Report from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly

CBF Commissioning Service/Dallas 2015-Courtesy CBF

CBF Commissioning Service/Dallas 2015-Courtesy CBF

By Matt Sapp

Julie and I along with several other members of our congregation spent three days last week in Dallas for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) General Assembly. If you’re not sure what CBF is, Heritage was founded as a CBF church, meaning that we — and many other churches across the nation — pool our resources through CBF to support missions and ministry around the world.

The meeting, as always, was uplifting and hopeful, so I came away from the Assembly as I usually do, encouraged by the progress and energy of the Fellowship.  So let me share some of those good feelings with you.

Here are three observations from this year’s assembly that give me hope for our future together:

The Fellowship is moving forward.  We’ve upped our game in the last several years, and there’s no reason to think that trend won’t continue.  A most noticeable difference is in our public image. For a few years our branding was clearly dated, and we fell behind the curve in our graphic design and live production capabilities.

This year at the General Assembly our live production work was flawless. The lighting and sound worked perfectly. Our video production (both live and recorded pieces) was top notch. In short, we looked like we knew what we were doing.

More importantly, the new color scheme and logo were showcased in fantastic ways, giving new energy and attractiveness to our printed materials, video segments, and online presence.

This might sound superficial, but image matters.  It matters a lot.  We live in a world that won’t look beyond our dated facade to hear our message.  If we believe we have a message worth sharing, what we look like and how we share that message matters.  A 2015 image is a REQUIREMENT to reach a 2015 audience, and the CBF nailed it this year.

Second, we’ve almost completely transitioned from our founding generation to a new generation of leadership. That in and of itself isn’t a good thing.  It’s just true.  Next year we’ll celebrate 25 years of CBF, and the Fellowship is going to miss the active, every day leadership of people who could say, “I was there from day one.”

We’ll miss their leadership for a number of reasons.  We’ll miss them for their courage, their conviction, and their moral clarity.  We’ll miss their personal history with theological controversy.  They understand the stakes of denominational leadership in ways that those who weren’t there never will.  And we’ll miss their integrity—integrity proved by the willingness to stand on principle even when the costs were high.

Our founding generation understands what’s required organizationally and spiritually to create something new on a national scale.  Think about it: They created seminaries, missions infrastructures, publishing houses and Sunday School literature, youth and children’s programs, state agencies and organizational partnerships.  And they did it all from scratch—or nearly scratch.

Even more, they led churches — big churches and small churches, urban churches and rural churches, progressive churches and conservative churches — to let go of past affiliations in favor of a new dream. Did I mention their courage?

But the good news is that there’s another generation behind them. Not an “up and coming” generation anymore, but a generation that is leading right now.  And there’s a third generation of leaders behind them!

The test of any dream is whether it can survive beyond the lives of those who birthed it.  The good news — the GREAT news — is that CBF will.  That’s not new news, but it is good news, and it was re-affirmed for me at this year’s meeting.

Finally, there are A LOT of creative people doing creative things to grow the Kingdom of God who are proud to be a part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.   That makes me proud to be a part of CBF, too.  As part of the Fellowship, we partner with creative and talented missionaries and church planters and chaplains; with leading theologians and ethicists and creative thinkers; with gifted artists and musicians; with inspiring preachers and teachers; and with dedicated deacons and choir directors and Sunday School teachers.

We partner with leaders who start new churches and renew old ones, with some who find new ways to proclaim the gospel in well-tilled soil, and others who blaze new trails to share Jesus with people who have never heard that name before.

Through CBF we support people who are dreaming new dreams, trying new things for Christ, and finding new ways to put their faith into action.  The collective newness of what they’re doing, the creativity they bring to their tasks, and the risk-taking involved in stepping into the unknown bring much needed energy to our fellowship.

As the world around us changes and as churches change, CBF Christians are finding more ways to use their talents for their churches and God’s kingdom — as writers, photographers, graphic designers, video producers and technology gurus — and as pastors, worship leaders, scholars and missionaries who are willing to re-imagine the church for the 21st century.

We are excited about much and proud to be a Fellowship church. We should never overlook the enormity of our accomplishments or the hope of our futures together.  There’s never been a better time to be a CBF church than now.

This article first appeared on the Heritage Baptist Fellowship blog.  Used with permission.

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Local churches engaged in Social Justice are on their way to revival

Speaking to a group of Baptists at the recent Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia general assembly, the Reverend George Mason challenged churchgoers to engage in social justice ministries that help the poor, empower the oppressed, and bring healing to the brokenhearted.

