Surfing a wave looks so easy: At the right moment the surfer paddles like crazy, then quickly jumps up on the surf board, maneuvering into the curve of a breaking wave and gently balancing herself between the forces of gravity and the thrust of a mountain of water.

Surfing can be a thing of rare beauty.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) needs to “catch a wave,” a cultural wave.

We Baptists have been really good wave-riders. We did it very successfully in the 20th century; in fact, it was so easy most of us did not know we were riding a cultural wave.

The Commission on Efficiency presented its report in 1914 to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) recommending structural changes to reshape denominational life in keeping with the Industrial Age. The methodologies that made the industrial assembly line work so well were applied to Baptist life.

Thus, the SBC Executive Committee and the Cooperative Program were created; the committee managed the denomination, and the unified budget system paid for it. Without apology, Baptists in the early 20th century paddled hard and caught a cultural wave; and indeed, it was a thing of rare beauty.

We CBFers seem to be having trouble catching a wave. This is not to say things are going badly; we can paddle with the best of them. There are signs of vitality all over CBF land.

In my little part of the world, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond is doing its essential work well. We have 598 graduates sprinkled around the globe and many more on the way. While most mainline seminaries are experiencing declining enrollment, we are actually growing, mostly because we are focusing sharply on the needs of congregations.

When the national economy improves and we can get a little wind beneath our wings, we will soar. Our seminary’s story is mirrored among many CBF partner organizations. Even so, the movement has yet to catch a wave.

A friend sent me a link to an article that included a comparison of the last two times CBF met in Charlotte, N.C. In 2003 attendance at the General Assembly was 4,357; in 2010 it was about 2,400. If you do the math, that is a decline of 44.92 percent.

Some of this decline is attributable to the national economy, but not all of it. Even the most enthusiastic supporter of CBF will surely admit, “OK, maybe we can do things a little better.” From my perspective it simply shows we are paddling around in deep water trying to catch a wave.

Thank goodness for the “Good News” Task Force appointed at the 2010 General Assembly in Charlotte. Commissioned to examine the structure of CBF, the task force is going to help us catch a wave. I label it the “Good News” Task Force because its appointment is good news for all who believe in the cause. The task force deserves our support and prayers.

Of course, the task force will face substantial resistance; change is never easy, and the deeper the change the greater the resistance. On the one hand the task is easy: just help CBF catch a wave. On the other hand, catching the dominant cultural wave of the 21st century will require foundational changes in CBF’s structure.

CBF was created with a successful 20th-century model in mind: the old SBC. That is all we knew 20 years ago. The 21st century requires a decentralized model for denominational life: resources “pushed” toward ministry action (where water hits the wheel); churches and partners resourcing each other, only doing for churches what they cannot do for themselves; and a sharp focus on values (organizationally, the things we are willing to die for).

To catch a wave, our centralized system has to morph into a decentralized system – ASAP.

In August 1990, I was a party crasher along with about 2,800 other people. We heard there was a consultation in Atlanta and we showed up. It was a day of enormous creative energy, passionate commitment and gutsy will.

All we have to do is recapture a bit of that old magic and apply it to the 21st century. Then, and only then, we will stop paddling and catch a wave.

Ron Crawford is president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. This column first appeared on his blog.

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