Southern Baptist Convention, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship facing shortfalls, asking questions about God’s future.

By Joe LaGuardia.  This article originally ran in the Rockdale Citizen (June 2, 2011).

It has been a week since the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship met in its annual General Assembly in Tampa, Florida.  The Fellowship, which is made up mostly of moderate Baptists representing nearly 1800 churches and hundreds of organizations, met two weeks after the Southern Baptist Convention had its own annual convention in Phoenix.

Although the two Baptist entities seem to be worlds apart, they have something in common: Both institutions are threatened with waning numbers and financial shortfalls; both face an uncertain future that calls into question their respective identities and missions.

If an objective reader were to go to the blog website of one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s most popular and verbose leaders, Al Mohler, one would guess that the SBC blames this threat on cultural shifts ranging from the rise of secularism to the growing tolerance of homosexuality.

On the other hand, if one visited the CBF Assembly and heard one of the sermons at an evening worship service, one would’ve likely heard the difficult questions of a diverse people familiar with entering uncertain sacred spaces.

Rob Nash, CBF Coordinator of Global Missions. Click on the photo to go to the CBF website.

For instance, Rob Nash, the CBF coordinator for global missions, spoke at the CBF Thursday night service and asked what God was up to in our world.  He admitted that “no one knows” what missions and ministry will look like as this century continues to unfold.

In short, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention seem to blame society for the organization’s shortfall while the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship finds itself searching for the presence of Christ among local conglomerates.

The fact remains that all of us, whether we are Baptist or otherwise, see things going awry: trends in economics, politics, community, and theology are constantly shifting.  We try to name the problem by looking  out into the world.  We look for things to blame. We circle our wagons.  We seek (or blindly accept) absolute answers for complex issues.  We wage culture wars.

But we rarely, if ever, ask whether God is behind it all in the first place.  God is a God of transformation and reversal.  God refuses to be domesticated.  God is always doing something new.  God calls people into ministry whom we least expect.  God goes places where we fear to tread.  God makes sacred the very things that we come to despise.  God undoes our human-inspired theologies.  God breaks molds and creates ex nihilo (out of nothing) because His way is always better than our own.

More importantly, God does not follow us as if we lead the way.  Nor does God require our help because, usually, when we finally understand what God is up to, God has moved on to the next mission field.  That’s why Christianity rises and falls on faith: Things hoped for; things unseen.

When God breaks new ground, God only asks that we be courageous and faithful in obeying His leadership.

If we consider the fact that God might be behind our shortfalls (because we have come to rely upon our systems of doing church more than we’d like to admit), then this just might be our road-to-Damascus moment.

And if we keep looking around us and  looking for someone or something to blame, we just might miss the guiding light that shines right before our eyes.   We miss the light, we miss the very heart of God who goes forth whether we follow or not.  We do indeed become blind.

Yet, we needn’t look outward; we only need to look into our own hearts.  Perhaps only then will those Damascus scales fall from our eyes and allow us to see God all the more clearly.

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Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has the power to engage God’s future with unfettered forgiveness

Last Friday in Tampa, tucked away in one of the small meeting rooms of the Marriott Waterside hotel, twenty Baptists gathered to worship with the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  This was one of the many breakout meetings of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, which attracted over 1600 registrants over a four-day period.

Our group shared a meal, sang hymns, and heard a devotional from the Reverend Julie Pennington-Russell of the First Baptist Church of Decatur, all of which revolved around the biblical principle of forgiveness.  Ours was a prayer of confession penned by John van de Laar: “Forgive us our wrongs, God, forgive us as we do not deserve; forgive us against the demands of justice; and forgive our obsession that justice be done to those who have wronged us.”

Forgiveness.  A word that, in my own faith formation last week, seemed to change the tone of the Cooperative Baptist General Assembly as a whole. In every Assembly I’ve attended, I get fired up about missions and ministry.  I become passionate about what God is doing all across the globe.  I am proud to be the type of Baptist that cherishes liberty and champions diversity amongst the leadership.

Forgiveness is an important life-lesson for our young people, many of whom will offer the Bread of Life to so many diverse people groups!

The topic of forgiveness did not diminish my fire, quench my passion, or squish my pride; rather, forgiveness reminded me of the interior space from which this zeal originates.  The liturgy brought me back home to myself, to the root of my faith.  It invoked a simple conviction from a Jesus who encourages us day after day to “forgive seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:22).

I once had a conversation with a friend in which we theorized how human history might be different if President George W. Bush forgave the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.  It’s not that our nation could not forgive; in fact, with an annual military budget nearly twice the size of the budgets of the next two most powerful countries in the world combined, ours is a nation that can afford to forgive with incredible resolve.

Then it hit me.  After twenty wonderful years of ministry, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has matured to be an effective presence in the world.  Our partnerships and parishes have become meat-and-potato Baptists; we have outgrown the spiritual milk of our youth.  We have built up spiritual capital and garnered some serious ministerial and prophetic assets.  We stand on two feet, and we give powerful voice to an alternative, inclusive Baptist narrative that looks a lot different than that of our Southern Baptist counterparts.

And, despite a budget shortfall, we can afford to spend that spiritual capital with joy.  Consider, for instance, that our Fellowship has wrestled with its identity and future over the past few years.  Only organizations with enough spiritual capital can afford to wrestle like that.   This kind of struggle is something with which I am familiar–the little Baptist church I pastor has been discussing its own identity in recent years.  We do this because we know that God is not finished with us yet even though we have a small attendance; it communicates to the world that we can afford to move forward in the face of a high unemployment rate and a fragile socio-religious atmosphere.

If the Fellowship can afford to talk about identity, then it can afford to forgive.  After our breakfast, I asked several Fellowship Baptists if any CBF assemblies broached the subject of grief and forgiveness.  Since this year’s assembly was only the second one I’ve attended, I certainly did not want to jump to conclusions.  I explained that the CBF’s missions emphasis is ahead of its time, but our humorous barbs and jovial approach to Baptist life throughout the sermons and skits during the assembly appeared to point to an unresolved grief.

I cannot speak to previous assemblies no more than I have the authority or audacity to speak to grief in our fellowship.  As a person of mixed denominational upbringing, I did not experience the terminations, divorces, or odious conflicts that plagued Baptist life over the past three centuries.  Any good pastoral care practitioner would advise an outsider to avoid saying to this grieving family, “I know what your going through.”

Yet, I too make up a small patch in the larger quilt of Fellowship Baptist life despite my newbie status; and, assuming clergy positions will be plentiful in the near future, I have my whole ministry ahead of me.  Baptist life is where I intend to spend most, if not all, of that ministry.  It only makes sense to chart a future for me and so many ministers like me who want to walk mercy-paved bridges of grace and unbounded love, even if the other side of that bridge is hostile territory.

Using our spiritual capital as a Fellowship in order to forgive those who have hurt us and excommunicated us, then, seems reasonable and necessary if we want to build an identity that is proactive in charting this type of future.  To put it another way, if we want to be a Fellowship known for its unique ministry instead of its existence as a marginalized fringe community, then we need to cash in on the type of forgiveness and public confession that might shape a clear path of freedom from the shackles of conflicts of yesteryear.

My prayer for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is not that we Baptists will sing jolly hymns that help us forget our past and the struggles that so many brothers and sisters have fought in building this wonderful family.  My prayer is that we can include forgiveness in our spiritual repertoire and reflect the grief process in a way that envelopes our past in the very mercy and grace with which our Lord envelopes us.  How might we shape Baptist history differently if we were to forgive all those other Baptists who have attacked us, and to forgive boldly all in the name of Christ?