By Ron Crawford
A few days ago, Bill Leonard’s article, “Opinion: Will CBF make it another 20?” was published by Associated Baptist Press. As is always the case, Bill brings wonderful insight to the table; his article inspired me to reply to a few ideas quoted below.
Bill said: “In its 20th year, with an eye to the future, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship faces a variety of challenges, many of which parallel those of other faith communities.”
To which I say: Much of what CBF is experiencing is indeed rooted in the larger cultural shift of the emerging 21st century. Even so, there are elements that are unique to CBF and her story.
CBF: Betwixt and between
CBF finds herself caught between the 19th/20th-century model of Southern Baptist Convention denominationalism and 21st-century networking models. While I affirm CBF for attempting innovation, the transition to a new model appropriate for our century is moving slowly. In essence, in these hard economic times CBF is in the middle of the stream straddling two horses — certain it does not want to ride the one, but unsure if it can depend on the other.
While other denominational entities are losing a sharp sense of identity in the midst of cultural transition, it is not certain CBF ever had a clear sense of identity. “Not them” provides a weak sense of self. CBF’s postponement of connecting itself to a clear theological foundation surfaces from time to time, as in the extended conversation concerning CBF of North Carolina’s recent values statement. Our present challenges are complex partly because we do not have historic core values to guide us in our transition.
CBF: A one-entree menu
I find no fault with those who led us out of Egypt; but it is helpful to acknowledge the impact of key organizational foundation stones. Early in the life of CBF, it was decided the only thing one could build a denomination around was missions. Consequently, CBF missions became our primary entree. Other traditional entrees on denominational menus were quickly turned into side dishes: literature publication, theological education, annuity and health services and a variety of ethical and social concerns. Now, we are discovering a single entrée will not sustain a broad clientele. There are many people who love good home-cooked missions, but there is a much larger potential audience who like a variety of full entrees, not just one.
CBF: What churches want
Bill also said: “Churches have to decide if they need CBF and, if so, then engage imaginatively in shaping its future. Churches must determine what they need from organizations like CBF and guide the organization in responding to those needs.”
These assertions assume a high level of investment in CBF on the part of churches affiliated with the organization; thus, churches are called on to “decide,” or “engage,” or “guide.” I am fearful this assumption reflects a 20th-century perspective on denominationalism. Given the evolving 21st century, I do not think churches are going to decide, engage or guide CBF in a metamorphosis. Rather, it is up to CBF to change itself to meet the needs of churches. And only after it changes will churches “buy in” to the new organization.
Twenty-five years ago people would say of their church, “This is my church and I am going to work with others to make it better.” Then, there was a real sense of ownership in congregational life. That attitude has significantly changed; now, one is more likely to hear, “Yeah, I love my church and I hope its leaders change it in ways that will better meet my needs and the needs of my family.” What remains unsaid is, “And, if they don’t, I’ll go find another church; this is a buyer’s market, after all.”
While I would be delighted for churches to “decide,” “engage,” and “guide,” I am not holding my breath.
I think the only way to proceed is for CBF to assume a “buyer’s market” and make changes based on the needs of congregations in the 21st century. Given this context, if denominational entities do not transform themselves and endear themselves to local churches, the future is very uncertain.