no different than anybody else in the rest of the world.
On the one hand it is very true that we are no different and that we are sinners just like everybody else. But the difference is that we have known his grace and the indwelling of the Spirit; therefore there ought to be seen in our lives individually and corporately those gifts of the Spirit that Paul talks about so often in his letters to the churches. The original ideal of Baptists and others of that part of the Reformation was to be visible saints, to be witnesses that had credibility because our life reflected in the way we lived it the very virtues that one would hope to see in Christ himself. And I think the reclaiming of that is essential.
Dallas Willard, in his recent book The Divine Conspiracy, talks about how his perception is that the church is very weak because we as believers in Christ have basically set aside discipleship and in effect said the teachings of Jesus really don’t have very much to do with everyday life. I think it is important to recapture our life hidden in Christ and to seek sanctification in the sense that we grow daily in grace in order to become “beatitudes” people-people filled with the Spirit. That is essential to the task of the church in the world today.
Another major task, especially in the North American context, is for us to be able to speak of religious truth with validity. We live in a culture in which relativity is the norm and people are very skeptical about claims of religious truth; they are skeptical of claims of any form of truth. We must be able to again present with clarity and with compelling reason the fact that there is religious truth, that there is truth about what is good in life. That life will not have wholeness apart from our incorporating that truth when we call Christ into our lives and live again according to God’s will. And God’s will for us is good!
Richard Schramm is director of the office of communication for American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.
This interview first appeared in the March/April 2002 issue of American Baptists IN MISSION. Used by permission.