Once upon a time, there was a rather comfortable Baptist consensus in the South. There were variations in worship and architectural style, but most white Baptist churches used the same hymnals, Sunday school materials, and supported the same mission causes. Whether you attended a church in Virginia or Alabama or Texas on a given Sunday morning, you would probably be using Baptist Sunday School Board curriculum, singing from the Baptist Hymnal, and giving to the Cooperative Program as well as Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong.
If young persons left the local church and “went away to college” (most of us did in those days), they could attend a Baptist college supported by their state convention or, if they chose to attend a state university, they would find the fellowship of the Baptist Student Union (also supported to some extent by the state Baptist convention). If the student felt the call to ministry, he or she could attend one of the six Baptist seminaries generously funded the Cooperative Program. Beyond seminary, there were opportunities for service in churches, mission agencies, and denominational agencies that were part of the denominational consensus.
Frameworks and agreements among the Baptist agencies assured that Sunday School Board literature would support the work of the other boards and agencies. Although the Sunday School Board did not receive Cooperative Program dollars, this publishing arm of the convention made sure that it was on the right side in supporting CP giving. In fact, any church or individual that questioned supporting the Cooperative Program would quickly be branded as “independent,” a term that seemed to be connected with being cast into outer darkness.
Certainly there were differences of opinion and differing philosophies among Baptists in the South but most of the time we found a way to be tolerant, work together, and move ahead in Kingdom work (because who else was going to do it if we didn’t?).
Fast forward to 2011. The old consensus has certainly broken down and a new one has yet to emerge for many Baptists and their churches. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists have attempted to step into the gap, but churches and individuals have not rushed to fall in line. Twenty years after the founding of CBF, we are still struggling to find some common ground. Initially, many thought that the common ground would be missions, but churches have become more aggressive in mapping their own mission strategies without regard to leadership in Atlanta. CBF struggles to keep “career” missionaries on the field and is dependent on alternative means of funding field staff. Theological education has certainly not been the common ground. The Fellowship has some relation to 15 different schools and several of those are starving to death!
As the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship meets in Tampa this week, many will ask the questions, “What do we have in common?” and “How will we work together in the future?” We anxiously await the answers. The old consensus has broken done and we wait to see what, if anything, can take its place.