More times than I can count over the past several weeks, I’ve heard talk of frustration and disappointment from my Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) brothers and sisters. Pastors, lay leaders, church members, denominational employees. “In all my years, I have never seen it as bad as this,” one seasoned pastor lamented.
In no way would I pretend to minimize the significance of this delicate hour. Our cooperative mission hangs on the threads of a worn fabric. This fabric has been donned by many a Southern Baptist generation, teased and tried through the decades.
Never has it been as tightly pulled at the seams as it is today. Or has it?
In 1929, the messenger-elected Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, prayed, deliberated and contentiously maneuvered through one of the most trying seasons of denominational life. In the SBC Annual, they reflected with humility and somberness:
“The new Board had but little more than organized and started out with its year’s work when it found itself face to face with a colossal disaster… if in anything we have failed, we earnestly hope that our brethren will be as charitable in their judgment of us as they would wish us to have been to them, if they had been burdened with the responsibility which we have had to carry through this eventful year.”
The trustees faced the scandalous 1928 defalcation by C.S Carnes, who embezzled more than $900,000 from the Cooperative Program. It was a public relations nightmare that threatened the viability of the entire convention’s ongoing cooperative ministry.
“We did our best to serve in this critical hour,” they continued. “Furthermore, if we are wise, we will capitalize this disaster, and profit by all the mistakes that led up to it, in such a way as to make our future program more thoroughly intelligent and efficient.”
Leaders left office.
Friendships were severed.
Finances were dreadful.
Distrust was high.
Morale was low.
The future was unclear.
For the next 10 years Southern Baptists prayed fervently, gave sacrificially and gathered hopefully. In the late 1930s, after a decade of continued cooperation through the most disastrous of circumstances, the Holy Spirit saw fit to breathe on the denomination again: the 1940s and 1950s saw the greatest evangelistic growth the Convention had ever known.
Great Commission Baptists, we have been here before. Not in the exact same scenario, of course, but in the same state of mind: divided, distrusted, disheartened.
God does not, and never did, need this convention of churches to accomplish His Great Commission. Despite ourselves, He saw fit to invite us into His plan for worldwide gospel advance. He saw fit to breathe on our method of missiological cooperation so that the nations might know and worship the one true God through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ.
Our grandfathers and grandmothers leaned on these characteristics during their season of refinement and revision. They are what we need to get us through.
We must regain a posture of prayerful humility before God as individuals, as churches and as a convention. No one has the answers for the unique trials we face in this season. There are no experts. No proven strategies. No methodological assurances. We are at our best, as we always have been, when we are a praying people.
Our hearts are stained with sin and pride. The world watches and Satan laughs while we are filled with anger, gossip, manipulation, division, unforgiveness, arrogance and selfish pride. Social media is a tool we could have used for the advancement of the gospel. Instead, we have used it for the tearing down of one another. Repentance is in order. God will not despise a broken and contrite spirit. Rather, He will resist the proud and give grace to the humble.
In this season we need servant-hearted leading voices who are bridge-builders and peacemakers – such are blessed of God and will be called His sons. Those denominational servants who excelled in their calling have always been those who lived with integrity while undergirding the work of the churches with diligence. They build bridges. They keep peace with an attitude of gratitude that God would consider them worthy in Christ to descend to a denominational office, washing the feet of Christ’s Bride across tens of thousands of her local expressions.
To move through conflict and turmoil toward an even brighter day, we must afford each other, and our convention as a whole, the grace of time. Southern Baptists have made some reprehensible mistakes through the decades. However, given the grace of time, the prayer and humility of the saints, and the longsuffering of servant-hearted leaders, God has seen fit to restore and reignite our Great Commission cooperation again and again. What is tangled takes time to straighten. What is broken takes time to repair. What is divided takes time to heal.
“We must not lose the things we have already wrought through the mercies and power of God… we must do our best to bring them to a full reward,” wrote L.R. Scarborough, the great champion of Southern Baptist denominational cooperation. He urged the Convention in 1925 to faithfully and sacrificially give toward the missional endeavors to which they had already committed themselves. Missionaries were promised salaries. Seminary students were promised scholarships. Churches were promised assistance. Humanitarian organizations were promised funding.
Even through many years of recovery after the Carnes scandal, Scarborough remained a steady voice for the cooperative funding that undergirded their missional strategy. The first-century Macedonian churches call to us still with a reminder that when God’s people are in their most desperate hours, they are in their most sacrificial disposition.
The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 calls cooperation a “spiritual harmony” by which the churches endeavor to secure “the great objects of the Kingdom of God.”
Now looking back across the bridge of time, let us agree with our brothers and sisters of a previous generation: “If we are wise, we will capitalize this disaster, and profit by all the mistakes that led up to it, in such a way as to make our future program more thoroughly intelligent and efficient.”
Let’s follow their lead. Let’s pray fervently, give sacrificially and gather hopefully while we work to become the convention God intends us to be.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tony Wolfe is associate executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.)