[Editor’s Note: The text of this address may deviate from the actual remarks delivered June 19 at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly.]
In 1997, Alban Institute published a book entitled, Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church. I want to begin today with a quote from that book.
“Today is an in-between time for the church, between the past, when the church was firmly established in Christendom, and an unclear future for the church. Today is a time for redefinition; it is a time for the church to listen to its stories, to talk about its direction and identity, and to patiently discern the shape of its future life and ministry. Yet people are weary from church business as usual, from church gatherings that do not connect with the deeper meanings of their life and faith. The church must draw on its best traditions of faith and practice in order to find new ways of interacting and deciding. The process of prayerful spiritual discernment draws on the best of the church’s practices and offers a depth of faith and life uncommon in the church today.”
* This is what we are attempting this year as a fellowship of Baptists Christians and churches– to discern God’s leadership for the future.
* And we are attempting to do it together.
Earlier this year I heard Cliff Kirkpatrick, the stated clerk of the PCUSA, a Kenyan leader who said, “If you want to go someplace quickly, go by yourself. But if you want to go a long distance where it is difficult and where there will be many obstacles, go with others.”
* Our exercises today and tomorrow are aimed at an experience that is described in Acts 15.
* Acts 15 records that historic Jerusalem council where the early church faced a crisis of what to do with the Gentiles who had come to faith in Christ.
* I love that verse which says, “Then the Apostles and leaders with the whole church decided,” later they wrote a letter which said, “It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit…” That’s discernment together.
* Discernment together is more than voting on a strategic plan or projecting goals and action plans or trying to reach consensus.
* It is a spiritual exercise looking at the past, the present and the future.
Discerning the Past: The Providence and Presence of God
1. Perhaps a good place to start would be to remember, rehearse and recite what we have experienced and reflect on the providence and presence of God in our shared story.
* This morning Harriet did a remarkable job in reminding us of the past 17 years in CBF
* There are times when I can hardly believe what has happened and how God has blessed us.
* But let me suggest that discerning needs to reach beyond those 17 years.
2. The reason Cecil Sherman’s book is so important is not that it is just a personal memoir but it is an historical record that chronicles our beginning.
* It is, I believe, important for us to acknowledge our roots in order to give thanks to God that, “through many dangers, toils and snares, we have already come.” Some would like to ignore our heritage, others reject it, and still others would like to re-interpret or revise it to fit their own prejudices.
* I suggest we embrace it for what it was and is, a mixture of good and bad and then thank God for his providence and presence in it.
3. Why is this important?
* Because we cannot discern the present and future without reflecting on the past.
* There are some among us who would like to “reproduce the past, i.e. to make CBF into the image of a reorganized SBC.”
* There are others among us who would like to forget the past, i.e. to make CBF “exnihilo” as if it had no connection to history or heritage.
* There are some who would like CBF to have little or no organizational structure and simply collect and distribute money to institutions with no connectionalism.
* There are some who would like for CBF to become an all encompassing denomination giving identity to individuals and congregations.
* There are others whose vision for CBF is simply to be a missionary-sending society or to be subsumed into some other Baptist organization.
4. Whatever CBF becomes will be determined by Providence. But my understanding of Providence is that we are asked to make decisions that have real consequences.
* We help shape the future by our actions and choices.
* And those actions and choices should be informed by serious reflection on God’s providence and presence in our past.
Discerning the Present: The Mission of God
1. But spiritual discernment also requires us to reflect on the present and on God’s redemptive mission to this beautiful but broken world.
