Four years ago, I accepted a position as administrator of a Christian school in Pennsylvania. I had worked in the public education system before, but all of the vocational Christian ministry I had done prior to this position had been connected to Southern Baptist churches. This would be the first time I’d be involved in a ministry that wasn’t. And on top of that, finding a Southern Baptist church to join turned out to be more difficult than we’d thought. We wound up joining a church of another denomination for the first time. It wasn’t so much that we left the SBC by choice or design, that just turned out to be the way things worked out, though we are confident it was what God wanted. We have not seen any real doctrinal difference between the SBC churches we’ve belonged to, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance church we now attend. The doctrinal statement is kept simple, and as a result, the churches are theologically conservative.
The differences we have observed were surprising, especially to me. After seven years in Baptist higher education, both college and seminary, I more or less accepted the assumption that Southern Baptists are unsurpassed in missions mindedness. But I’ve learned a lot of things on this side of the crossed denominational line. The CMA is much less of a denomination, and much more of a missions sending agency. The bulk of churches and members affiliated with it are overseas. The American churches, with a membership of around half a million, represent only about 10% of the worldwide membership. Per capita, the CMA sends about five times more missionaries overseas than the SBC does, and the percentage of church gifts that go to international missions is far higher than it is in the typical SBC church.
Another major difference is the lack of denominational bureaucracy. There is no discernible squabble or push by any particular group to put certain prominent people in certain prestigious positions. There aren’t any of those, really. Leadership in the CMA requires hands on work, aimed at the missionary effort. There is a denominational structure that involves district superintendents, overseeing the ministry requirements for pastors and church staff, but it is not as extensive as most connectional denominations, and it also requires hands on work, rather than pure administrative duties. There’s no jockeying for position, and as a result, the efficiency level of the missions effort is high. That’s a stark contrast to the Southern Baptist layer of associational missions, state conventions and the SBC agencies and institutions itself. My friend Bob Cleveland notes that the SBC thinks it is taking action and making progress when they “vote on things.”
The CMA in the United States is one of very few denominations or church groups that is showing growth in membership. They don’t depend on the conversion of church member’s children to boost their baptism numbers. Their ethnic membership is not exclusively collected in churches with ethnic labels, but exists in a lot of blended, multi-ethnic, multi-racial churches. There are few “mega” churches, because the mission mindedness leads congregations to plant new churches when they reach a certain size. Our church of 120 in attendance on any given Sunday plans to start a new church when attendance begins to average 200. Since newer, smaller churches tend to reach more people by conversion, most baptisms in CMA congregations reflect evangelistic outreach.
On the eve of a convention meeting in Baltimore, with declining baptisms and Cooperative Program giving, there are some things here that Southern Baptists might just want to think about. The kind of change needed to bring about the revival that so many Southern Baptists seem to long to experience, isn’t going to occur because the convention votes on it. There are problems at the very core of the denomination’s structure and in its leadership that have shifted the focus to who’s in charge.
It would be very easy to just move forward, be grateful for what I received from my spiritual upbringing among Southern Baptists, and leave all of the bickering and fussing behind. But away from the denominational core, so many people are doing real ministry, and it just keeps calling me back. From a career perspective, my life seems to be settled until I retire. But I’ve been excited about seeing the work that Southern Baptists are doing in this Northeastern US metro area and city. Churches are small, but they’re growing. Most of the membership is ethnic of some sort. Evangelism is happening, and the bureaucracy is far, far away. Baptist work thrives when missions is at its core, and the bureaucratic fussing is far, far away.