Dr. Daniel Vestal: CBF--20 Years and Counting

Two decades ago this month a group of Baptists gathered in Atlanta to figure a way out of conflict into some kind of "new beginning" with a shared future. Reflecting on that gathering creates in me a kind of wonder that is difficult to put into words. Although Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was not was not born until nine months later (May, 1991), it is safe to say that it was conceived in August of 1990. And both our beginning and continued life is a testimony to the travail and triumph in that gathering as well as to divine Providence.

Each of us has a desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to participate in an enterprise that transcends, but includes, our personal story. What I don't think we realize is that to have such an experience requires both pain and pleasure, struggle and success, death and resurrection. It's all woven together into a seamless fabric. And you can't have one without the other.

I often hear someone say, "We want to forget about the past and only look to the future." Or "We need to remember and restore the tradition." Or "We don't want to think about bad things, we only want to think about good things." Or "Let's be positive, not negative." Or "We live in a new day that is totally different than any other." The problem with all these statements is that they are "half truths," which means that they do not capture or convey what is needed for today.

What is amazing to me about the past 20 years is the courage and heroism of the many unheralded Baptist Christians who created and continue to support Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. These are not just pastors of "tall steeple" churches or seminary professors or platform personalities. They don't write articles like this one, but they write checks because they believe in the vision and mission of this Fellowship as well as its partnering ministries.

They are convictional Baptists who believe in a free Baptist press, religious liberty for all and the priesthood of every believer. They are cooperating Baptists so they support missionaries and seminary students they don't know and help provide resources for churches other than their own. They love a faith tradition that formed them, and they cherish a community that seeks to embody that tradition. These Baptists, lay and clergy, whose names will probably never appear in a publication or whose face will never be seen on a video, are the heart and soul of this Fellowship. They are the ones who created it and who continue to sustain it.

What is also amazing to me about the past 20 years is the emergence of younger Baptists who share these same values. I am confident that the partnering seminaries and divinity schools are partly responsible for much of this emergence. They are providing quality theological education that is forming a new generation of Baptist leaders. I am also confident that organizations like Passport, Current and Baptist Women in Ministry are nurturing and developing younger Baptists who will increasingly lead all of us. But I am heartened and hopeful because of the passion/energy of the younger Baptists among us.

Another amazement to me is the convergence of events/trends/awakenings in the past 20 years that is creating a fresh understanding of the Gospel and a clearer vision of Christian mission. We are living in the midst of a cultural / congregational / denominational deconstruction and reconstruction all at the same time. Increasingly Baptist Christians are becoming aware that the present/coming Kingdom of God not only transforms character but transforms culture as well, that prayer is a way of life requiring us to listen to God as well as speak to God and that mission is not only something we do but something we are.

Baptist Christians are becoming aware that Jesus was about justice and mercy and not just about going to heaven when we die. They are becoming aware of global poverty and the systemic causes of economic inequity. They are reordering their personal lives and their shared lives in congregations because they not only believe in the mission of the Church but also in the mystery of the Church. Baptist Christians are awakening to the truth that we are the Body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. I am not saying that these convergences are limited to CBF or that they have created a "majoritarian movement," but they are real and there is life/vitality among us.

Also what is amazing to me about the past 20 years is the emerging scope and influence of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship beyond its size and age. I do not say this with pride but with gratitude. We have a place in the world wide missionary enterprise. We are a member body of the Baptist World Alliance, the North American Baptist Fellowship, Christian Churches Together in the U.S. and The New Baptist Covenant. Our influence is significant as an endorsing body for chaplains / pastoral counselors, a non-governmental organization that responds to natural disasters and a provider of retirement benefits for clergy.

I seldom hear what I heard even a few years ago, "Do you think CBF is viable into the future?" Rather I hear questions like, "What is our role/place within the Baptist family? What will be our organizational structure? How do we become more racially / ethnically diverse?" These challenges are themselves an evidence of our maturation and a recognition that we must always be renewing ourselves. This requires a constant striving, and even struggling, that is sustained by divine Providence.

In reflection on that "Consultation of Concerned Baptists" that convened in Atlanta, August 23-25, 1990, I can't help but treasure both the grief and gladness, the sorrow and joy, the tears and laughter. But most of all, I remember the hope that was birthed in that gathering. I still have that hope, after twenty years.

[Taken with permission from "Words from the Executive Coordinator ," Aug. 18, 2010, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.]

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