Baptists across the country will be watching North Carolinians who gather in Greensboro, Jan. 23-24, for what could be the most important gathering since moderate Baptists met in 1990 to form what became the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
After years of electoral defeat at the annual state convention and watching the Southern Baptist Convention goosestep to the far right, moderates have a rock hard realism about the future and a swelling determination to go forward together into a constructive future. They have enough big steeple-churches and razor smart, baby-boomer leaders to do a dynamic new thing.
Consequently, the meeting, at First Baptist Church in Greensboro, is a high stakes event, one that necessitates widespread attendance. Every thoughtful North Carolina Baptist church staff member and lay person should attend. For information, call Jo Covert at FBC Greensboro, (336) 274-3286.
The future of Baptist fundamentalism is as clear as the future of Baptist moderates is murky. Nevertheless, the time for wallowing in the mire of non-commitment is over. The time for incisive thinking and decisive action for North Carolina moderates is here.
As moderate Baptists prepare for Greensboro on short notice, seven imperatives may help focus your thoughts:
First, give thanks for this time.
Thank God for being able to live in the one of the most exciting periods of Baptist history. You have the rare opportunity to reclaim the best of the Baptist tradition, while shaping a new Baptist witness. The old is fading; the new is beginning.
Second, recognize the interlocking complexity.
Know that the Baptist Center for Ethics is grateful for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. BSCNC provided BCE over $31,000 in funding in 2003. Jim Royston, the state executive director, reviews books on our Web site. Steve Sumerel on the convention staff writes a regular column about substance-abuse issues. Just as BCE expects to continue working with friendly elements within BSCNC, North Carolina moderates will find alliances within the state convention constellation. The Baptist world is messy and complicated.
Third, be discerning about genuine allies.
Recognize that some BSCNC staff members have an agenda contrary to your best interest. One of the most dangerous parts of any state convention bureaucracy is the hardwiring to the SBC's publishing arm, LifeWay Christian Resources. State conventions serve as a distribution system for LifeWay's material, which advances a fundamentalist worldview. State conventions train churches to use LifeWay's material and host conferences which highlight LifeWay leaders. About the only exception to this rule is the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
A constructive Baptist future depends on churches disengaging from LifeWay and engaging friendly material. ASAP. Other options for resources are available, including BCE's adult, online Sunday school material labeled Acacia Resources.
Fourth, be resilient on the journey.
Remember that when the Hebrew slaves left Egypt, they wandered into the future without a road map. Recall that some Hebrews wanted to return to the comfort of the known slavery instead of facing the unknown. Others grumbled the whole way. Still others engaged in sabotage.
Since North Carolina moderates do not have a road map, you face a famine of certainty about next steps and a banquet of choices. You're going to have to flexible, creative and patient with the anxious ones who hate change. Resiliency means walking bravely into the wilderness with the expectation that God is going to do something exciting.
Fifth, create an organizational network.
Create a network of organizational relationships for the 21st century. Creating a series of associations for local mission projects, educational events and fellowship makes sense. Interfacing with the Baptist World Alliance, American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. and Canadian Baptist Ministries would be wise. Forming partnerships with churches around the world would be a two-way blessing. Funding more deliberately the productive moderate organizations would strengthen the entire network.
Sixth, avoid the temptation of bureaucracy.
Don't build another Baptist bureaucracy. Please, please, resist this temptation. Bureaucracies always prioritize self-preservation over productivity, tradition over innovation, mediocrity over excellence. Moderates already have too much bureaucratic structure, when we really need more synergistic networks. Whatever you do in terms of structure, make a commitment to a lean organization.
Seventh, use technology.
Remember we live in a global society, where information flows 24/7. Yet we continue to communicate through an outdated approach. The primary Baptist communication vehicle is a weekly (or even less frequent) state newspaper, which carries news that is already old, with a declining circulation and aging readership. The future is the Internet. It's affordable, fast and global. Make e-newsletters and Web sites your primary ways of communicating.
North Carolina moderates have a bright, knotty pilgrimage into the wilderness of the future. Go bravely, and others will follow.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.