In his book By My Reckoning Cecil Sherman, the founding coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, notes that one of the tasks that he took on was to lead churches to leave the SBC and join the new CBF movement. He writes, “If the CBF were to grow, it had to grow at the expense of the SBC.” Later in the book, he comments that the inerrancy controversy that divided the SBC “continues to splinter churches away from the SBC.”
This is no longer true, at least among Baptist churches in Tennessee. As new conflicts appeared on the scene (over missionaries, women in ministry, and higher education institutions), those of us who are moderate Baptists would say, “This is the tipping point. This will bring moderate churches to their senses.” Nope. Hasn’t happened. There has not been a windfall of churches “coming to see the light” and joining the CBF movement. For some folks, the sun has not come up yet (to paraphrase one of Cecil’s popular sayings).
Although some CBF leaders may still think that the path of potential growth is in winning over SBC churches, they can forget it. We can mount rational arguments, show statistics, and draw comparisons, but it’s not going to happen. When we deal with people and their allegiances, we are dealing with emotions, comfort levels, and traditions. These are hard to change. More than one moderate Baptist has said to me, “I don’t like the fact that my church supports the SBC, and I don’t care much for the direction that the pastor is taking our church, but my family is here and I like my Sunday School class . . . .” Logic will not prevail; emotion will win every time.
If this is so, what will be the source of future growth in the CBF movement? Here are some ideas:
First, an individual or a church will change when one of their own is hurt by the SBC power structure. If one of “our folks” who is serving as a missionary is terminated or resigns, the church will respond. If a longtime member of the church is fired by a denominational agency, it might make a difference. If one of our young women is called to ministry but rejected by the denomination in some way, people might just pay attention.
Second, if the SBC decides that it won’t seat messengers from churches who financially support CBF in some way, this may cause some churches to join the CBF cause. More likely, it will cause some church splits. Of course, the denominational machinery moves slowly. The SBC in session this year took note of the controversy at Broadway Baptist Church, Fort Worth, and some presented the argument that “messengers from Broadway should not be seated.” When was the last time Broadway even sent messengers to the SBC?
Third, we can start new churches. Everyone thinks this is a good idea, but few respond. I applaud the work of Bruce and Debra Gourley and Ryan and Courtney Tucker who are taking the lead in a movement to plant CBF-related churches in Montana (see http://www.montanamc.org). We need to think about new churches targeted to unreached people groups including college students. There is potential for growth in such an initiative.
Fourth, we can court community churches who don’t consider themselves Baptists, but who usually share our theology and are seeking mission partners. Many of our young adult leaders have gone in this direction, starting churches that do not have a clear Baptist identity, but driven by their Baptist DNA! Let’s give them a place to call home.
Fifth, we can reach out to our American Baptist and National Baptist friends. Although their churches may be reluctant to unite with CBF, we can work together in local, state, and national ministries, thus multiplying our efforts. This has already happened in response to Katrina, but do we have to wait for the next natural disaster to find ways to work together?
The CBF movement can grow, but the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Now the real work begins!