This past week I spent some time in Charolotte, NC, attending the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly–the annual meeting of a denominational “fellowship” made up of some 1,900 churches. It is truly a blessing to be amongst fellow brothers and sisters who share a common identity and values, to meet with friends old and new, and to network with other clergy.
I also had time to notice that the overall feel of the General Assembly reflected some larger trends, both positive and negative, facing North American denominations as a whole. This blog is the first in a three-part series outlining my reflections and learnings from the CBF meeting:
Positive Trend 1: Many denominations are being intentional about raising up a new generation of ministers that are proud of their heritage and core values. The CBF, specifically, has taken explicit steps to include young leaders in every aspect of the denomination, from upper-level staff positions to board positions. This insures communication across generational lines and inclusive ministry throughout this brand of Baptist’s hierarchy. It also reinforces good, old-fashioned Baptist identity by giving the next generation a stake in the denomination’s future.
For example, this morning I attended a breakfast for pastors that are participating in the Collegiate Congregational Internship Program.
This program, funded by a Lily Endowment Grant, enables the CBF to place and pay college students and first-year seminarians in a variety of ministry positions in participating congregations. This year is the first in the three-year program, and over 90 interns were placed in congregations throughout the nation, from California to Virginia, in the summer months.
This program intends to train students for ministry and nurture potential calls to ministry. It also gives them hands-on training in local church settings, while exposing students to the work of the church, be it deacon ministries or lay leadership councils.
Churches, strapped for resources, benefit by having the interns as well as the stipend to broaden their ministry outreach.
I speak from personal experience. At Trinity Baptist Church, we placed an intern as the Minister of Youth and Missions. The intern, Matt, and is getting invaluable experience that coincides with his classroom, seminary training at Mercer University.
The CBF’s intentional shift towards including young leaders in key positions is continuing to pay off. While other denominations navigate through the uncertain terrain of generational conflicts and leadership crises, the CBF has diversified its leadership in both age and ethnic make-up.
Positive Trend 2: Denominations are becoming holistic in their approach to ministry.
Initially, many denominational bodies started out as missionary-sending boards that did little in terms of public advocacy and social transformation. After all, Baptists have prided themselves on protecting the thin line of separation between church and state.
As these same denominations face economic and enthusiam shortfalls, however, Baptists had to expand missions into the larger field of public policy and advocacy. Not only do Baptists want to feed the poor, they want to insure that the poor live in a just society that helps to eliminate poverty altogether.
Baptists see that they must meet a broader set of needs in a broken world. The theme for this year’s CBF assembly, for instance, focused on missions and social justice; workshops and seminars informed and trained participants in a variety of topics that are facing our society, from human sex trafficking to disaster relief efforts.
The first seminar delivered at the CBF, facilitated by Alan Roxbrough, inspired churches to be transformative agents in their local communities.
I attended a workshop today that informed the audience on ways local churches can take part in social justice ministry and public advocacy. The seminar allowed both the facilitators and the audience to bear witness as to how their churches are ministering to and fighting on behalf of the most marginalized people groups in our society.
Devita Parnell, Congregational Resource Specialist for the CBF, explained the need to include a wider focus in ministry that includes social justice. Churches are good at helping the poor and broken in society much like the Good Samaritan helped the hurt traveler on the road to Jerusalem, she stated, But churches are not good at taking intentional steps to make the road from Samaria to Jerusalem safer for all pilgrims.
We bear witness to the world in order to lead people to the love and forgiveness and lordship of Christ. We also bear witness by fighting on the behalf of those who are weak and disenfranchised in society. This is what it means to engage in holistic missions.
Dr. Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers. Visit Trinity’s website at www.trinityconyers.org.