One of the more profound things he said was that if churches did commit to social justice, there is a good chance that more young adults would also re-engage with the local church.

For churches that are struggling in reaching this age group, this sermon was a breath of fresh air.  More significantly, I think Mr. Mason is on to something larger than just encouraging a particular age group to grow closer to God.

pope

.The Catholic Church is recognizing how popular it is to do social justice in partnership with young people.  The new Pope Francis, named after the saint who gave his whole life to help the poor, has revitalized the church, energized people of all ages, and has garnered some unique ecumenical attention.

But the more startling statistics are related to Catholic seminaries.  According to Cathy Lynn Grossman, writing for the Religious News Service, there is a higher percentage of candidates for the priesthood in seminaries than at any other time in the last two decades.  Young people are getting excited about ministry, and local churches are rediscovering their skill sets for outreach and missions.

This trend echoes George Mason’s point, and then some: When local churches plug into the needs of local communities, they are able to join the very presence of Christ already at work in the lives of neighbors and neighborhoods.  It is an ingredient for revival for all age groups and for the church as a whole.

This call to do social justice is reminiscent of the prophetic message of many of the Old Testament prophets and, of course, Jesus.

Micah’s message to Israel in 6:8 was this: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Jesus gave a similar warning in Luke 23:23: “Woe to you…for you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”

It’s not enough to merely come to the building to worship, hear good preaching, and fellowship.  Each and every church is called to reach out to its local community and partner with the community to provide for the needs of the many.  God gives us opportunities to help those in need, and we turn around and give locals the opportunity to help one another.

It’s a mutual partnership of finding where God is at work, not a presumption that we know what people need to meet God.

This is something I learned in pastoral care classes.  Our instructors told us that we cannot assume that we know what people need when they come to us for help.  Rather, most people know what they need.  We need to merely listen and help people find the resources that will best fill those needs.

Doing social justice and helping people in the local community on a community’s own terms is a basis for hope.  It’s born out of a conviction that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and that we don’t need to fear the world but join God where God is already at work.

My predecessor here at Trinity, Sonny Gallman, often said, “God is already at work redeeming those in the world; its our job to let people see it for themselves.”

I am delighted that Pope Francis’ leadership over the past few months and my Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ this past weekend have put social justice back in its proper place as a priority for the church.  It is refreshing, vibrant, and Spirit-inspired.

Trinity Baptist Church: A covenantal, congregational, confessional community

g2This sermon was delivered on July 14, 2013, as a conclusion to a larger series on the Order of Worship at Trinity Baptist Church.  

Text: Psalm 146.

I.

Two weeks ago, in Greensboro, a group of Baptists met in a Sheraton convention center for the 22nd annual Cooperative Baptist Fellowship general assembly.  There, we worshiped together, drank lots of coffee, had lunch meetings and business meetings, and we talked…a lot.  We attended workshops and task force meetings.

One of the workshops was entitled, “Current Trends Facing Traditional Congregations.”  Not a very exciting title, I know, but in this Baptist meeting—with so many of us serving in congregations that sociologists label traditional—it was quite relevant.

The speaker opened up with the usual statistics: With every passing generation, fewer people frequent traditional churches.  The number of baptisms are decreasing, and even the churches that are going “contemporary” are struggling to see a sustainable attendance.

I’ve heard the stats before: When it comes to people my age and younger, nearly 8 out of 10 of us have never visited—and will never visit—a church.  More often than not, we like to be labeled “spiritual, but not religious.”  And that’s usually a line to shut people up rather than make for some good, theological conversation.

Yet, even in the face of these startling statistics, there is hope for the Christ’s church—more importantly, there is a resurgence of the importance of tradition and liturgy, of the priesthood of believers, and of the values that Baptists hold dear in many parts of society.  It may be hard to find, but it’s out there.

I’m not going to tell you over the next few minutes that church is still the greatest place to meet God—you know that it is a good place, or else you wouldn’t be here this morning.  Nor am I going to pitch this as a long infomercial on being Baptist; this is sermon time, not nap time.

But what I do want to talk about this morning, as a part of what we’ve been studying over the last month related to worship, is the way that we can continue to be faithful to the mission God has given us, in our church, in this place and time.

We’ve already looked at the various parts of our “order of worship” over the last few weeks—no reason to review now—but let’s take a step back and see what is not explicitly written out in our bulletin.  What are the things that are important to us, and how is God cultivating in us and this church a vibrant, healthy spirituality that echoes the author of Psalm 146, “Praise the Lord, O my soul!  I will praise the Lord as long as I live!”