Just a few weeks ago, I received a letter from a young seminary professor in one of our partner schools:
“In 1993 I was at Southern Seminary about to enter the PhD program when Al Mohler was installed as president. My wife and I sat together that night and asked ourselves if we could still be Baptists in light of the pain that was going on. I went to bed that night…and I was unsure. I remember a dream I had, as though it were last night. I remember sitting at a kitchen table — the old metal kind, with a red metal top, and I remember someone sitting across from me and simply saying, “no need to worry, no need to run, there is room for you at another table.” And I remember the feeling of peace and joy I had sitting at that new table. When I found the CBF, I found that red metal table, and I found that peace and joy I remember sensing in that dream. That is why I am in CBF and why it matters so much to me. If there is anything I could ever do for the CBF, please know of my deep commitment to this group and my willingness to help move us all forward in Missio Dei.”
* That last phrase is what captured me, “the mission of God.”
* Gathered at this event are scores of institutions, ministries and organizations that have been born in the past 25 years. All see themselves as servants of God’s mission.
* CBF exists to further the mission of God.
2. But at the center of God’s mission in the world is the local church and historically the local church has been the center of Baptist life.
· In the Baptist vision, the local congregation is at the center, not the convention, the association, the fellowship or the institution but the local church. · And though this has always been our rhetoric, I can remember a day when it was not so. · I can remember a day when most saw the local church as existing to serve the denomination or institution. · But deep down we know that institutions exist to serve and extend the local church because Christ founded the church.
3. I stand before you today to say that there are churches across this country and around the world who are discerning God’s mission in the world and discovering their participation in it.
* They are what I call missional churches, i.e., they are defining their identity not by their style of worship, their programs, their buildings, their denominational affiliation, but by their participation in the mission of God.
* These churches have a vision to be the presence of Christ to one another and to their community and to the uttermost parts of the earth.
* These churches have a passion, both for the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.
4. And I stand before you today humbly and gratefully to say that CBF is being used by the Spirit to help these churches be captured by that vision and compelled by that passion.
* CBF is coming along side these missional congregations to serve them, to connect them with other churches and to extend their ministry among the most neglected.
* This year we will give more than $700,000 in grants to churches that have completed the It’s Time study and are initiating transformational ministry within their community.
* This year we will appoint 17 new field personnel, missionaries, that are going out from your churches to serve in the most difficult and dangerous places in the world.
* This year we will complete our sixth year in our 20 year commitment to the 20 poorest counties in America involving individuals from your churches in transformational community development.
* This year we have adopted the Millennium Development Goals as a framework to address global poverty and have become a part of the Micah Challenge to help churches engage in the struggle for global justice.
* This year we have begun a fund for Micro Enterprise Lending to poor people, a fund that will attract the endowment dollars from institutions and churches.
* All of this and much more is to come alongside local churches to extend God’s mission in the world.
5. And God’s mission continues. As long as there is one lost soul, as long as there is one wayward prodigal, as long as there is one hungry child, as long as there is injustice and inequality, God’s mission continues.
It is fitting that we are meeting this year in Memphis, Tennessee where 40 years ago, Martin Luther King was assassinated.
* I remember 1968 very well. In fact it was a pivotal year for me.
* The death of Dr. King was the event that awakened my social conscience.
* I remember his funeral as if it were yesterday and remember realizing (for the first time) that I bore responsibility for the racial and economic injustice in this nation.
* Yet in the past 40 years the disparity between rich and poor has widened and the gap between rich and poor nations has increased.
* Extreme global poverty is a scandal. Domestic poverty in this nation, the richest nation in the history of the world, is a shame and a tragedy. So the mission of God continues.
6. Also there are so many who do not know of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ, who do not confess Jesus as Lord and who do not believe that God raised him from the dead.
Last fall I spent several days with Sam Bandela in India. We visited villages ravaged by the tsunami, giving away sewing machines to young girls who had completed training. After one graduation ceremony, a young man stood before me (probably about 20 years old). His mother was standing beside him and she said, “My husband was killed in the tsunami and my son is crippled with polio and mute. Would you pray for my son?” I knew what she wanted me to do, but I said to her straightforwardly, “I don’t have the power to heal your son but I do have a message of good news to you.” So I began to share the Jesus story with him. I kept asking him, “do you understand?” And he nodded his head. Finally my interpreter interrupted me to say, “He understands.” We prayed together and he walked away into his village.
