With the retirement of Executive Coordinator Daniel Vestal, the departure of many top level staff, and the adoption of a new organizational plan, there is much discussion about the future of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. As one who has been associated with the CBF “movement” for a number of years, I have a great deal of hope in our future and it is primarily based on the young leaders who are a part of the moderate Baptist family.
CBF has had three generations of leaders. The first generation was the founders like Cecil Sherman, Daniel Vestal and many other gifted men and women who lived through the denominational wars. This group is still involved but is rapidly moving off the scene. The second generation who now predominate in leadership were young adults beginning their work careers, seminary students, and junior church staff members when the controversy blazed among Baptists in the south. They are the stabilizers who have given direction and sustained CBF through tough times.
There is now a third generation emerging as leaders of the movement. The clergy in this group are often graduates of one of the theological schools affiliated with CBF. Many were children when the controversy began. Some were not even raised in Baptist churches. The lay persons in the group are participants in CBF because they have found or continue to find places of growth and service in this expression of Baptist life on a congregational level.
There are several things we can say about the individuals in this new generation, whether they are lay persons or clergy.
First, they are smart. Most of the laity are college graduates. The clergy have at least one seminary degree. They are well read in theology and in other areas as well. They will not accept easy answers. All expect to be challenged in their Christian walk and will not respect those who fail to demand the best of them.
Second, they reject parochialism and are socially conscious. Due to 24/7 media, the Internet, study aboard programs, mission trips, and personal travel, they know more about the world than most of my generation did at their age because they have seen more of it. They have spent time in other cultures, seeing both diversity and need. They expect to make a difference in the world and will settle for nothing less.
Third, they have a different perspective on certain issues–gay rights, for example– than most people my age. They have grown up with a different understanding of personal rights and resist anyone imposing another view on them. This generation is looking for its civil rights movement and will take its stand there.
In short, their worldview is different from those of us who comprise the first two generations of CBF leadership. Even if these young adults were alive in 1978, they were impacted by the SBC controversy the way that those of us born during WWII were affected by the war; they respect those who were involved in the early days of the movement but they were not personally involved in the fight.
I find myself thinking of the words that President John Adams penned in 1800 as he ushered a young republic into a new century (and please pardon his sexist language; Abigail probably did not vet this):
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
The first generation of CBF leaders waged war in order to birth the movement. The second generation gave it form and structure. Now, what will the third generation do with the gift it has been given? I am optimistic about their stewardship.