By D. Steven Porter
“Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God!” That was William Carey’s rejoinder to those who derided early Baptist mission advocates as “enthusiasts.” Carey, who became the first Baptist foreign missionary, captures a strain of activism deep within the Baptist psyche: We want the world to know the love of God we’ve found in Jesus Christ. We want everyone to experience transformation — “to taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalms 34:8). Baptists always have understood themselves to be witnesses.
More than two centuries later, Carey’s words still resonate with us. They remind us of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus declares his disciples to be the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-16). And this declaration conveys the responsibility to season and to shine. We have a contribution to make, a commission to fulfill: We are witnesses.
Of course, Carey’s critics were not altogether wrong. Sometimes in our enthusiasm to change the world, Baptists have focused so much on attempting great things for God that we have lost sight of what God has accomplished for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The redemption to which we bear witness sometimes functions more as motivation for our efforts rather than the power that animates them. We gather, we plan, we execute; but we take little time to pray or otherwise cultivate our dependence upon the triune God. Like the children of Israel, we struggle with the constant creep of idolatry, which takes subtle forms — from a mission board’s claim to fulfill the Great Commission to the determination that a local church doesn’t really need to cooperate with others to advance the Gospel. Such examples place us at the center of the story. Instead of witnesses, we become activists. And while there is nothing wrong with activism, it is not the Church’s unique calling.
Advent reminds us that we are not primarily activists but witnesses. Left to human devices, creation falls, and God must step in — literally, in Jesus. As Walt Kelly’s cartoon character, Pogo, famously observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The recognition of our own fallenness, however, is not an excuse for inaction. We have a responsibility to put our faith to work — to be salt and light. But the kingdom’s coming, for which Jesus taught us to pray “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10), depends finally on God, not on us. Therefore, our efforts are more than activism, because they are grounded in the actions of God in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit and bathed in prayer. We cannot build a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1), but we can bear witness to them.
Ultimately, Advent reminds us that we need a savior. And so does the world. “Beloved Community Starts with You!” is the theme for this year’s Offering for Global Missions, which places CBF missionaries on the field to share the Good News of Jesus Christ around the world. We’re trying to strike the elusive balance that William Carey expressed between divine expectation and human ambition. On the one hand, Beloved Community obviously doesn’t start with us. It is shorthand for God’s renewal of all things. On the other hand, it does demand something from us — at least, if we claim to be witnesses to the One “who is making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
By giving to the CBF Offering for Global Missions, you cultivate Beloved Community. You set a common table with Jessica and Joshua Hearne in Virginia, for neighbors from different classes and races to feast on food from their community garden. You settle newly-arrived refugee families into Welcome House with Kim and Marc Wyatt in North Carolina. And you offer exploited women in Uganda shelter, counseling, discipleship and vocational training with Jade and Shelah Acker. Beloved Community takes many forms, and your sacrificial gifts bear witness to it. Instead of filling shoeboxes this Advent season, let’s attempt something even greater for God: Let’s fund the next generation of living witnesses God is calling from our congregations.
Learn more about the Offering for Global Missions and make a gift to support CBF missionaries at www.cbf.net/OGM
— Dr. Steven Porter serves as Coordinator of Global Missions for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.