By Shannon Baker
DALLAS— “Cooperation is one thing where there’s a good amount of Southern Baptist cultural DNA,” said Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, stressing the value and importance of cooperating together to advance the Gospel at a CP Stage panel discussion on June 12 during the SBC annual meeting in Dallas.
“But cooperation is another thing when you’re in an area where you feel out of the traditional Bible Belt, where you clearly feel more like a 1 Peter [2:9] people,” he said, noting when he was in the Kentucky Baptist Convention as teaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church, there were 2,400 Southern Baptist churches.
“Twenty-five percent of the population of Kentucky were Kentucky Baptists!” he said. But in Maryland/Delaware, “a church in this county really appreciates being able to fellowship with a church in this county,” where there aren’t as many Southern Baptists.
“I don’t have to encourage pastors long because they themselves realize the need for fellowship with others,” he said, emphasizing the need for relationships in much smaller spaces with large, secular influences in the culture.
Since he’s been at the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, Smith said, almost monthly, he has been able to meet with Independent Baptist pastors who “realize the challenge of being out there by [themselves] trying to do some of the things that they do.”
For example, if they’re interested in overseas missions, Smith said he talks to them about the missionary investment they’re making, which opens the conversation toward the Cooperative Program.
“I lay out the things of our mission boards and seminary and state convention life and all that, and they see that the same missionary investment is … expanded in the breadth of what they are able to do with that ministry investment,” Smith told Edgar Aponte, vice president of mobilization for the International Mission Board, who moderated the 20-minute discussion.
Panelist Keith Whitfield said, “When you think about the task that we’re given as individuals and as churches, it’s bigger than we can accomplish. So built into the Great Commission itself is the requirement that we would cooperate with one another in order to accomplish it.”
Whitfield is associate professor of theology, dean of graduate studies, and vice president for academic administration at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Another panelist, Stephen Rummage, pastor of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla., and current president of our Florida Baptist Convention, said, “I think sometimes it’s easy for us to start thinking that cooperation is simply a matter of us pooling our money together and certainly that’s an important component. I wouldn’t diminish that.”
But Rummage, outgoing chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, stressed the importance of churches connecting with churches.
“I had a friend who said something to me that I really liked. He said our mission together flows from our fellowship together and because we have a relationship with one another as churches. We want to reach the world with the Gospel. We know we can’t do it alone.”
Aponte agreed, noting the Great Commission was the “sacred effort” and the reason Southern Baptists came together in 1845. “Beginning in 1925, the Cooperative Program is the vehicle that God has used for Southern Baptists to come together and take the Gospel to the nations,” he emphasized.
Aponte asked Smith to share ways he has shepherded congregations to understand the importance of cooperation.
Referring to the “higher capacity” gained from cooperation, Smith said the topic was part of the new members’ process at Highview, where he talked about who the church was theologically, denominationally and missiologically.
And then he taught them history.
“I remind people that Baptists have felt this way in America since 1814… even before there was a Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists have always felt like we can get the greatest effectiveness and efficiency when we do these things together, so I’ll share the that extra historical component,” Smith added.
Aponte, pointing to 2 Corinthians 8 as a biblical basis for cooperation, noted how the apostle Paul told the Corinthian Christians how the Macedonian believers gave.
“They were struggling, yet they gave to help and serve the saints in Jerusalem. He’s encouraging them [with] the idea of cooperation, churches coming together to serve the larger church and those who have not heard the Gospel,” Aponte said.
Rummage said he’s found that when people are involved in doing missions together, whether that’s on the foreign field or in North America, that it gives them the opportunity many times to work with other churches, North American Mission Board church planters, and IMB personnel on the field.
“Suddenly this becomes real to them,” he said.
But Whitfield, expressing concern that the convention sometimes doesn’t feel very relational, said, “While we’re in autonomous local churches, for us to cooperate, it means that we defer our preferences to work with other people. And we only do that when we have relationships with them, and we see that the vision and what we can accomplish together is worth deferring our preferences for.”
How do we foster that relational aspect?
One way is to honor the gifts of others, Smith said. For example, he shared how he taught the Highview members that he couldn’t pastor them and study highly complex issues at the same time. So they, instead, benefit from the work of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“I’m not an attorney, and they’re very few attorneys in our church. So acknowledging and benefiting and letting our people know when we get those other resources” is helpful, he said.
He also pointed to the ability to directly video conference with IMB missionaries, who now “don’t have to seem so far away.”
But he cautioned, “We are convention of churches, not a convention of pastors. And so we need to make sure that members of our churches understand the benefits.”
The panel agreed that younger leaders also need to understand the benefits.
Whitfield said he thought younger pastors recognize their need for relationships, but they need help in understanding the Cooperative Program is worth the investment. He suggested eliminating roadblocks and having more open doors for them “to have a voice and to contribute” within the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Then they will see other leaders around them and see what they’re doing and how they are impacting the Kingdom and the ethics that they’re doing it with, and it inspires them,” Whitfield added.
Smith agreed, “Biblically, younger brothers and older brothers must value the Moses/Joshua-type relationships and the Paul/Timothy/Titus-type relationships. Methodologically, state conventions have to be very intentional about getting younger Baptists in their state involved at committee- and board-type levels within the state because usually when somebody serves at a national level, they’ve served in their state convention [first] and those Committee on Nominations or Committee on Committees folks recommend them at the national level.”
Whitfield agreed, “The thing that kills cooperation is when leaders hold on to power and influence. The thing that gives cooperation life is when leaders free up other people to be able to use their gifts and free up other people to use their influence into the work.”
Rummage added, “I would also say, if we have a common mission—and that is the Great Commission—and if we have a fellowship together as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, then what’s going to flow out of that is cooperation together in that mission.”
View full video of the full panel discussion below: