Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Family Affair

These comments on the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship/American Baptist joint worship service are a logical followup to my comments earlier about the Baptist family. Last night was the closing session of the CBF General Assembly in Washington, DC, and the opening session of the ABCUSA Biennial Meeting. The worship service was an opportunity to celebrate what brings us together as Baptists. The music styles were varied as befits our diversity. Church state separation was celebrated. Missions was emphasized. Rather than feature one person as the keynote speaker, we had the opportunity to hear from Roy Medley, general secretary of ABCUSA; Tyrone Pitts, general secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; and Daniel Vestal, (executive) coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. These leaders shared their insights about the values that unite Baptists generally and the personal events that have brought them together as individuals. As Vestal said, "We need to get to know each other. There's more to unite us than divide us." It was fitting that we closed our worship at the Lord's Table where all believers are welcome.

It would be easy to gloss over the real organizational, cultural, and procedural issues that do divide us at this point. Baptists represented at this meeting have some real differences to overcome, and we must be honest about those issues. However, we can continue to seek ways to come together around mission and ministry.

I came out of this meeting with several "feelings" about the future.

First, there are real opportunities for us to partner with "like-minded" Baptists if we are not concerned about uniformity, organizational unity, or who gets the credit. As long as we work to network churches to do Kingdom work, we can accomplish a great deal. We can also really get to know each other as we get our hands dirty in that work.

Second, the future of our mission efforts as Fellowship Baptists lies in cooperation with groups like the ABC and Progressive Baptists. We are stronger together than we are individually.

Third, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Finding ways to work together can be a positive witness to the world that laughs at Baptist "cooperation" because of our fragmentation and combative history.

Fourth, Baptists are better than we have allowed ourselves to think that we are. Since we (moderate Baptists) have become a minority movement, many Baptists in the south have developed a negative self-image. We can no longer claim to being part of the "God's last and only hope" to win the world for Christ. Many of us have learned humility, now we must learn how to use that humility to be true servants in the Kingdom.

Fifth, it is time for us to take some risks. We don't have a great deal to lose. Let's open the doors and make some new friends.

Friday night was a step in the right direction. Let's not falter now!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Welcome to the Family!

We hear a lot about "dysfunctional families" today, but I have come to the conclusion that most families fit the description. In fact, most of the family stories we have in the Bible are about troubled families beginning with Adam and Eve and their sons and going on to Abraham and his sons, David and Absalom, Hosea and Gomer, and innumerable other families. In our own families, we live with the consequences of perceived favoritism, unwise choices, and "the roads not taken." Even so, we try to get the family together for special occasions and holidays to break bread together and celebrate our common heritage.

When I consider our Baptist family, I see a lot of dysfunction. As Bill Leonard has said, Baptists were conceived in such a way that conflict is assured! The slavery issue was a key conflict that resulted in the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 and created a major division in the Baptist family in our country. In recent days, the SBC controversy has led to strained relationships among Baptists in the south as we seek to clarify our identity and maintain our integrity while often cooperating with one another in local congregations.

Some may say, "Why do we even bother to try to work together as Baptists? Let's just do 'our thing' in the local church and forget everything else." The reason is that the New Testament testifies to cooperation between local bodies of believers. Cooperation is biblical! The desire to cooperate and work with others is built into the Baptist DNA (as much as we may try to ignore it).

Later this month, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the American Baptist Churches USA will convene their national meetings in Washington, DC, and will hold one joint worship service and share in some auxiliary events. This is not a move toward consolidation, but it is an opportunity to celebrate both our commonalities and differences. It is a time to "break bread" with our brothers and sisters in the ABC tradition.

Early in 2008, a number of Baptists from various parts of the family will join in Atlanta to celebrate the "New Baptist Covenant." Here again, the goal is not unification but unity around common concerns and promoting a positive Baptist witness.

What Baptists need in the 21st century is not union but opportunities for fellowship, dialogue, and mutual service. We need to be able to sit down around the family table, acknowledging that we have hurt one another and even been estranged at times, but we are still part of the family. Anytime we can do that, it is a good thing.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Autonomous Church?

As long as I can remember, I have heard Baptists talk about "the autonomy of the local church." It is a tenet of faith for most of us. In an article published by Associated Baptist Press, Beth Newman comments on this idea from the perspective of a recent Baptist World Alliance symposium. She observes that the most important statement to emerge from that meeting was, "We affirm that for Baptists the local church is wholly church but not the whole church."

I may unpack this more in future postings, but this is an important concept. Although we celebrate the opportunity and responsibility of each local congregation to "discover and fulfill its God-given mission" (in CBF terms), we must not forget that each congregation is just one small part of the bigger picture that God is creating that is the Kingdom or Reign of God. Just like a massive mosaic made up of many colored tiles, all are necessary to make a coherent picture. Certainly, a few holes here and there may not be a problem, but the picture would be so much better if all the parts were present.

