I got the latest issue of Baptists Today and enjoyed it as usual, but took particular interest in the interview with Dr. Bill Self. He is pastor of St. Johns Baptist Church in Alpharetta, GA. It is one of the few large churches associated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). It’s not often I hear of a church that size affiliated with the CBF or known as “moderate” in Baptist life. It’s nice to know there are some out there.
Self made several observations about Baptist life in general and the status of moderate churches in particular. One thing he mentioned had to do with the importance of preaching and that pastors ought to devote a great deal of their time to this task. His critique of proclamation is right on with my thinking, in that of all the things preachers do, preaching is the most important. Pastors are called upon for a variety of matters, but that time before the people is sacred as far as I’m concerned. I can minister to more people at one time on Sunday morning than I can any other time. So, I spend as much time as possible getting ready (Acts 6:4 is an important verse for me). It is cardinal sin in my book for preachers to be boring and/or unprepared when they stand up to preach the Word of God. It was encouraging to hear a pastor of a prominent CBF church feel the same way.
Another thing Self said had to do with moderate churches and the need for emphasizing evangelism. He recalled going to a meeting in Florida and more or less cited this weakness. The reception was less than enthusiasic, which surprised him because he thought he was “coming home” to be with Baptists of his stripe. I commend Self for his views and believe his voice needs to be heard.
Being part of a CBF church is very liberating, especially for one who has served in the continually narrowing confines of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). I’ve moved beyond the 2000 BF&M discussions and am grateful not to be supporting institutions that have changed to the point of non-recognition. It is refreshing to be among church members who cherish our Baptist distinctives and affirm the call of God upon both men and women. I appreciate our missional mindset and “being the presence of Christ” both locally and globally. I’ve embraced new terminology and new paradigms of ministry, namely that we don’t have to own institutions in order to partner with them. We must continually inform and educate our people about missions in a “world without borders.” This is new wine and must be placed in new wineskins. I’m grateful to be part of it.
However, at some point moderate congregations must refocus on their responsibility of telling people about Jesus Christ and about a personal relationship with him. Jesus came to “seek and save those who are lost” and that mandate still applies today. I am not saying CBF churches don’t do this but rather that it seems we’ve made the Baptist distinctives emphasis an end rather than a means. We’ve gotten pretty good at saying “what we’re not” but we must also ring out the message that people need Jesus and eternal life is theirs for the receiving through faith in Christ. I am tired of hearing that moderate churches aren’t evangelistic and have weak pulpits. This seems to be the criticism from Southern Baptists who are good at counting buildings, budgets, and baptisms. If 80% of Southern Baptist churches are declining or plateaued, why don’t they get critized for it? It’s hypocrisy to call CBF churches unevangelistic with this sort of track record. I’m as concerned about the declining number of baptisms as I am about re-baptizing folks who get excited during revival every year. I mean, how many times can you get saved?
I accept the fact that the term “moderate” applies to me and our church for our views and theological positions. It’s unfortunate we still deal with these terms, but so be it. This is part of our Baptist landscape. But, I don’t want to be “moderate” when it comes to evangelism and finding ways to reach folks for Jesus Christ. Each church exists in its own mission field, and some areas are growing more than others. Yet, we can all do our part in sharing our faith through words and actions. Let us always “be ready to give a reason for the hope we have.”
One key development for me personally has been this missional concept. We no longer merely commission missionaries to go to the mission field. In this post-Christian culture, churches are now ON the mission field which means that all Christians are missionaries right where they live and breathe. This is a truth that I’m trying to reinforce with our church and I think is sinking in. We are openly identifiable as CBF and all that it means. But, our folks are not talking about that as much as how we can reach our community for Christ and help people with real needs. This is an exciting conversation and one that I hope other churches are having. I’ve learned that it’s not enough to be “moderate” or “not a fundamentalist.” It’s also necessary to have some real substance to offer folks who couldn’t care less about SBC, CBF, or any other denominational labels.