Reclaiming and Re-Forming Baptist Identity

By Terry Maples, CBFVA Field Coordinator

Because I invested 27 years of my life in congregational education, I was extremely pleased with the phrases coming out of CBF’s 2015 branding campaign:  forming together and partnering to renew God’s world. I believe the marketing firm that guided the branding process listened well and captured our essence. When properly understood, these phrases offer a compelling vision for CBF’s future.

Gene Wilder and I co-authored the book Reclaiming and Re-Forming Baptist Identity. Over the course of two years I wrote (and re-wrote) my portion of the book unpacking CBF’s formation, 25-year journey, and vision for the future. Why did I spend so much time on a book like this? Two related convictions motivated me: 1) I love the local church and am committed to helping congregations become “tethered” to Jesus, more faithful, and spiritually vibrant; and 2) I love Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and my life wish is for her to thrive and have incredible impact in the U.S. and around the world.

One other motivating force also comes to mind. In my travels and interactions, I kept running into church members who could not articulate the difference between the Southern Baptist Convention and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The educator inside me screamed, “How can congregations make informed decisions about partners if they don’t know the differences?” Effective education is essential to good decision-making. Gene Wilder’s portion of the book is so important because he provides excellent descriptions of the streams from which Baptists come. Gene succinctly outlines the issues at play in the Southern Baptist Convention that led free and faithful Baptists to form CBF. Many have commented on how helpful the section was for them that articulated the values and convictions SBC abandoned but CBF held dear.

An important reason for writing the book was to awaken consciousness about the necessity of staying pliable and responsive to the movement of God’s Spirit. Local churches are experiencing major upheaval, many congregations are declining in membership, other faith communities struggle with the decision of whether or not to close. I believe God is using this time of dis-ease to help the Church get clear about priorities and say YES to new ways of being and doing church. I predict congregations that remain institutionalized or content with the status quo will not survive. That’s why the time is right for re-formation that gives proper place to “forming faith in Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.” Old methodologies won’t get the job done. Preserving old programs that worked in the past but are no longer effective will not do. We need new “wineskins” to hold this new thing God is doing among us!

Titling the book Reclaiming and Re-forming Baptist Identity didn’t happen until near the end of the writing process. I love the word “reclaiming.” Because the name Baptist has taken hits and fallen out of favor in recent years and many congregations have removed the moniker, I believed we needed to re-introduce Baptist heritage and re-educate regarding its richness, especially Baptist commitment to the four fragile freedoms so clearly articulated by Walter Shurden. Much in our Baptist DNA needs to be reclaimed, embraced, and celebrated.

If we’re honest, we admit the Baptist brand of Christianity needs re-formation. We inherited practices and patterns of being and doing church that reflect the culture we live in more than the One we seek to follow. The Church will be re-formed with or without our involvement! Faithful individuals and congregations who desire to be part of God’s work in the world must consent to the shaping Force (God). We need a new scorecard to define faithfulness—one no longer held hostage to earlier understandings about buildings, bucks, and bodies. I feel certain this new reformation will yield congregations and ministries that look quite different from the ones we know and love today. God is always doing a new thing!

A good guiding principle in preparing the book was “begin with the end in mind.” Since the ultimate goal of the book was to unpack CBF’s big idea (forming together), the whole work is structured around the concept of formation. Questions like these shaped the book’s direction:

  • What happened in the Southern Baptist Convention to prompt the formation of CBF? What values and convictions were being jettisoned during the takeover?
  • What words and images captured the imagination of those who birthed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship? What shaped and formed the identity of CBF over 25 years?
  • How was CBF reshaped and re-formed following the report of the 2012 Task Force? How was this work the launch pad for additional re-forming work within the Fellowship?
  • How did the unique gifts of CBF’s three executive coordinators shape and form the Fellowship?
  • What does it mean to form faith in the person of Jesus for the sake of the world?
  • How is faith formed in the context of Christian community?
  • What is God up to in the world, and how does CBF partner with others to renew God’s world?

I believe my goals for the book are realistic. My hope and prayer throughout the writing process was for Spirit to use the book to awaken consciousness about spiritual lethargy in our congregations, to cultivate capacity to say YES to the new and innovative ways God desires to shape and form Christ-followers, to create a new congregational scorecard to define faithfulness, and to generate substantive conversations about the nature of faith we seek to form.

I invite you, congregational leaders, to grapple with important questions raised in the book; to encourage honest dialogue about current practices and teachings (and whether or not they lead to transformation); to honestly reflect on how your congregation is and is not dependent upon Jesus (his life, ministry, and teachings); to stop simply “teaching lessons” on Sunday mornings and take seriously the call to form faith that leads to transformation; to structure new practices that nurture deeper faith; and to consent to God’s shaping forces.

Reclaiming and Re-forming Baptist Identity’s potential for impacting a congregation would happen best through small group study where meaningful conversation eventually influences an entire faith community. I am happy to dialogue with congregational leaders or come to your church to assist your “forming together” efforts!