It's the People
One of my favorite lines in all of literature is a humorous and somewhat cryptic speech delivered by Bilbo Baggins during his eleventy-first birthday party: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”
To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what Bilbo means here, but I think that’s the point, as it encapsulates a sense of tension.
On the surface, Bilbo is expressing that he doesn’t feel he knows half of the attendees very well and that he likes even fewer of them. It might be a light-hearted way of acknowledging the complex relationships within the Shire.
However, at a deeper level, the line reflects Bilbo’s love for his fellow hobbits. By saying he doesn’t know half of them well, he might be hinting at his eagerness to meet new people, even if it means encountering challenges that led him to make the befuddling statement in the first place.
So, in essence, the line captures Bilbo’s affection for his fellow hobbits, hairy feet and all.
I believe this perspective is relevant when thinking about cooperation in the Southern Baptist Convention (minus the hairy feet part, or so we hope).
This summer, I’ve been asked on several occasions, “Why are you still a Southern Baptist?” To be honest, it’s a question I’ve asked myself as well.
Most of the time, when this question arises, the average Southern Baptist will mention the value of the Cooperative Program, our centralized funding initiative for our cooperative mission and ministry.
And, without a doubt, that’s a great answer.
But, I want to propose another answer, one that has personally kept me engaged with the Convention, especially after my own unique and unprecedented experience – people.
The truth is, while the Cooperative Program is an excellent means of reaching the lost, my local church can still reach people without the Southern Baptist Convention. However, there’s something truly special about doing so alongside other like-minded churches. I once heard cooperation in the Convention described as all of us holding onto an imaginary rope made of sand. The idea of combating lostness with such a tool remains in my mind, as it’s the antithesis of Excalibur.
Yes, pooling our money into a proverbial bucket is good, but what’s even more valuable is lifting that bucket together, hand-in-hand. After all, the bucket itself doesn’t put out fires in the aftermath of an earthquake; it’s the people holding the bucket. The bucket doesn’t travel from village to village in Sub-Saharan Africa or minister in the secret places of Southeast Asia; it’s the people. The bucket doesn’t teach the next generation of ministers the ins and outs of hermeneutics and eschatology; it’s the people.
At the end of the day, the Southern Baptist Convention is a fellowship of people, not just dollars. This is why I prefer to think of the Cooperative Program as a Cooperative Purpose because we’re more than just an agenda.
So, the irony is that the very reason I would consider leaving the Southern Baptist Convention is the same reason that has compelled me to stay – people. After all, we are an imago Dei people.
However, if this were the sole point of this article, I would be doing the Lord’s Word a disservice, because His reasons in the Scriptures for cooperation among believers run deeper than this.
When discussing cooperation, Southern Baptists often use phrases like “better together” or “stronger together.” While these slogans hold true, when used alone, they can carry a utilitarian perspective – a pragmatic outlook on cooperation.
When our cooperation is grounded solely in pragmatism, our definition of “better” or “stronger” can fluctuate erratically. We risk becoming susceptible to whatever concept we believe will make us “better” or “stronger” in the moment. However, positive adjectives should not be our primary motivation for cooperation. Our true incentive is something supernatural – our shared citizenship in God’s kingdom as His children and siblings in the divine family, serving a common Father in Heaven (Galatians 3:28).
The Scriptures present our union both prescriptively and descriptively.
The Lord’s Prayer, for instance, serves as a prescriptive model for cooperation, as it presents Christianity as a community. Jesus’ instruction in prayer emphasizes “Our Father” over “My Father” and “our daily bread” over “my daily bread.” God forgives not only “my trespasses” but “our trespasses.”
The New Testament is replete with descriptive examples. In Acts 4:32-35, we see people cooperating to produce a great act of generosity. Those early believers shared their possessions so that no one was without. In Acts 6:1-7, we witness the power of ecclesiastical cooperation as the church appointed leaders to ensure the needs of all members were met. Later, we see the strength of cooperative evangelism when Paul partnered with Timothy, Titus and others to spread the Gospel.
This illustrates that cooperation transcends mere utilitarian concepts of becoming “better” or “stronger.” Instead, cooperation emanates from the intrinsic bond among followers of Jesus, fostering a resilient community anchored in the unity of a common faith.
Failure to perceive cooperation this way hinders our ability to collaborate and inhibits discussions about cooperation due to the perception that certain believers might make us worse. But this is precisely why we need one another. While it is possible for Southern Baptists to exist effectively separated from one another, it’s not necessary, and perhaps not prudent. There’s immense value in having a formal relationship, in the very least, to exemplify the fact that we are united in a Kingdom in a world that stands against it. The world is so broken and divided that expressing our unity in the Kingdom would go a long way.
To be clear, though, while the display of unity is commendable, on its own, it remains utilitarian. We cooperate because we are already in cooperation, so to speak.
Here’s the point: We can’t work toward cooperation until we first understand that we are already working from cooperation.
Our unity in Christ is what makes us strong; we do not become united to become strong. We already possess strength because we are in Christ, together. Christ is the “power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), and we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13).
Applied, this means we should actively seek ways to work together, not look for reasons to break apart.
This isn’t to suggest that we should dismiss the importance of doctrine in our cooperation. It’s a critical issue that messengers should thoroughly consider. Instead, it’s to underscore the significance of our starting point: our attitude toward the concept of cooperation.
I am weary, and I know you are too. The truth is, we need one another. This mission we have is not a game. The SBC is not a battleground, and we are not adversaries. We all need to ask ourselves if we believe our cooperation in the Convention is worth it. If our answer is “yes,” as it should be, then we must embrace God’s heart for cooperation. Not just by putting money into a proverbial bucket, but by lifting that bucket up together. Not because it makes us “stronger,” but because of the unity we already share in Christ.
So, in a similar spirit to how Bilbo opened his birthday speech by addressing his “dear Bagginses and Boffins, Tooks and Brandybucks, Grubbs, Chubbs, Hornblowers, Bolgers, Bracegirdles, and Proudfoots,” and “good Sackville-Bagginses,” I address our own dear Baptist 21, 9 Marks, Founders, NAAF, State Executives, our Asian Collective, the Hispanic Leadership Council, the Send Network, the Bivo/Small Church Network, the SBCAL, and any other sub-group and individual that exists within our cooperative efforts. Will we succumb to the shadows of uncertainty and division, or shall we, like a true Fellowship, stand united and resolute in the face of darkness?
Your Cooperation Group covets your prayers for the critical work before us. We’re looking forward to working together, this is to say, with you and on your behalf, as we work toward Indiana.