By Charlie Fuller
Our church is a part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Someone asked me, “Why does CBF matter to you?” Here was my answer:
Hear these words from Ecclesiastes 4:9-12:
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
“Ubuntu” is a word from South Africa that has many meanings. The one that most resonates with me is “I am because you are.” It’s a recognition that none of us exists in a vacuum. John Donne, the English poet, put it this way, “No man is an island.”
If you are among those who hang around with me at Second Baptist Church, you’ve heard me riff about community. My job is to try to enhance our community here, to help people engage community, to let folks know not only that community is important but that we are a community available to be the presence of Christ to each other.
You’ve probably also heard me say things like, as humans we’re hardwired biologically to be community to each other. Science tells us that we’re actually built to need each other, that God has created us to need each other.
I’ve said all my adult life, ever since I was an undergrad at Baylor in the 70’s: It’s all about relationships. And what’s good for us as individuals in community is also right and good for us as churches gathering as communities of churches. We need each other. There are synergies that happen when we gather as communities of churches, things we can accomplish together that we never could by ourselves.
But that’s not news to you, is it? Everybody knows that, don’t they?
When Cindy and I were emerging from college there were tremors in the community of churches of which we were a part. This continued through the 80’s until it became clear that what once was one way of being Baptist was going to become at least two ways of being Baptist. Choices were going to have to be made. Cindy and I believed strongly in the historical values of the priesthood of the believer, the autonomy of the local church, and the separation of church and state. Therefore, our choice was not difficult. We were going to be Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Baptists.
Our commitment to CBF has been a part of our financial stewardship from its beginning. When our church in Texas didn’t support CBF, we sent our checks directly to the national office. We’ve supported CBF on the state level and the global level. When it was time for me to go to seminary, we chose a CBF partner seminary. Cindy has served as Recorder for the CBF Arkansas Coordinating Council. I’ve been privileged to serve CBF on the Arkansas Coordinating Council and I now serve on the CBF Governing Board.
CBF matters to the Fullers because CBF matters to the Kingdom of God.
But how does CBF matter to the Kingdom of God? If you’re in Arkansas, you may know the stories about the incredible things that God does through Together for Hope in Helena, through Disaster Relief, through CBF Scholarships for developing young ministers. You know about the work that our CBF Arkansas leaders have done and are doing to bring Jesus to Arkansas and serve our like-minded churches.
And you likely know a lot of the stories about how CBF has served churches and the Kingdom literally around the world. CBF has an incredible 25-year history. God raised up a movement from the ashes of controversy. But I want to tell you a little different story. Not a story about the past, but a story about the future.
We live in an age where “top-down,” hierarchical structures are simply not diverse enough or fluid enough to adapt to the constant rate of change we see in the world today. CBF was formed by innovative, “out-of-the-box-thinking” people trying to create a new thing, notworking to try to preserve an established bureaucracy. God, in his wisdom, was doing something beyond what we knew a quarter of a century ago. It turns out that he was creating exactly the kind of agile and flexible organization that would be uniquely poised to address the way the world works today. The days of top-down institutions are numbered. CBF is already functioning as a “bottom-up”, grass roots organization.
Diana Butler Bass is a scholar of American Christianity. Recently I heard her lecture on trends in American Christianity and explaining what she perceived to be the theological underpinnings of those trends. And she made a really interesting statement to this group of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and other mainline folks. She talked about how our culture is leaving behind vertical structures of all kinds, even theological ones.
Many of us Baptist folks grew up in a world where everything came down from on high, from the holy city of Nashville. We sang the same hymns, we used the same Bible study literature, we carried out the same programs, we heard the same kinds of sermons, and we even had basically the same order of worship. While our churches claimed independence and autonomy, we all fell into line doing the same thing that everyone else was doing: what came from the powers that be. It was exclusively “top-down” thinking.
Toward the end of her lecture, Diana Butler Bass said that there was a 500-year old theological concept that churches were going to have to learn to embrace, a concept that would be a powerful way forward in our current culture: the priesthood of the believer.
I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Hey! I’m a Baptist! I can teach you how that works.”
There is a democratization going on in Christian life in America. Our culture is no longer interested in “top down” structures and institutions. Baptist theology has been mostly disinterested in those structures for 400 years. Could that help make us uniquely positioned at this juncture of American Christian history to be a means of bringing Jesus to a new and ever-changing culture? Could it be that Cooperative Baptists, because we were born 25 years ago questioning hierarchical thinking and structures, are particularly positioned to be that very means? I think the answer is, “yes.”
When I worked as a volunteer oncology chaplain a few years ago at Baptist Health Medical Center, I was sometimes asked about whether I had led anyone to have a deathbed confession. One of my chaplain friends had a great answer for that question that I’ve never forgotten. He said that he had witnessed several deathbed confessions. But while he didn’t feel called to elicit them, he did feel called to be the presence of Christ and to be available to receive them when they came.
I think the same thing about my ministry and the ministry of CBF. CBF is all about helping churches to be available to a hurting world that is changing constantly. And CBF is particularly positioned to be the presence of Christ for a nation that is seeing God in a whole new way.
That’s why CBF matters to me.
Charlie Fuller is a member of the CBF Governing Board and serves as the Minister for Congregational Life at Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ar.