Life in the “Big Tent”

At Richmond’s First Baptist Church we tithe by giving at least 10% of our total budget to missions.  The only question, then, is which missions to support?

It used to be so easy. 

We were Southern Baptists, and we gave our money through the Cooperative Program to support “our” missionaries at home and abroad.  But in 1979 a movement began which was described by some as a “conservative resurgence” within the denomination but by others as “the fundamentalist takeover” of the SBC.  By 1990 moderate Baptists had given up the fight, and in 1991 constituted the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which they described as “a new way of being Baptist.”  CBF began to send its own missionaries, and churches that had never had to ask the question before now wondered: “Which missionaries do we support?”  The split between moderates and conservatives in the SBC had divided not only the denomination, but also its churches.

Richmond’s First Baptist Church refused to be divided. 

Instead it created giving options for its members.  Those who remained loyal to the Southern Baptist Convention and its missionaries could simply check the SBC box on their pledge cards or offering envelopes and rest assured that their missions dollars would go that way.  Those who were excited about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and a new way of being Baptist could check the CBF box and know that their mission dollars were going to support that new venture.  Those who didn’t have strong feelings one way or another, or who wanted to support both mission causes, could give through the “First Baptist Plan,” knowing their mission dollars would be divided among the SBC and the CBF.

It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it did allow people with different denominational loyalties and leanings to stay in the same church.  The tent was big enough for everyone.

At the deacons’ meeting on Tuesday night we discussed some proposed changes in our giving plans and things got a little uncomfortable.  There was some pushing and shoving going on inside the big tent as everybody tried to make sure there was room enough for them and their views.  When it was my turn to offer some closing thoughts I said (although I hadn’t really planned on making a speech), “I am privileged to be the pastor of a church where some members don’t want to give one thin dime to the SBC, and where other members don’t want to give one thin dime to the CBF, and where still other members don’t know what those letters mean and don’t really care.  It’s important that we provide them with some choices, so that those who want to support the SBC can do it, and those who want to support the CBF can do it, and those who don’t have a preference can put their money in the offering plate knowing that their mission dollars will be well spent.  I do believe this: that missionaries on both sides of this divide are waking up each morning thinking about how they can share the Gospel with people who need to hear it.  I’ve met those missionaries.  I’ve talked with them.  I know where their hearts are.  I don’t think any of us have to worry about our mission dollars being misspent.”

Who knows?  We may need to lengthen the ropes a little more, make the tent a little bigger, to include missionaries and mission causes we have never considered before, and to include people of every persuasion who are passionate about being and sharing the good news of Jesus.

Even if they check the “wrong” box on their offering envelopes.

3 thoughts on “Life in the “Big Tent”

  1. Jim,

    I can’t help ya with the $$ sorting, but I love the painting of ‘The Big Tent’. It looks like a colorful, fun place to be!

  2. When folks get to fighting over where their mission dollars are going, I begin to worry about how serious we are about following our Lord’s leadership in sharing His love with others! I understand that each is entitled to his own opinion (and stuck with the consequences, known and unknown, of those decisions!), but I am concerned that we tend to lose sight of the purpose of our lives when we become so deeply sure that “we have the right anwer” for everyone. I’m glad the First Baptist Tent grows larger, rather than smaller, in encouraging our people to be genuine “people of God” who are sincerely trying to bring Heaven to Earth right here in Richmond. There have been times in recent years during the extreme denominational fights that I have been embarrassed to be a Baptist — of whatever stripe — and that’s something I thought I’d never be anything but pleased about! As I grow older, I have more and more respect for both balance and perspective — it’s been my experience that when one loses either one of these, it is very easy to get into trouble on one’s journey!

  3. Betty could have taken the words right out of my mouth. Having come from a fundamentalist background, I found tremendous liberty among Baptists. Then the great conflict began, and I was embarassed to confess being Baptist. But I soon learned that Disciples of Christ were just as contentious–at least within the congregation I joined. I’m happy to be in a “big tent” congregation now. I’ve seen more than my fair share of conflict and plan to run like a rabbit at the earliest whiff of anything that seriously threatens to contract the tent.

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