By Mark Wingfield
In three recent commentaries, ABPnews/Herald columnist David Gushee has wisely challenged us to consider how we might shape our identity more positively than simply being “ex” members of the Southern Baptist Convention.
I’d like to expand the conversation by pointing out how relatively few Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregations actually are “ex” members of the SBC. The Gushee columns primarily addressed the identity of individuals and institutions; my concern is the denominational identity of congregations. Many individuals who identify with CBF are members of congregations that still identify with the SBC, either in part or in whole.
More than two decades after creation of the CBF as a breakaway group from the SBC, many congregations remain straddling the fence. They are, practically speaking, dually aligned. At the risk of stating the obvious: Twenty-three years is a long time to straddle a fence.
For some congregations, the problem is that CBF hasn’t defined its identity sharply enough. And for other congregations, the problem is that CBF has defined its identity too sharply.
Let us not forget that during these same two decades, the SBC has defined its institutional identity even more sharply and more rightward. And yet those on the fence seem not to be bothered by that. It’s hard for the frog in the kettle to realize the heat has been turned up.
Of course, some congregations have chosen neither the SBC nor CBF because they find safe harbor in the in-between space. This is especially common in Texas, where congregations are more prone to identify as “Texas Baptists” than as SBC or CBF Baptists. But even in these cases, inertia still flows on the side of the SBC because of heritage. Remember Newton’s first law of motion: An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.
Back in the day, pastors argued that their congregations needed time to make careful decisions about their identities. Some had relationships with SBC missionaries they couldn’t forsake; others had retired missionaries or denominational employees in their midst who they felt a need to protect. Do those circumstances still exist today? How many congregations have revisited these 20-year-old assumptions?
I’m not writing this because I’ve been deputized as the recruitment officer for CBF, although I would like to see more congregations affiliate with our traditional Baptist values. The bigger issue is that failure to clarify a congregation’s identity too often opens the door to being swayed by a new pastor who pretends to be one thing but in reality is another. And it’s also a fact that congregations that fail to state a clear identity ultimately fail to thrive. Healthy congregations know who they are and what they believe — and where they belong.
For many congregations, identification with CBF does not necessarily mean becoming “ex-SBC” churches. And therein lies the difficulty in shaping a cohesive identity as something other than what we have been.
If we’re going to talk about moving beyond our roots in the SBC, we first must actually leave the SBC. Some of us have done that — in our congregation’s case 14 years ago — and discovered that the sky didn’t fall. In fact, there’s a remarkable freedom and clarity in choosing to leave the past behind and sail boldly into the future.