Each congregation must find and pursue its mission, but it must also consider how that fits into the bigger picture and determine how God may be calling it to join with other congregations to compose the total picture of God's mission in the world.

Our churches are indeed autonomous but that does not mean that they don't need each other!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Social Networking

Here's a report on my latest experience on the web. I have discovered Facebook. If you are not familiar with Facebook, it is an online site that facilitates social networking. Wikipedia defines a social network as "a social structure made of nodes (which are generally individuals or organizations) that are tied by one or more specific types of relations," such as values, friends, kinship, etc.

With Facebook, you can invite people to be your "friends" online. If they agree, you then have access to their friends list and can grow your network of friends. Of course, you can invite folks to join directly or browse established networks, but I have enjoyed "mining" other people's lists! It is a bit addictive. This discovery has resulted in some observations:

First, our networks tend to overlap with one another. I started out with one colleague and pretty soon found myself in networks that involved young adults, those who work with young adults, former campus ministry colleagues, and CBF folks. Very often, the same persons showed up in more than one of these groups.

Second, this is a young adult thing! Although I took a look at MySpace, I never really "got it." Maybe it was because it seemed more oriented toward youth (and that begins with 10 year olds now). If you access a college or seminary network on Facebook, you will often find hundreds, even thousands of Facebook participants.

Third, my list is growing slowly, but I must admit that when I came across someone with over 200 "friends" I was not envious; I was suspicious. Who has this many "friends?" Acquaintances, yes, but friends? After analysis, I discovered that some folks who work with youth and young adults use this as a communications tool. For example, those who supervise church camp staffers use Facebook to keep in touch and build community.

Fourth, this IS a way to build community. It helps people who don't see each other often to keep in touch with family news, latest activities, etc.

Fifth, most folks on Facebook seem to be enjoying themselves (to judge by the pictures they have posted)! There is a certain playfulness about this site that is refreshing.

OK, now that I have discovered Facebook, I am sure that it will soon be replaced by something else, but it is interesting to see that folks do want to connect with each other in fresh, fun ways. What does that say to those of us in the Christian world?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Developing Leaders

During the spring, our church provided a Sunday School emphasis called Leadership First. Fifteen church members were exposed to a 13 week study that provided (very) brief surveys of the Old and New Testaments, Baptist beliefs, Sunday School principles, age group training, and class observation and evaluation.

Although the content was helpful, the opportunity for these leaders to spend time together, build community, and dream about the future of our church were probably the most important outcomes. The primary evaluation by the group was, "It was too short."

For more information, go to Caleb's Cafe and look for the "Leadership First" group.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Looking Back

Forgive me if I continue down memory lane in this posting, but we have been doing some cleaning and rearranging at our house, and I came across a paper I wrote when I was in college. OK, I haven't saved all the papers I wrote in college or seminary, but this is a very special paper to me.

Let me set the context. In 1965, I was a senior at the University of Southern Mississippi, a public university. My major was history with a minor in religion and philosophy. At the time, there was not a single African-American student at the college. Our sister institution, Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) had been integrated about two years earlier with the assistance of the Army. I was taking an ethics course with Robert Arrington, a young professor still working on his doctorate who was, to the best of my knowledge, not a Christian. When we were assigned a term paper, I asked Mr. Arrington if I could write a paper on "Christian Ethics and Racial Discrimination." He not only said "yes," he encouraged me to do so.

With the assistance of Louie Farmer, my Baptist Student Union director, and Harold Kitchings, pastor of University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, I was able to come up with some great resources. I was introduced to Baptist ethicists T. B Maston (not knowing I would one day be campus minister at his alma mater, Carson-Newman) and Henlee Barnette. I even had access to a paper written by Kirby Godsey (future president of Mercer University) at New Orleans Seminary. Of course, I also read Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph McGill, and some representative segregationists.

As I read it today, I think the paper holds up pretty well, especially the final paragraph: "If there is any fault in the modern Christian, it is a lack of understanding of what Christ was talking about. Many see Jesus Christ only as an extension of themselves, hindered by the same worries and prejudices. As long as this type of thinking continues, Christ will remain to many people only a Jewish philosopher who taught a rather interesting philosophy of love two thousand years ago, and nothing more. Can Christianity work? Rather, let us ask, has it been tried? "

I am grateful to my professor for encouraging me to tackle this project, to Louie Farmer and Harold Kitchings for taking the time to help a young student broaden his horizons, and to those courageous writers who took a stand for what was right when it was not popular. These folks helped to prepare me for the new world that was breaking into our lives.

By the way, I got an "A" on the paper.