Baptists Who Love: Questions of Identity Dominate CBF's 20th Anniversary Assembly

CBF was birthed by a bold and prophetic spirit. The movement organized around Baptist principles of freedom, belief in the right of every individual to relate to God apart from institution or creed.
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How does a movement that began in reaction live into a proactive future?

It's a persistent question facing the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship 20 years after its inception. Last week CBF gathered in Tampa to commemorate and celebrate, while looking ahead with hope. The meeting took the theme, "God's mission, your passion: Celebrating our 20-year journey toward faithfulness."

"Journey" is an oft-used metaphor in CBF circles, as many self-identify as exiles of an earlier time who were forced to search for new places of promise and sing from the Broadman hymnal in a strange new land. In 1990, as the Southern Baptist Convention continued its shift toward conservative fundamentalism, Baptists with moderate to progressive theological leanings broke away and formed CBF.

This history poses a growing challenge, as an increasing number of participants have no memory of a pre-exilic time. I am a second-generation CBF pastor. My father was part of CBF's formation. I can even recall more than one family vacation structured around a CBF General Assembly (every 12 year-old's dream trip!). I revere the experiences of my many foreparents in the Fellowship, but I also observe the obvious: when stories are told of an earlier time, only part of the room responds in cathartic laughter. Others of us feel we're missing the inside scoop.

For these reasons and more, "identity" was a focus of this year's meeting. Pam Durso, who reflected on CBF's history and future at this year's Assembly, described how in preparing her remarks she sought opinions across the spectrum of CBF life. "To a person," she said, "they have told me that we as CBF Baptists need to be clearer about our identity." David Hull, who chairs CBF's 2012 Task Force, echoed this sentiment saying that much of the feedback the Task Force has received centers on identity: "What need to be the primary factors that shape our identity moving forward?"

In short, how do we continue to move from the reactive to the proactive?

CBF was birthed by a bold and prophetic spirit. The movement organized around Baptist principles of freedom, belief in the right of every individual to relate to God apart from institution or creed, and the conviction that men and women should be empowered to minister fully within Baptist churches. Many say they found a "home" among these principles. A home, however, can become a settled and stable place. Such order is awkward for a movement founded, in the words of anniversary speaker Molly Marshall, as a "ministry of dissent." One longtime CBF lay leader expressed to me his own puzzlement at this prospect: "I know how to dissent. Just don't ask me organize."

CBF's current situation recalls the work of church historian, Jeffrey Burton Russell. In his 1968 book, Medieval Christianity, Russell claims that the central factor in the development of European Christianity was the creative interplay between the forces of prophecy and order. Neither force was enough on its own.

CBF does well to remember that organization and advancement need not mean the absence of dissension. A spirit of order need not mean the abandonment of the prophetic spirit that gave us life. Like many denominational bodies, CBF seeks to respond to declined giving, disenchanted youth, and shifts in denominationalism. However, unlike many denominations -- and in sharp contrast to its parent denomination, the SBC -- CBF has the potential that comes with youth and agility. At twenty years old, CBF is young enough to use its imagination and still light and nimble enough to navigate the cultural landscape.

In the words of the closing night's speaker and CBF Pastor, Kyle Reese, "we will be at our best when we are willing to risk." It is the spirit of prophecy that will remind us of our heritage of freedom, promote growing ethical action, and drive us to have the urgent conversations about sexuality and inclusion that, for the first time in my recent memory, were referenced from the Assembly podium.

As this year's meeting neared its close, incoming moderator Colleen Burroughs offered words of blessing. She sent us out to be "Baptists who love, love, love Jesus, and love, love, love people. All people." As she closed, she acknowledged her hope that our children will remember us this way.

Even if I never take him to General Assembly, I hope my son knows CBF for a heritage of love. If he does, it will not be solely or even primarily because of our efficiency and order. It will be because our young body finds in itself the prophetic spirit, propensity to risk, and capacity for imagination that were present 20 years ago when a small splinter group set out to do something bold, progressive and new. Some might even call that "God's mission."

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