If you look in your bulletin, you’ll see that I’ve listed three questions that will help us think through some of the things we are talking about.

II.

So let’s turn to the first question:  “What is missing from our worship service?”

Now, this isn’t a time for us to declare what is lacking from our worship service.  I’m sure all of us might have two cents for the worship committee on what we can improve or do differently.  Everyone has an opinion on worship, that’s for sure.

What’s missing from our order of worship, however, may be just as significant as what is in or worship.

For instance, many churches recite creeds as a part of worship.  Many of you grew up in one of these traditions and may remember reciting the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday.

We do not recite creeds in our service because Baptists are non-creedal people by tradition.  We may hold to the beliefs and values of many creeds, including the Apostle’s Creed, but we don’t make it a part of our worship because we believe in the primacy of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus and in scripture.

Psalm 146:3 says it best:  “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”

This reminds us that we Baptists also pride ourselves in the fact that we don’t let other people from outside of our congregation tell us what to believe or how to go about our faith formation.

It’s convenient to have bishops, but it can get oppressive too: As one sociologist states, other denominations that adhere to an outside authority “don’t have bishops, they have editors.”    Ours is an unedited faith; we don’t let man’s opinion censor what we think God may be telling us to do.

So how do we answer question #1?   We are not creedal people—we do not adhere to any one creed or force each other to bow to any outside authority other than the Triune God and scripture.  But we are a covenantal people—we believe in the promise of community and the promise that God has a purpose for His community.

To be a people of covenant means that we work together to discern how the Holy Spirit is directing our church.  If a bishop is not present to guide us, then we are responsible to submit to one another and figure out where God is leading us together.  We submit to prayer and to scripture, to compassion, not coercion.

I’ve had many people ask me how we Trinity folk minister in a church that is full of so many diverse theologies and political persuasions.  I like to think that we follow the advice of late Baptist preacher, Will Campbell, who said this about social issues that divide churches: “A [divisive social issue] is a human tragedy, and in a tragedy you can’t take up sides.  You just have to minister to the hurt wherever you find it.”

Being a covenantal people—being promise-keepers to one another—means we have an obligation to minister to the hurt wherever we find it!

III.

What about the second question:  “What is uniquely ‘Baptist’ about our worship service?”

Over the past ten years I’ve been with Trinity, I have prayed to God about worship and how our church worships.  There was a time, about six years ago in which we were discussing the possibility of going contemporary in our worship or at least hosting two separate services, one traditional and one contemporary.

We discovered over the course of a year that its hard to be all things to all people; and if you choose one style of worship, it has to be done professionally and organically.  It can’t be forced, and it can’t be accomplished out of a reaction to  anxiety or fear related to the church’s growth.

Change for change-sake is always laden with problems, and change born from fear is always a misguided venture.

Nevertheless, although we chose long ago that we like our liturgy and tradition; I’ve been following trends in the contemporary church.  We have even done a great job mingling new songs into our worship set, albeit a little too slowly for some, myself included.

But keep this in mind:  Only a few contemporary churches are growing, especially where there is a founding pastor in place.  But, contemporary churches also have their limits: Participation from the laity decreases, and scripture usually takes a back seat.  Sure, you may have a Bible-centered sermon, but scripture is rarely read in services, if at all, and when scripture is read, it is by a person on the leadership or worship team.

The reason why many churches decrease lay participation is because it’s cumbersome.  It takes time, and it can appear to bring the spirit of worship to a halt.  That may be true in some circumstances…

What is uniquely Baptist in what God is doing here at Trinity?  I think that it is our priority on creating opportunities for participation within the laity.  We have several parts in our worship in which scripture is read, usually by someone in the congregation.  We also have a time of pastoral prayer that lets us have a family conversation on the needs in our lives.  We have an occasional M & M Moment that lets us share what God is doing in our own, unique ministries.

That’s because Trinity, like so many Baptist churches, is a congregational community.  The Spirit stirs the community and awakens all of us—the priesthood of believers—to the Words that God has for us.  The sermon is only one Word of God uttered in our hour together; other Words come in the form of scripture lessons, in prayers, in music and praise, and in our time of sharing during pastoral prayer.

Furthermore, Congregational communities create a new language to speak about church: We don’t say, “I am going to church”; rather, we say, “I am the church.”

We don’t take our people and move them around like pawns on the mission field; rather, we encourage people to see their own lives as the mission field.  Why ask one of our nurses to serve in some far off land for a mission trip when they have a here at Rockdale or Newton or Henry?

