I write today to advocate for Baptists active in ministry in the megalopolitan area of Philadelphia to commit to synergistic missional collaboration. Let me begin with a definition.
Collaboration is a synergy of efforts — missional in this case — that increases the effectiveness and excellence of various areas of Christian ministry. It seeks higher ground where only God can take us rather than common ground where our human efforts alone take us. The overarching goal of synergistic missional collaboration is to work in close partnership for greater ministry outcomes, impacts, capacity building and sustainability.
Can this be achieved by Baptists denominational groups in Philadelphia? Let’s look at the Baptist landscape there.
Philadelphia is an important place for Baptists in the United States. Several early Baptist entities had their birth in Philadelphia. Among them are the Philadelphia Baptist Association in the early 18th century, and the Triennial Convention in the early 19th century (which is also known by its full name — General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions).
Various Baptist denominational groups affiliated with the North American Baptist Fellowship (NABF) of the Baptist World Alliance are currently present in Philadelphia through congregational and institutional expressions. American Baptist Churches in the USA, several of the four National Baptist groups, Converge Worldwide, Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society, North American Baptist Conference of Churches, Russian-Evangelical Baptist Union in USA, Seventh Day Baptist General Conference, and most recently the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are some of the groups active in ministry in Philadelphia.
For the first 40 years of NABF the Southern Baptist Convention was an affiliated Baptist group which also has a significant presence in and around Philadelphia. It withdrew from the Baptist World Alliance a dozen years ago.
Several of these denominations have a regional body active in the Philadelphia megalopolitan area. This does not even count other Baptist groups not mentioned, and what is probably a large number of unaffiliated churches who claim the name Baptist. A cursory search of the Internet shows at least 500 churches within the city limits of Philadelphia which claim the name Baptist.
The most recent entry into the Philadelphia megalopolitan area is the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Here is a Baptist News Global story that addresses their entry. In response to this story, as general secretary of NABF, I fielded questions about yet another Baptist group addressing a new church starts strategy in Philadelphia.
Certainly in a megalopolitan area of more than six million people another denomination starting congregations is welcome, and perhaps needed. Looking at the larger picture, it does, however, raise the question of, “Are there ways to achieve synergistic collaboration for greater missional impact?”
Yet, let me be clear, my family is not neutral regarding Philadelphia. In 1965 my Baptist minister household — at that time only my mother, father, and me as a teenager — moved from Baltimore to Philadelphia to start new Southern Baptist congregations.
SBC congregations began to emerge in the northeast part of the United States — north of the Mason-Dixon line which divides Maryland from Pennsylvania — in 1958. Within a few years there were multiple congregations in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and other places in between.
By 1965 there were five constituted churches and two missions in an association of Southern Baptist congregations known as the Delaware Valley Baptist Association. That is the organization of which my father became the executive director. Virtually all of the Baptist groups mentioned above were already present in Philadelphia. Did they need Southern Baptists also? Perhaps.
Historically there was a comity agreement between Southern Baptists and American Baptists that talked about mutual respect for states and countries where one group engaged missionally and where the other would not. By 1958 the comity agreement was no longer effective. Comity became competition. It must now become collaboration.
Particularly as a result of the migration of Southern Baptist households during and after World War II, and their desire to have church like they knew it in the Southern states, the request for assistance in starting Southern Baptist churches grew into a proactive strategy to start new congregations in all 50 states and Canada. The first wave of these new congregations focused on Southern Baptists outside the South. The second wave began a focus on the unchurched.
In Philadelphia Southern Baptists built good relationship with some of the other Baptist groups. The SBC was a new entering group which could see the possibilities where vision had waned. Actually several American Baptist church facilities were purchased where the congregation was dying, and new churches emerged in these same facilities.
But this is not 1958. It is 58 years later. Rather than competition or shallow cooperation, are Baptists at a place where synergistic missional collaboration might occur that would affirm the gifts, skills and preferences of each and every willing group?
Is this an idea that could, should, ought to become a reality? Are there other cities where a similar synergistic missional collaboration ought to emerge? Who will take the first step?