I grew up in Atlanta, Ga. If Texas is the belt buckle of the Bible Belt, Atlanta is that belt’s designer label and matching handbag. Whereas the Church should be a socially-engaged witness in its particular context, my Atlanta church experience was almost the opposite. Always chasing the latest cultural trends of a competitive, materialistic status quo, many of the churches I attended in my hometown either sought to become the next consumer-driven megachurch or a semi-religious extension of the local country club. My hometown church was a little bit of both.
I left Atlanta in the fall of 2009 to attend divinity school in North Carolina. I was unsure of my Christian identity and embarrassed to be Baptist yet still determined to explore my call to ministry. There I had the privilege of studying under professors who gave me the freedom to explore my religious being and even reclaim the word Baptist for myself. While in school I served a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church and discovered a way of practicing Baptist polity that was very different from the observations of my youth. I learned what it meant to be the member of a missional covenant community committed to being the church rather than just trying to define it. Our church was active in the community and practiced the gospel socially instead of demanding that our community fill pews to hear it.
Still a bit skeptical I attended my first CBF assembly in Charlotte in 2010. I will never forget how moved I was to discover all the ways Fellowship Baptists were working to bring about good in our world. There was room to partner with churches and organizations from a wide range of theological perspectives. Everyone was granted a seat at the table. Where my previous experience had been focused on the individual, at CBF I met individuals committed to the whole. I returned from that first gathering and confessed to a professor an almost rededication to my Baptist heritage. I had found a place to live, breathe and grow. In many ways I feel that CBF gave me a home when no one else would. When I was spiritually hungry, naked and distressed of conscience, CBF fed me, clothed me and provided me with a place to lay my head.
Committed to the health and life of CBF, I continued to learn all I could from our movement. I was constantly challenged by regional, state and national meetings and devoured any book or article I could find on our unique missional expression of Baptist life. I was ordained in that CBF of North Carolina church and today am the proud pastor of another partner congregation and a member of the inaugural cohort of CBF Fellows.
While CBF has become my home, as a young pastor still very new to the organization, I have often found myself questioning the future of our movement. I’ve wondered about the next step for me and my church as we long to practice our faith as a socially-conscious congregation committed to transforming our culture with the ethics of God’s Kingdom. I have at times even wondered if my entire generation of passionate, justice-seeking ministers will be given the chance to receive the baton and lead our organization into the uncharted waters of our time. These questions were answered by Suzii Paynter during our annual General Assembly last month.
Time after time Paynter spoke on the idea of “CBF 2.0,” a renewed organization aware of its identity and committed to practicing it as a “compassionate, enlightened, joyful, Christlike community.” As a pastoral advocate, Paynter is already leading our movement towards becoming, as she envisions, “the most vital, vibrant religious community in the United States,” a religious community unafraid to roll up its sleeves and get to work among the least of these. In the weeks since the General Assembly, Paynter has worked with the Baptist World Alliance to strengthen CBF presence at the United Nations and spoken on behalf of CBF at an immigration summit, all for the sake of the gospel.
I will never forget watching Paynter’s welcome video shortly after she was named executive coordinator. My wife and I sat with tears in our eyes, moved by the compassionate possibilities before us. After wintessing Suzii Paytner in action, a personal, pastorate affirmation I have found myself offering is this: If our mission took us into the depths of Dante’s Inferno and Suzii asked me to carry the gasoline, I would carry the gasoline and follow Suzii there because I am certain she is following Jesus.
It is my prayer that all Fellowship churches rally behind Paynter’s new vision for our organization and apply it in their various settings. Our future is bright, but it will take all of us to achieve it. As Suzii reminded us in Greensboro, “We can be alone, or we can be a fellowship.”
Alex Gallimore ([email protected]) is pastor of Hester Baptist Church in Oxford, N.C.