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July 2, 2007 | bpfna
The American Baptist Churches USA and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship held their first national joint worship service -- a long-awaited coming together of Baptists whose shared commitment to missions and Baptist principles once was shattered by slavery.
“This is an awesome God moment,” ABC General Secretary Roy Medley told the crowd of almost 4,000 participants, divided almost evenly between representatives of both groups.
“It gladdens the heart of God. It makes God happy to see us working together. … What an awesome moment. It gladdens our hearts too.”
The service in Washington's convention center marked the end of the Fellowship’s annual general assembly and the beginning of ABC’s 100th anniversary celebration. Program organizers noted the joint ABC/Fellowship session had been five years in planning. Actually, it was 162 years in the making.
Baptists in the United States first united to support missions in 1814, but they divided acrimoniously in 1845. Baptists in the North, who later reorganized as the American Baptist Churches in 1907, opposed slavery. The Southern Baptist Convention split from them because of their support for slavery. The Fellowship formed out of the SBC in 1991 after more than a decade of conflict with fundamentalists. Although some Fellowship churches still relate to the SBC and some do not, almost all of them trace their roots to the Southern convention.
The strong presence of the Washington-based Progressive National Baptist Convention -- one of four historic African-American Baptist groups -- underscored the racial nature of the old division. But the Progressive National Baptists’ presence also projected an even larger reunion. The Fellowship, American Baptists and Progressive National Baptists are among the key groups promoting a “celebration” of the New Baptist Covenant, which will be held in Atlanta Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2008.
The New Baptist Covenant convocation involves about 40 groups that comprise 20 million Baptists in America. It intentionally seeks to bridge the racial divide created by slavery. The rallying point is Baptists’ historic commitment to minister to those Jesus said he came to serve -- the poorest and most helpless people.
The June 29 worship service represented the breadth of Fellowship and American Baptist diversity through music -- from traditional hymns and newer praise choruses sung by the audience to a rousing gospel solo belted by Cheri Coleman, folk music by Kate Campbell, and a raucous Caribbean beat blasted by the Haitian Alliance Choir.
Participants also keyed on their common focus on missions. Midway through the worship service, they celebrated the appointment of two couples that will serve under joint appointment of the ABC and Fellowship.
Duane and Marcia Binkley are former ABC missionaries among the Karen people group in Thailand. During their new term, they will minister to Karen people both in Thailand and in the United States.
Nancy and Steve James previously served as medical missionaries in Haiti and now are members of a Fellowship church in North Carolina. The Fellowship is helping the ABC send them back to Haiti.
“God draws us together,” observed Rob Nash, the Fellowship’s global missions coordinator.
“God does surprise and bless us,” added Reid Trulson, mission administration team leader for the American Baptists.
An extended discussion of the common characteristics and collaboration between the American Baptist, Fellowship and Progressive National Baptist groups provided a focal point for the worship service.
Both Daniel Vestal, the Fellowship’s coordinator, and the ABC’s Medley agreed that while each tradition brings unique gifts to the table, combined efforts have made their ministries more effective.
“We believe God calls us to live and work together as one,” Medley said.
“My prayer is that we get to know each other,” Vestal added. “What you see on this stage is a result of us getting to know each other and learning to love each other.”
Joining Vestal and Medley was Tyrone Pitts, general secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
All three groups have helped form Baptist identity in the United States, said Nancy Morrow, a Connecticut pastor who moderated the dialogue. “What are the key contributions [of each group] to Baptist work and community?” she asked.
“God has blessed us with diversity in the ABC,” said Medley, although he added to laughter, “We don’t always know what to do with it.” But diversity “is a sign of the way God brings us together.”
Medley also noted that not long after the Northern Baptist Convention -- predecessor to the ABC -- was chartered in 1907, some church leaders began a push to formulate a creed. “American Baptists pushed back strongly and said our only creed is the New Testament,” he reported. That has saved us through the years.”
Baptists’ commitment to religious freedom sparked the Fellowship’s creation and still energizes it, Vestal stressed.
“The CBF’s very existence is a testimony to the fight for and belief in freedom,” he said. “Fundamentalism is really not so much a theological perspective as much as an attitude -- my way or the highway. The CBF exists in the belief that every individual is free in Christ … . So the CBF as a new Baptist body is a kind of celebration of freedom.”
Pitts highlighted Progressive Baptists’ historic commitment to social justice, freedom and human rights. “We were the denominational home of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement,” he said. “We have brought these issues to the attention of the nation.”
The Fellowship and the ABC are collaborating in multiple ways, Vestal said. He cited the partnership between the Fellowship’s Church Benefits Board and the ABC’s Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board; Central Baptist Theological Seminary in suburban Kansas City; the Green Lakes (Wisc.) Conference Center; and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
In addition, “on a grass-roots level, there are five churches that have been started by both the CBF and the ABC,” Vestal said. He also pointed to the work of Fellowship missionaries in Los Angeles, who have been provided office space by American Baptists; a joint worship session by American and Fellowship Baptists in New Hampshire and Vermont; and a $5,000 contribution made by the ABC’s National Ministries to Fellowship relief work following Hurricane Katrina.
“And just today, I’ve heard that a bus came to this meeting from Missouri, carrying both American and Cooperative Baptists,” he added.
Each leader said relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina deepened their commitment to a common Baptist witness. “We lost 27 churches in the hurricane,” said Pitts. “When [Progressive Baptist volunteers] got down there, we met representatives of the CBF and the ABC. Together we began to build families, to build community. We did more together than we ever could have done alone.”
Vestal said one of his “greatest memories” after Katrina was sitting at a table with representatives of all three groups to discuss relationships. “We found we have a lot more in common than we have that divides us,” he recalled.
Local churches are key to the success of a combined Baptist witness, said all three executives.
“The 19th century was the century of the Baptist missionary society,” Vestal said, quoting the Fellowship’s Nash. “The 20th century was the century of the Baptist denomination. But the 21st century will be the century of the local church. The future of the church in North America will be determined by those churches that discern God’s mission in the world and discover their participation in that mission.”
Pitts said he hopes local churches will be guided by Jesus’ injunction to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom to the prisoners and release the oppressed. “Our program is to help our local churches to be more effective in carrying out this good news,” he said. “My hope is that all of us denominational leaders would come together and deal with the issue of how to empower churches’ mission and ministry in this new paradigm of the 21st century.”
The Fellowship formally thanked the ABC for the support of its Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board, which has helped the Fellowship's Church Benefits Board provide insurance and annuity services to its ministers and employees.
The ABC also presented its first Religious Freedom Award to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. The Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee represents 14 Baptist bodies, championing efforts to preserve religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
“We are honored, heartened and humbled by this award,” BJC Executive Director Brent Walker said. “Soul freedom ripens into the ethical imperative of religious liberty for all.”
As the worship moved to a conclusion, the American Baptists and Fellowship Baptists graphically demonstrated their common faith by celebrating communion together.
“We come to the table as a community of believers,” Vestal told them.