Clarifying our church’s identity for the purpose of sharing Christ with our community

Acts 1:8 Team

The church’s coordinating team has selected a group of lay leaders to serve on a task force called the Acts 1:8 Team: Allen Baker, Ashley Brinker, David Byers, Nancy Hamby, Loren Hutchinson, Shirley Olson, Stu Reece, Lilly Root, Nathan Taylor. The purpose of the team is to help the church clarify its identity to its attenders and to the community so that we can be more effective in our mission of making disciples. Tasks of the team could include:

1. Facilitating study and conversations about the name of the church, exploring whether perceptions of the word "Baptist" among those we are trying to reach and/or inaccurate assumptions about our connection to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are enough of a barrier to warrant changing the church's name
2. Developing a statement that defines our church’s uniqueness, including things that differentiate us from the SBC
3. Identifying ways to help the church be more focused on its mission of making disciples
4. Identifying ways to increase the community's awareness of who we are as a church

The Acts 1:8 Team will have no authority to make decisions on behalf of the church; any changes they recommend would require significant congregational conversations followed by a vote of the church body.

Why are we having a conversation about the church’s name?

    For many years, staff and lay leaders have had conversations about the fact that, when inviting people to church, we often find ourselves explaining that our church is different from what people expect a Baptist church to be. There seems to be a very negative connotation to the word “Baptist” for many in our community. Many seem to associate “Baptist” with judgmental, legalistic, hypocritical, and chauvinistic. That negative connotation could be intensified by the current crisis facing the Southern Baptist Convention, as the news is full of stories about a shameful cover-up of widespread sexual abuse perpetrated by key leaders of the SBC. The perception of some church leaders is that the name “First Baptist Church” could cause many unchurched people to make untrue negative assumptions about our church that could prevent them from getting involved with the church. The name may be pre-filtering who we can reach as a church and creating an unnecessary obstacle between people and Christ.

     At the same time, some people who DO choose to attend our church make inaccurate assumptions about who we are based on our name. It is not uncommon for lifelong Baptists to join us and then become frustrated when they learn after a while that we ordain women and are otherwise not always a typical Southern Baptist Church.

     The only reason we would change our name is if the church family reaches the conclusion together that our current name is hindering our ability to fulfill our mission to love God, love people, and make disciples.

Are we a Southern Baptist Church?

     The most accurate answer to this question is “not really.” The church was an active part of the Southern Baptist Convention for much of its history, but the church resisted moves in the denomination in the 1980s to become more fundamentalist and exclusionary. In 1990, the church formed a denominational study committee, which reported in 1991 that the SBC was moving away from historic Baptist principles such as the priesthood of all believers and the autonomy of the local church.  The study committee expressed that our church did not support the fundamentalist takeover that was happening in the denomination. Our church began to allow members to designate missions offerings to go to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship instead of the SBC, if members so chose. A few years later, the Missouri Baptist Convention issued an ultimatum, requiring our church to give exclusively to the SBC in order to maintain our membership in the Missouri Convention. In October 2002, the church officially voted to leave the Missouri Baptist Convention and to help found the Baptist General Convention of Missouri (now called Churchnet), and to divide the church’s missions contributions evenly between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (unless individual members requested that their missions money go exclusively to one of those entities). Over the next several years, concern continued to arise that money given to the SBC was not always being spent in ways that were consistent with the beliefs and values of our church. However, we still wanted to support the good work being done by SBC missionaries. So instead of continuing to give to the SBC’s Cooperative Program (a funding plan that divides contributions among missions agencies, seminaries, the executive committee, and other SBC entities), the church began to send its contributions directly to the SBC’s International Mission Board. For many years now, our church has not given any money to the Southern Baptist Convention itself, but only to its international missions entity.

     The Southern Baptist Convention does not consider us to be one of its churches. If you go to the denomination’s website and search for churches in Lee’s Summit, ours isn’t included in the list. The denomination does not consider us to be cooperating members for two reasons. First, we don’t give undesignated money to the denomination. Second, we practice the ordination of women (while the SBC has moved increasingly toward an insistence that women should not be in positions of significant leadership, should not teach men, and should not be ordained).

     The most accurate description of our relationship with the SBC would be that we are not part of the denomination, but we partner with them in their international missions efforts, just as we partner with the missions efforts of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, with Churchnet, and with local organizations like Hillcrest Transitional Housing and Lee’s Summit Social Services. We are alongside the SBC, but not under its umbrella.

      The church believes that we are no longer part of the SBC, not because the church moved, but because the denomination did. The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message was once the statement of faith for the SBC and for our church. It is still the statement of faith for our church; it is no longer the statement of faith for the denomination. The denomination adopted a much more fundamentalist statement of faith in 2000. Our beliefs are no longer the beliefs of the SBC. In many ways, our church is striving to be what the SBC used to be – a group of Christians who agree on the central doctrines of the faith but leave room for disagreement on secondary issues.

      The gap between our church and the Southern Baptist Convention that has continually expanded over the last several decades means that when most people hear the word “Baptist,” they are thinking of something that is significantly different from our church.

Addressing a few other important questions

Why bring up such a controversial topic?
Because our lost neighbors are worth it. We are willing to take risks to reach them for Christ. We do so as well because we trust that our church members have enough spiritual maturity and enough love for one another to be able to talk about challenging things. Further, we believe this conversation is a good reminder that we should do everything we do for the fulfillment of our mission to love God, love people, and make disciples.

I love our church’s history – isn’t this conversation disrespectful of that history?
No disrespect is felt or intended. We are all proud of the ways our church has made an impact on the community for 160 remarkable years. We simply want to explore whether our name is hindering our ability to continue making that impact. The best way to honor the church’s heritage is to make sure it continues to reach the people of Lee’s Summit for generations to come. In fact, we wouldn’t be the first generation of our church to consider changing its name.  At its founding, our church was called United Baptist Church of Jesus Christ at Big Cedar. Somewhere along the way, our ancestors changed the name!

What criteria should we use to make such an important decision?
The decision should be driven by one thing: what helps us make disciples? What helps us connect more of our neighbors to Christ? We shouldn’t change the name because it would be trendy to do so. We shouldn’t preserve the name just because it would be traditional to keep it. If we learn that the name is not significantly hindering our outreach, it would be foolish to change it. If we learn that the name is preventing us from reaching people for Christ, it would be selfish not to change it.

Prayer Suggestions

1. Pray that God’s will would be done, both in the final outcome and in the process of getting there.
2. Pray for God’s wisdom for the Acts 1:8 Team and for the church as a whole.
3. Pray for unity and growth as we have conversations about the issue.
4. Pray that God will give us the courage to follow wherever He leads.
5. Pray that all of us will be able to turn down the intensity of our own preferences and turn up the intensity of our desire for God’s will.
6. Pray that God will make it clear which path will help us be most effective in making disciples, and pray that we will joyfully, courageously take that path.
7. Pray that Jesus’ words will be true of us: that He will build HIS church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!