The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will offer its plenary sessions and workshops during its virtual 2020 General Assembly Thursday and Friday, June 25-26.
But the pandemic-induced move to online spaces – marking the first time since 1992 the assembly will not convene in-person – cannot replace the family reunion function that so many love about the annual event.
“It is pretty much a huge bummer,” said Lauren McDuffie, 31, associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Morehead, Kentucky.
Harold Phillips, former moderator of CBF Heartland and recently retired, has been to every assembly and agreed it hurts to miss making those connections.
“Part of it is networking – that’s huge for me,” Phillips said. “And there is the reunion component – meeting up with people you went to seminary with or went on mission trips with.”
‘First big proof all this was real’
The impact is described poignantly by those who, like Phillips, were present both at the 1991 “Convocation of The Baptist Fellowship,” when CBF was formally organized, and the first General Assembly in 1992. The gathering was for many a much-needed rest after years of theological battles in the Southern Baptist Convention.
“I still remember the emotions,” said Walter “Buddy” Shurden, 83, author, minister at large, retired chair of the department of Christianity at Mercer University and a leader in the emerging movement that became CBF.
It was a time of apprehension and hope, he said. As the migration from the SBC occurred, no one really knew where the movement was going or if it would succeed. But its courage was on full display during that first gathering.
“I remember the camaraderie – the sense of being identified with people I respected.”
For Baptist historian Bill Leonard, that first assembly, held in Fort Worth, Texas, “was a revival.”
It was restorative to those exhausted by the SBC battles, said Leonard, Dunn Professor of baptist studies emeritus at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
“We were all terribly emotional about it. General Assembly was the first big proof that all of this was real.”
Phillips recalled that era as mysterious and exciting. General Assembly brought it all together.
There was also a pioneering feeling in the air, partly because many attended on their own dime.
“Nobody had expense accounts,” said Phillips. “You had four guys sharing a room. No one had any money.”
And none of that was considered a negative.
“It was freeing.”
‘Great to hear different perspectives’
Since then, General Assembly has become has come to shape a Baptist identity as much as celebrate it, said Emily Holladay, the pastor of Village Baptist Church in Bowie, Maryland.
Holladay previously worked as a Passport camp counselor and later as an intern for CBF. The relationships begun in those roles have grown through random encounters in hallways and lobbies during assembly.
“You’re in this hotel or conference center and every other person you see is someone you know,” she said. “I would hate to say how many workshops I have missed because of those conversations.”
General Assembly has become a core component of CBF’s outreach to young adults, she added.
“In the past five or six years I have heard a lot of people talk about how many strollers they see and the evolving makeup of the population in terms of age.”
John DeWitt, 22, has two assemblies under his belt, the first in 2018.
“Last year was extremely useful,” DeWitt, children and youth pastor at Mount Hermon Baptist Church in Durham, said of the focus on racial justice at the 2019 gathering in Birmingham, Alabama. “It was really great to hear different perspectives that I had not heard growing up in white churches.”
DeWitt said his assembly experiences have helped shape his Baptist identity as he prepares to attend Campbell University Divinity School this fall.
“You want to act out on what you learn after you leave” the gatherings.
‘Rubber chicken luncheons’
For McDuffie, the annual get-togethers have been instrumental in helping her explore her calling.
“It was in some of the slightly smaller settings that I began to think through what kinds of work I wanted to do,” she said.
McDuffie added she is disappointed the pandemic led to the cancellation of assembly because it, in turn, wiped out the final in-person meeting of her two-year CBF Fellows cohort.
“We are lamenting not having time to wrap that up in person.”
In an e-mail to Baptist News Global, George Mason offered a tongue-in-cheek take on what missing an in-person assembly will mean to him.
“I am going to miss the scintillating business meetings, the long inclusive-language prayers and the pastiche worship that tries to accommodate everyone,” mused Mason, senior pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.
Also missed will be “the rubber chicken luncheons” and conversations in hallways “because they are interrupted by six people walking past saying hello,” he said.
“And maybe most of all, I will miss the late-night unofficial conclaves of friends that grow in number as the night wears on and makes us feel like little revolutionaries planning the next incursion of the reign of God.”