Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Some Unsolicited Advice

I was having lunch with a friend recently when he asked the question: “Does CBF have a future?” He knew that I had served as coordinator for the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for ten years. He was asking out of his own experience as a partner who works with CBF leadership on the state and national levels. He realized that, like many denominational groups, CBF is experiencing financial tightness. He also observed that the CBF movement seems to have plateaued.

I wish that I were wise enough to answer his question, but I am not. I do think his observations contain some truth. In many ways, CBF is struggling through its adolescence and trying to make good decisions along the way. With some humility, I can offer some observations about how the CBF movement may regain its momentum. From my perspective, CBF will be a one generation phenomena if it does not do two things—relate to more churches and reach more people. CBF leadership may respond, “Well, that is what we are trying to do.” I would suggest that there are different ways to do it.

First, CBF has put a lot of effort into “winning over” churches that have traditionally related to the Southern Baptist Convention. Cecil Sherman readily admits in By My Own Reckoning that this was his strategy when he became the first coordinator. CBF has continued this strategy and has usually spent a lot of energy in converting “big steeple” churches to the movement. This field has been picked clean. It is time to look elsewhere.

One new field to cultivate is the one composed of young church starts that don’t want to be identified with one of the established denominations. Most of these call themselves community churches or have a one word name like “Journey” or “Ekklesia.” They don’t care about being part of a denomination that they are expected to support just because it is there or a judicatory that wants to control them. Instead, they are looking for relationships and partners. They want to relate to creative, like-minded believers and work with others on mission activities. CBF can offer what they desire without strings attached.

Another possibility is to start new churches. Yes, I know that every CBF entity says this is a priority, but the reality is that this is not happening. Part of the problem is that established churches are worried about competition. Another is that church planting is not easy. CBF needs to continue to develop and support a network of church planters. CBF entities also need to plan and start churches where CBF is not strong—the northeast, the west, the Midwest, and in states like Mississippi and Louisiana.

Second, CBF needs to reach out to a new, younger constituency. The faithful folks who founded the movement (like me) won’t be around forever. It is time to call out a new generation of leaders. Some networks of young Baptists have been created, but they must be empowered and supported.

There must be a concerted effort to reach unchurched and dechurched young adults. In areas where the CBF movement is strong, churches near concentrations of young adults—college campuses and reinvigorated inner cities, for example—must be encouraged in their outreach through grants, training, and networking. Some of those new church starts should be located next to some of the major university campuses of our nation, especially those with concentrations of international students. This may be the most effective use of the CBF mission dollar and a way to call out indigenous Christian workers who will go back to their own countries and share the Gospel. There are already some examples of this type of ministry supported by CBF that could be duplicated around the country. National staff could also be decentralized and strategically located around the country in urban centers where young adults work and live.

A significant part of the young adult population is Hispanic, Asian, and African. This reflects the nature of America in the 21st century. If CBF is to grow, the movement must take cross-cultural ministry seriously and engage this growing cohort of young leaders. We need to value, encourage, and empower them.

Placement services offered by CBF should be less interested in confirming the “moderate credentials” of candidates for church positions and more concerned about developing a profile to identify creative, entrepreneurial leaders who are ready to bring new life to the churches. Being a “born and bred” Baptist would not be a requirement! This would open the door for people who want to serve progressive congregations but have never had the chance. Some of these candidates should be cultivated as the creators of church plants and missional faith communities. Churches can then decide if they want to call these gifted people or not. Calling of staff is still a local church decision, after all.

None of these suggestions are meant to criticize the commitment and dedication of CBF leadership in national, state, or regional positions of leadership. These are good people who work hard at what they do. The problem is that the times call for radical, not incremental, changes. If we continue to do the same thing, we will get the same result. We don’t really have time for that approach.


Harrel H said...

Good insights Ircel.

Suzanah said...

Dear Ircel:
Thank you so much for your words. They are gracious, timely, and truthful. I'm posting a link to this blog entry on my facebook page.

Because of your position when I first met you, you still represent CBF to me. So when I read your post, for the first time in a long time, I felt heard. Thank you for that. And thank you for articulating what many people feel.

Laura said...

Dear Ircel:

Thank you so much for your insight. As a Latina in Ministry who attended a CBF seminary, worked for CBF, and considered herself a part of the movement I agree wholeheartedly with your comments.

And most importantly thank you for speaking on behalf of the younger generation that includes Anglo's, Latino's, African American's, and other minority groups.

Grace and peace,

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. That's all I can say right now.