What have we learned in the past 20 years?
Reflections on the development of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, 1990-2010
Bill J. Leonard—Wake Forest University Divinity School
Central thesis: The last 20 years represent a bridge-time between old forms of the church that are disappearing and new forms in process of development. American religion remains in permanent transition with uncertainties in ecclesiology, theology, evangelism, mission and overall religious identity. Pluralism is the order of the day, a reality that Baptists invented and that many Baptists cannot accept. Across these two decades, while some were trying to control old forms of denominational connectionalism and others were trying to create new ones, many religious Americans moved in entirely different directions, reshaping religious institutions extensively. As an organization, CBF has done reasonably well given that it is caught in between ecclesial paradigms.
- Baptists in America (especially in the South—both black and white) are a case study in institutional and ideological transition, decline and disconnection.
- Denominations now join mega-church, emerging church and local church identities as one of multiple options for shaping American religious organizations. For CBF, a 21st century “society method” of connectional resourcing and ministry support seems a wise option.
- Transitions in American religious culture, clearly evident but often ignored in the 20th century, are now normative in many Baptist churches and families. Baptist groups across the geographical, racial, and theological spectrum are in a continued state of reorganization, reassessment and response to declining membership, waning finances and loss of historical and theological identity.
- While regional, economic and racial divisions remain, a new generation of Baptist clergy and laity finds themselves without old systems for passing on ministry, mentoring, and identity, but is compelled to worship and work together in changing neighborhoods, interracial coalitions, community organizations, and ecumenical networks.
- As an organization, CBF has established only limited participation with black and Latino churches in its own networks and collective gatherings. That must change. [African American Baptist denominations are as embattled and declining as any Caucasian group and the New Baptist Covenant gathering is clear evidence of that.] Whether that gathering can lead to great interracial connection with CBF is still a big question.
- New coalitions of Baptists offer multiple options for interchurch cooperation and ministry relationships. “Partnerships” between congregations and Baptist/non-Baptist groups for fellowship and shared ministry are beginning to take shape and are essential for the future.
How can we use what we’ve learned to help each other and the Fellowship?
- Newer generations of clergy and laity confront numerous paradoxes: On one hand, they reflect indifference to any denominational identity. Most have little or no history with Baptist organizations or spiritualities. Yet Baptist approaches to polity, localism, religious liberty and individual conscience are strangely appealing to many who choose to explore the Baptist context.
- Years of controversy over scripture, doctrine and politics have obscured significant theological problems that extend denominational and ecclesial uncertainties. This is evident in uncertainties related to biblical interpretation, conversion, baptism and the Supper, ordination, and spirituality.
- Baptists now confront the dilemma of their denominational ‘image’ in the public square. Such public opinion often understands Baptists as either a highly sectarian movement, splitting doctrinal/ethical hairs without compassion, and an old guard religious majority, the classic example of a declining denominational consciousness nationwide.
- Collective mission endeavors no longer dominate the Protestant landscape due to 1) the high cost of sending career missionaries 2) the ever expanding direct missionary activity of local churches; 3) the rise of missionary efforts by groups outside the US and the West; 4) financial shortages that threaten local church ministries including global ministries; 5) and a burgeoning media globalism through cable television, Face book, The internet, Twitter, and other communication networks.
- The days of Baptist/Protestant culture dominance in the US and the South are over. The religious pluralism that 17th century Baptists essentially even before the Enlightenment has become the norm in American society.
- Baptist polity and practice lends itself to significant elements of Postmodernism—story, localism, individualism/community; diverse spirituality; conversionism/conscience. This is in great contrast to the aging and often unbending polity of other Protestant groups—Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and United Methodists. This is very important for future collaborations and connectionalism.
- Amid transitions churches continue to need resources for educating and securing ministers, cross-congregational fellowship and strategies for global ministry. Many CBF resources meet those needs and should be cultivated.
- Churches—CBF/moderate/progressive/”liberal” (?) often, indeed increasingly, thrive in the current environment because they have found their niche in ministry—doing basic ministries but with specializations that connect with people initially if not long term. Highland Baptist, Louisville; FBC, Huntsville; FBC, Wilmington, NC; FBC, Decatur, GA; Knollwood BC, Winston-Salem; College Park BC, Greensboro are examples for me, just because I’ve followed their work a bit. New initiatives for discovering, highlighting, and extending niche ministry are essential for all churches, but especially those related to CBF.
- In a time of permanent transition, niche ministry may offer the best short term, perhaps long term option for many CBF-related churches. Both churches and CBF need to strategize with and train ministers and laity for those kinds of ministries very intentionally.
- Strong state-based CBF organizations may have the best possibility for meeting the needs of local and regional congregations and should be cultivated accordingly. State coalitions offer significant options for creating congregational partnerships, addressing regional needs, and inculcating Baptist identity.
- A new generation of African American Baptist ministers seems open to extending their connections inside and outside Baptist life. Some have attended the newer schools or have contacts in their respective communities with CBF related churches and individuals. But CBF leaders cannot wait for them to discover the organization alone. They must be as intentional in the 21st century about racial diversity and connectionalism, as the ABC was in the 1970s. The ABC USA is in dire straits, but one of its great successes was its multi-racial initiatives in the ‘70s.
- A significant group of younger ministers, many of whom graduated Baptist related colleges and theological schools in the last 2 decades are networking informally and formally. Many recognize that networks like the CBF are essential for placement, community and connection. This is the time to cultivate them to the max.
- Globalism is an essential element that must be extended alongside and beyond mission trips and traditional missionary connections. Rob Nash, Graham Walker, and Pat Anderson are excellent examples of leaders who are exploring traditional and non-traditional initiatives that have broad implications for connecting young people, ethnic/racial collaborations, and new dialogues.
- CBF has given extensive attention to theological education and has helped to shape new schools and Baptist houses across a wide region of the country. These new schools provide a highly personalized theological education in smaller student bodies, offering significant opportunity for mentoring and community to Baptists and non-Baptists alike. Funding, recruitment of students, connection with churches and development of a new generation of scholar/teachers offer great challenges but are essential for the Baptist future. New degrees, on line and global studies, multicultural experiences, coaching/mentoring opportunities, and renewed connections to congregations through internships and other programs offer important possibilities for the future.
- Baptists must confront their history good and bad, claim the best parts of it related to believers’ church, sacraments/ordinances, local church identity/autonomy, freedom of conscience, counter cultural dissent, religious liberty, and the witness of the minority. We should lead the way toward an unashamed Christocentrism amid radical religious pluralism. It is our best hope of remaining a viable gospel people amid the transitions ahead.