In Psalm 146:7-8, it says that the Lord sets prisoners free and opens the eyes of the blind.    In Luke 4, Jesus said that he came to set prisoners free, liberate captives, and open the eyes of the blind.  When Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, he commissioned all of us to follow in God’s and Jesus’ footsteps and do some liberating of our own.

We are a congregational community in which all of us are called to be ministers and missionaries; our worship service is merely the time to celebrate that fact and share together the ways in which we are experiencing this ministry.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again:  Our worship service is not the destination; it is merely a resource for the grand journey God gives each of us.

IV.

How about our third question:  “What is uniquely ‘Trinity’ about our worship service?”

Although Trinity is considered a traditional church like so many other churches in our county, we are one of the few, if not the only, Baptist church that adheres closely to the Christian calendar and the church year.  Ours is a liturgical worship service that celebrates the holy days throughout the year, such as Advent and Lent.

Several weeks ago, we had missionaries come and sing with us.  I spoke with Jackson’s dad afterward–his wife is in the group—and he told me that the team was asking whether we were Baptist or Episcopalian because of our order of worship.  I laughed, but I was also reminded that we have always relied on liturgy here at Trinity because we know that we live according to God’s time, not ours.

Our time goes too fast; our children grow up too quickly, our food and entertainment come to us too instantly.  Following the liturgical year slows us down and lets us remember that God is God, and we are not.

In this way, we are a confessional church: We confess that we are not God, that we are here to serve God and trust that history unfolds according to God’s plan and according to His timing.

Being a confessional church has its benefits.  For one, we make the confession and testimony of scripture—not our preferences or opinions, or even the pastor’s ideas—have the first and final say in how we plan our services and our worship experiences.

Time after time, I meet pastors who serve in other churches that aren’t liturgical, and they ask how I find sermon content week after week or how I plan worship.  “Simple,” I answer—“Just let God’s Word guide you, follow the church calendar, and remember what—and Whose—time it is!”

Another thing that is unique to Trinity as a confessing church is that we’ve always been a creative church.  I know that many of our services may not look creative in an explicit way, but if you were to sit in on a worship committee meeting, or a staff meeting, or in my office when I plan sermons, you will see that our creativity comes out in ways that weave our themes together for worship.

Listen closely enough, and you may hear how the songs echo the scriptures being read, or how the puppets emphasize a theme that goes with the sermon.

Readings and prayers also do the same.  And we’ve come a long way over the past five years in incorporating a variety of faith traditions, including gospel and other music backgrounds in our repertoire.

We use the overhead projector for music because we don’t pull songs from one hymnal, but as many as a half-dozen different hymnals and music resources.

There is a challenge in this: I think, out of all the things we do, being creative—and living out one of our core values that says that we are to create interactions in which we experience God—is the hardest calling Trinity has.

It’s a never-ending mission that requires time, prayer and patience.  But look at the pay-off:   Today, we sang a song for our offertory, “Sing We Now to God, Creator,” which was penned by one of our music ministers from long ago, Greg Smith, now pastor of Scott Boulevard Baptist Church in Decatur.

Or, just take a walk in our prayer garden and see the colors, hues, and landscapes that one of our mastergardener artists managed to create in our front yard for our enjoyment.  What a confession that God is a creative God!

Or what about Matt’s passion for making coaching a new way to help hungry and thirsty disciples grow closer to Jesus?  It doesn’t look creative at first, but when you consider how effective it is at the handful of other churches that are doing it, you can see God’s creative fingers in the background weaving together a pregnant seed that will give way to growth and vibrant spiritual formation for people who may not have the time or opportunity to be in a small group or Sunday school class.

Or what about the oral poetry of one of our hospice nurses or teachers or caregivers who speak a word of hope or encouragement to their patients, students, or loved ones?  They don’t know its poetry that they speak, but any word of Good News is creative poetry that confesses hope in a miracle-working, ever-healing God!

You know, not every worship service will be creative or enlightening or moving.  But we can be assured that, here at Trinity, God’s mission is one that calls us to be:

  • Covenantal in our relationships—keeping promises and adhering to God’s leadership in our lives.
  • Congregational in our ministry—remembering our responsibility in being on mission for a God who calls us to be missional in our places of influence.
  • And confessional—communicating to a hurting world that God is an ever-creative Sower who sows seeds of Good News in places of stagnation and darkness.

V.

When the Holy Spirit moves here and that spark ignites, that’s when we live into our calling.  It is times like those that we say, “That’s Trinity; Trinity: A different kind of Baptist.”

And it is times like those when we say, along with Psalm 146: “The Lord will reign forever, you God, O Zion, for all generations.  Praise the Lord!”