When I was a Baptist campus minister, I often attended meetings where speakers said, “Missions is what holds Southern Baptists together.”
Missions was proclaimed as the primary motivator for working together, and some would even proclaim that Southern Baptist missions was “God’s Last and Only Hope” (the title of a book by Bill Leonard) to “save the world.”
Historically, missions has been a great motivator for Baptists. The Southern Baptist Convention was born out of disagreement over who could be a denominationally supported missionary; missions was more important than one’s views on owning slaves.
“Save the missionaries” was the rallying call for the creation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
In churches where people disagree about everything from the style of worship to the color of the carpet, missions support has been a key unifying factor.
I am not sure this is still the case. When church members have the freedom to choose where their mission dollars will go, the choice may tend to divide rather than unite.
Which group will provide our mission speakers? Which mission curriculum will we use? Who will our church partner with to do mission trips?
In recent years, churches that once gave a tenth of their budgets to cooperative mission endeavors have both cut that amount and decided to use mission dollars for projects that the church controls.
Members have taken note and exercise more control over where their contributions go, often supporting causes with no denominational affiliation.
So if missions no longer motivates us to work together, what does? Although we say that Baptists agree on soul competency, priesthood of all believers, separation of church and state, and Bible freedom, I think we all know this depends on which Baptist you happen to be talking to at the moment.
As one friend commented recently: “It seems to me that the challenge is that what identifies us as Baptists … doesn’t do a lot for others. Most of those we would like to reach could care less about these [things].”
Orthodoxy – right belief – no longer seems to be a motivator.
So what is the alternative? Perhaps it is orthopraxy – right practice.
On my best days, I think that Robert Parham of EthicsDaily.com may have the best idea, calling together “goodwill Baptists” who can unite around Luke 4:18-21:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
In other words, perhaps we can be motivated to work together by the mission that Jesus claimed for himself and, by implication, his church.
In using this passage in connection with the New Baptist Covenant meetings, leaders were trying to find common ground for all Baptists, but these words are appropriate not just for Baptists but for all Christians.
And that may not be a bad thing.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.