Editor’s Note: This is the fifteenth installment of a new series called “Illuminations,” which aims to highlight stories of cooperation, unity and diversity from across the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Illuminations is a communications initiative of the Illumination Project, a project of discernment and accompaniment involving CBF congregational leaders to illuminate the qualities that have built unity in CBF, and through discernment, identify intentional processes to maintain and grow unity through cooperation. Learn more about the Illumination Project at www.cbf.net/illuminationproject.
By Matt Cook
What happens when worlds collide?
We’ve been watching that up close and personal in recent days haven’t we? I’ve watched and I bet you have too as people with vastly different worldviews seemed incapable of speaking to each other without yelling at each other.
We’ve all had a ring side seat to the most combustible election in our lifetimes, and some political commentators are suggesting that we’ve only seen the beginning of the divisiveness, as now intra-party conflicts are likely to break out. Add to that racial divisions, economic divisions and cultural divisions and it’s not an overstatement to say we’re as divided as we’ve been at any time in the last 150 years in our nation. Diversity has led to divisiveness.
Sometimes I wonder if division is just the inevitable consequence of diversity. It’s certainly easier for us to get things done when you only live and work with people who think and act just like you.
But is it better?
A few years ago a study was conducted on the factors that led to quantum leaps in scientific knowledge. Some of the people and organizations who make massive donations to fund research wanted to understand the process a little better, so some of our nation’s leading scientists were interviewed so that the stories of how their breakthroughs came about could be documented. Strangely, the study concluded that many of the most significant breakthroughs occurred not in the laboratory but in two surprising places…the break room and the cafeteria.
It turns out that the biggest scientific breakthroughs tended to happen when a scientist from one discipline spent some time talking to a scientist from a completely different discipline. Apparently there was something critical and enriching about a geneticist getting a cup of coffee with a chemist or a geologist eating lunch with a botanist.
I heard about that study a few years ago when I had the privilege of taking part in a unique gathering of CBF pastors and theological educators funded by the Lilly Foundation. At the heart of our work was a framework that had already been developed by the folks at the Foundation. They’d been looking for a set of shared characteristics for sustained ministerial excellence. They found several but one has stuck with me, like a song I can’t get out of my head. They called it “border crossings.”
It seems that the ministers who demonstrate sustained excellence find ways to mine the insights of people whose life experiences are starkly different than their own — people in business or education, people of different faith backgrounds or none at all, people from other nations and cultures, etc. Ministers thrived when they cultivated their own ministerial imaginations by “crossing borders.”
Stop and think about that for a moment. The greatest scientific breakthroughs happen when people who are focusing on different things spend time together. Sustained ministerial excellence happens when ministers listen to and learn from people who are different.
While you’re thinking about those two pieces of information, here’s another. This past summer we had some friends in from out of town. One of the big tourist attractions in our area is the North Carolina Aquarium. They have all kinds of exhibits but the one that caught my attention last summer was the “Coastal Bio-Diversity” exhibit.
Our home sits within five miles of a place where three vastly different ecosystems come together — the Coastal Plains, the Cape Fear River, and the Atlantic Ocean. Each of the three ecosystems has its own set of species, but the place where these ecosystems overlap has given rise to a kind of fourth ecosystem and all the species that interact within that zone tend to thrive and flourish.
I’m pretty sure by now you can see the pattern fairly clearly can’t you?
Many of us grew up in day where there was far less diversity. Just take our religious context. There was a day and a time for many of us in Baptist life when we tended to act like one big ecosystem. Shaped by a common culture, and a shared set of methods and ideas, there was a level of continuity and homogeneity that was as comfortable as it was familiar. But today that has changed. The culture around us has fragmented and now we are beginning to mirror that diversity.
And let’s be honest, that diversity is challenging isn’t it? The differences of opinion that we maintain about human sexuality are an expression of that. But there are others and those differences create difficulties. Our differences slow things down. They force us to discuss when we’d rather decide. Our differences also require compromise. They force us to meet in the middle when we’d rather have decisions and institutions that fully reflect our values.
But let me ask you this one simple question…in this divisive cultural moment in which we find ourselves, do you think we’ll do a better job of pointing to God’s kingdom by focusing on our disagreements or by focusing on what we share? Don’t you think the world badly needs a group of people to model what it looks like to work together and be in relationship despite any differences they might have?
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is NOT one ecosystem. We are a place where ecosystems overlap. We’re a place where house churches and tall steeple churches, progressive Christians and traditional Christians, where the young and the old, the rich and the poor, black and white and every shade in between can come together to help build God’s kingdom. And I think we’re far more likely to achieve a breakthrough if we can find ways to do that together rather than in our separate laboratories.
For such a time as this, maybe we can be that witness for the world. That’s my prayer.
Matt Cook is a member of the CBF Governing Board and served as CBF Moderator from 2015-2016.
- “CBF and Alabama CBF: A deep and abiding unity” – Terri Byrd
- “Unity in our Diversity as Cooperative Baptists” – Ray Higgins
- “CBF and CBF Heartland: Creating Vibrant Connections” – Jeff Langford
- “The church’s role in sustaining beloved community” – Shane McNary
- “Embracing our part in being the Global Church” – Laura Foushee
- “Peer Learning Groups: Lessons in Listening and Finding New Stories” – Ruth Perkins Lee
- “Illuminating the Radical Center” – Lauren Hovis
- “CBF Fellows: Flourishing in Ministry” – Joshua Speight
- “Belonging in the world of both/and” – Griff Martin
- “United in Diversity: Our Baptist Witness Past and Present” – Bruce Gourley
- “Confessions of a Prideful, Prejudiced Egoist or How I Found My Way Home” – Alice Mull
- “Blessed be the ties that bind” – Emily Holladay
- “Straddling Two Worlds” – Shauw Chin Capps
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