By Paul Baxley
Thirty years ago this past week, more than 6,000 Baptists gathered in Atlanta and established the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The theme for that gathering was lifted from the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.”
Women and men came from congregations across the southern United States and beyond, drawn by deep conviction and held by a determination that even in a time of tremendous change and challenge, the Spirit was stirring them to begin a new Baptist community.
I have the privilege of knowing many ministers and lay people who were at that gathering, May 9-11, 1991. As I have said in other places, I was not present in that assembly because I was preparing for my final exams in my senior year at Wake Forest University. I knew of what was taking place in Atlanta and was inspired by it.
What took place there has changed my life, given me a Baptist community in which I could respond to God’s call, serve the church alongside gifted women and men whom God had called to the ministry, join in the sending of field personnel committed to the sharing of the whole Gospel with the whole person in the whole world in partnership with whole church.
In the larger Fellowship community, I found holy friends, inspiring mentors and over the years have also been graced by the challenge, courage and vision of younger Cooperative Baptists who are deeply invested in our life together for the sake of Christ’s mission and the essential ministry of our congregations.
As I look back on what took place in Atlanta in May 1991, I am struck by the tremendous faith and courage it took for those who came together to respond to God’s call to do a new thing. I am awed by the generosity of time, financial resources, prayers and conviction that were required not only to establish our Fellowship but also to sustain and grow our life together.
So on this Sunday after the 30th anniversary of the founding of our Fellowship, as a Baptist who was not present in that assembly, I want to offer my deep gratitude to all of you who were present. Your faithfulness, your courage, your generosity and your vision were used by the Holy Spirit to establish our Baptist community.
From that founding, witness to Christ has been offered all over the world, generations of women and men called by God have been formed for lives of ministry in collaboration with partner theological schools and our Fellowship has supported peer groups and other ministries to offer continued support to clergy across their careers.
Congregations have been strengthened through Fellowship-wide initiatives like “It’s Time,” and “Dawnings.” Twenty years ago, Cooperative Baptist began a sustained commitment to ministry in the poorest counties in rural America with the launch of Together for Hope, and that commitment is now stronger than ever. Nearly 800 CBF-endorsed chaplains and pastoral counselors currently serve in health care, the military, prisons, colleges/universities among other places. As Paul wrote the Philippians so long ago: “I thank my God every time I remember you…in all my prayers for all of you I always pray with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Philippians 1:3)
As we enter our fourth decade of mission and ministry, it is time for our Fellowship to not only recover, but even to strengthen the conviction, commitment and generosity of those who prayed, gave and dreamed that our community of Baptists might come to be.
As our congregations, field personnel, state and regional organizations, partner ministries, chaplains and pastoral counselors all prepare to serve Christ as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to recede in our part of the world while continuing to rage in others, it is unmistakably evident that we will need one another if we are to be truly faithful to Christ.
Our Fellowship, most generously defined, exists to be a community of gracious encouragement, faithful challenge and mutual learning so that, in relationship with each other, each of us and our congregations can be more faithful than we ever could be alone. At the same time, we have been called to a mission and witness in the world that none of us could have on our own, and we know that the Holy Spirit continues to give us more than we need to push one another forward in faith, hope, courage and love.
On this Sunday after the 30th anniversary of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, let us offer gratitude to God for the journey we have shared from the first day until now. Let us offer deep appreciation to those whose bold faith, resilient courage, convictional passion and persistent generosity were not only used by God to bring us to life but have also sustained us even to this day.
And, as followers of the Risen Jesus, let us be confident that the one who began this work among us will continue to work among us, bringing it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. Held by that resurrection confidence, let us be bold in our faithfulness, strengthened in our life together, as faithfully agile as the early church in Acts in our mission in rapidly changing times, and courageous in our witness.
The Spirit is stirring us toward greater faithfulness, growth, and the inclusion of Baptists from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and Baptists far beyond the southern origins of our Fellowship. The Spirit is calling us to be a community whose life together becomes a witness to the love, justice, hope and joy that is only possible in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Thirty years later it is still true. God is still seeking to do a new thing among us. We are called to join in for the strengthening of our congregations, a more ambitious pursuit of Christ’s mission, and the healing of this broken world. Let us mark this 30th anniversary with fervent prayers for one another and the cultivation of a resolve to serve Christ and one another with boldness, compassion, conviction and love.
Rev. Dr. Paul Baxley is Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.