Earlier this year I was leading a prayer retreat and was making the point that our experience and practice of prayer is tied to our understanding of God. I asked the question, “Who has influenced your understanding of God?” One middle-aged woman responded with tears in her eyes, “When I was a young girl, I had the pastor who told me I was going to hell, ever since then I have had difficulty praying.”
7. As long as there is one person who does not know God’s love revealed in Christ the mission continues. The mission continues until God has brought all things in heaven and earth together under one Lord, even our Christ.
* The mission continues until the lion lies down by the lamb.
* The mission continues until the glory of God covers this earth like the waters that cover the sea.
* The mission continues until the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.
* God’s mission continues to this very moment.
Discerning the Future: God’s Abiding Promises
1. Finally, I believe we should discern together as we reflect on the future and God’s abiding promises.
I confess to you that I have little confidence in predictions and prognostications that people offer about the future. Whether they be secular, scientific, spiritual or sociological.
* What I’ve experienced so far is that a great deal of our lives is determined by what happens to us that we had absolutely no idea was going to happen.
* We are then shaped by how we respond to those events and circumstances, the surprises and serendipities, the crises and chaos, the pain and pleasure, the disruptions and developments that we simply didn’t know were coming.
2. But whatever comes, God’s promises are abiding. They are the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
* This means that in an ever changing world, we can anchor ourselves in those promises.
* In uncertain times, we can face the future with confidence and hope.
* We don’t need to be afraid of the future or of failure.
* We don’t need to be overwhelmed by the obstacles in front of us.
* We don’t need to be overcome by the odds against us.
* We don’t need to be controlled by the shadow side of our nature, our inward demons or our false self.
3. Because the one who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world.
* Because God is able to do exceeding abundantly of all that we ask or think.
* Because Christ, indeed, has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.
* Because God’s grace is sufficient and His power is made perfect in our weakness.
* Because God is able to make all grace abound toward us.
4. These promises center us, secure us, anchor us, strengthen us and preserve us.
* So as we discern together let us reflect on these promises, hold to these promises and let them hold to us.
* One particular promise has come to my mind of late. 1 Corinthians 13:13, “And now abides faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love.” (Say this with me)
5. I would like for this verse to center us and guide us in the discerning process. In the changing world and in uncertain times this is a place where we can find both stability and strength.
* Faith connects us to a God we cannot see but who is nearer to us than the breath we breathe.
* Hope connects us to a future that is secured in the grace and goodness of this God.
* Love connect us to one another and creates community.
* These three abide, i.e., they remain, they last.
* These virtues bind us together in ways that no creed or organization can.
* We trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
* We wait upon this God in anticipation.
* We love this God and we love one another because God loves us all.
* Other gifts and experiences may fade or pass away, but these remain.
6. And of these three virtues, love is the greatest because love best defines the nature and character of the God revealed and incarnated in Jesus Christ.
* Within the Holy Trinity there is a love and communion that creates and redeems.
* God creates out of love and God redeems out of love.
* We love because God first loves.
* Love fulfills the law. Love reflects the life of Christ. Love is the evidence of community and love creates community.
* And love last, it remains, it abides. It is forever because God is forever.
1. I owe so much of my spiritual formation to this Fellowship.
* I can honestly say that I am grateful to God for all the pain and struggle that created this Fellowship and for the way God has created a new witness within the Baptist family.
* We are surely not perfect and in many ways we are still forming and becoming the organization, the ministry, the movement, the Fellowship that God wants us to become.
2. In historical perspective we are young and in a global perspective we are small.
* But we are significant and strategic within the Baptist family and within the Body of Christ.
* Our voice is important, our cooperative mission is vital.
* The congregations and institutions that partner within this Fellowship have great influence and impact in the world.
* And our future is as bright as the promises of God and our willingness to believe those promises and act upon them.