It’s no secret that I’ve been a friendly critic of the apparent lack of clear direction afflicting the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in recent years. A challenging column of mine published in another Baptist news journal last year elicited everything from hellfire to faint praise to befuddlement.
And so I want to be among the first to say aloud that attending this year’s CBF General Assembly gave me a fresh dose of hope for our movement as cooperative Baptists.
The report of the 2012 Task Force, which is a complex roadmap to the future, breathed fresh air into the room right away. David Hull and his committee have done more than most of us could have imagined possible. Among these heroic feats: Telling the hard truth in a really pleasant way that just might get something positive done. This group clearly listened to the CBF constituency and was not daunted by those who want to protect the status quo.
Daniel Vestal, in his final message to the general assembly before retiring as executive coordinator, gave a rousing message about the glory of God. Amid all the words that got the most attention and “amens,” one lesser-noticed phrase jumped out at me. In paraphrase, he said: CBF exists to serve the local church; the local church does not exist to perpetuate CBF. This simple truth stands at the heart of what we must remember if CBF is to adapt and be relevant today and tomorrow.
While this truth may seem obvious, it sometimes got lost in the years of CBF’s adolescence. That we are turning a corner in the right direction was underlined by another simple phrase offered by my colleague in The Columbia Partnership, Dick Hamm. In commending Vestal upon his retirement, Hamm said CBF has moved from the mentality of “we aren’t them” to “this is who we are.” Getting through this identity crisis has only taken 20 years, of course.
Here’s why such an assertion is so important not only for CBF but for CBF churches: This question of identity afflicts us all. My own congregation, situated in the fourth-largest metropolitan area of the nation, by default defines itself by who we are not. We are not like those folks downtown at First Baptist Church. And we don’t run things like those folks over at Sister Baptist Church in Our City. Ask us to say simply who we are more than who we aren’t, and sometimes it’s only crickets chirping.
A sense of hope washed over me in the final session of the general assembly as we concluded communion by singing “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” There was a sweet fellowship in the room. The folks I had met that day and the day before were indeed kindred spirits in the faith. And it seemed suddenly self-evident that we could celebrate that on its own merits rather than as a distinction against some other group we didn’t want to be like. That’s a huge step in the right direction.
The hymn goes on to say that we “pray that all unity will one day be restored.” When the kingdom of God comes in fullness, all Christians (and even all Baptists) will sing from the same hymnal. But until then, we make beautiful music in praise of the glory of God when we know who we are and get focused on singing our part loud and proud.