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Richards outlines 3 ‘strands’ of cooperation within SBC

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Jim Richards compared the cooperation between Southern Baptist churches to a three-strand cord during a chapel service at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary March 9.

The “strands” of theological agreement, missiological focus and a common methodological approach are all necessary for cooperation to take place, Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, said.

Pointing to Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, the New Orleans Seminary alumnus spoke about cooperation among Baptist churches. He said the passage was very helpful when he was considering a move from the pastorate to associational work. For Richards, the Ecclesiastes passage provided biblical rationale for the existence of denominations and para-church organizations.

“In that passage, I find that it speaks of productivity, it speaks of power, it speaks of pleasure and it speaks of protection by looking at the advantage of two over one,” he said. “This entire passage talks about the principle of cooperation.”

Richards identified theological agreement as the first “strand” of cooperation among Baptist churches. He said that theological agreement is not about absolute conformity. Rather, it is about identifying “irreducibles” and coming together on the “nature of the Word of God.”

During his college days at a Baptist university, Richards began to question whether cooperation could continue among Baptists. According to Richards, he experienced “indoctrination in overt liberalism and neo-orthodoxy” on a daily basis. He did not give up on cooperation during those college years but instead realized the importance of doctrinal agreement.

Reading from 2 Timothy 3:16, Richards shared his view of the nature of Scripture, saying it is without error and contains absolute truth. For Richards, this Truth — the Word of God — is the basis for theological agreement.

The Personhood and exhaustive foreknowledge of God are important areas of agreement, Richards said. The most important area of agreement is in the exclusive nature of salvation — the belief that salvation is found only in Jesus.

“The exclusivity of salvation in Jesus is an affront to current culture,” Richards said. “We can talk about church, but when we speak of the exclusivity of Jesus, we fly in the face of modern culture.”

The Baptist Faith and Message identifies what is important to Baptists, Richards said, and offers a basis by which Baptists can cooperate. He said that the document does not prescribe the fine details of every belief, pointing out that not one eschatological view is spelled out in it.

“The Baptist Faith and Message is not a creed; it gives us broad parameters,” he said. “When the churches of God come together there must be, at least, some minimal theological agreement.”

The second “strand” of cooperation that Richards identified is a missiological focus.

He said that churches should work together to support missions and evangelism.

This “strand” deals with all types of missions and evangelism, from church planting to overseas mission work. This has always been an important focus for the SBC, he said. According to Richards, cooperative effort is vital to the success of SBC mission endeavors.

“No church is so large that it can do all these things alone,” he said. “No church is too small that they can’t contribute. Every small church has a part to play in this great enterprise that we do together — the missiological activity.”

This mission focus extends beyond the mission field, Richards said, pointing to Paul’s ministry in Acts 14:21-22. Paul was traveling from church to church, strengthening believers. Richards said that strengthening existing churches is an important part of this mission focus.

While there are many encouraging signs in the SBC — new churches are being started and SBC membership numbers continue to be strong, Richards said that there are troubling signs as well.

“There are some signs that should cause us to pause,” Richards said. “Seventy-five percent of churches are plateaued or declining.”

Although the Cooperative Program giving hit a record high last year, individual churches are giving smaller percentages. The average SBC church gave just over 10 percent of its offerings to the Cooperative Program during the 1980s. In 2002 that slipped to 7.39 percent.

At a time when the SBC has its largest membership, baptism numbers are dropping, Richards said. If the current trend continues, he believes the SBC could be in serious trouble by the year 2020.

“If we are to be viable in the year 2020, denominational ministries must become less bureaucratic and more innovative,” “We cannot keep doing business as usual and accomplish the missiological activity that we have set before us.”

Concern about the future led Richards and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention to launch the “2020 Connection Project.” The goal is to help Gen X pastors and ministers (age 39 and under) begin thinking about the future of the SBC. More than 200 hundred pastors, youth ministers and church staff members are now participating in the project, looking for ways to turn around the decline and help churches to grow again.

Richards said that Baptists will continue to rally around the Bible and uphold it as true, but more is needed. He insisted that Baptists must go farther and do what the Bible says by doing missions and evangelism and working to strengthen churches.

The last “strand” of cooperation that Richards spoke about is a common methodology. He said that the methods by which Baptists accomplish their work are important.

“Baptists have tried the societal system and it did not work; it is a failed system,” he said. “There are some in our day that cry back for it.”

The societal system involved individuals giving money and resources to societies focused on specific causes.

In the cooperative model, churches work together to accomplish a wide range of Kingdom tasks by sharing resources. Richards encouraged the students in chapel to avoid the societal model. He also warned against the “way of the independents,” calling the system ineffective compared to the “connected, cooperative system.”

The Baptist, methodological approach has two key ingredients — a way to share monetary resources and a proper Christ-like attitude.

The Cooperative Program is the means by which Baptists share monetary resources to do Kingdom work. CP giving is essential to funding seminary education, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the 5,000 missionaries through the International Mission Board and the 5,000 missionaries sponsored by the North American Mission Board, he said.

“We must go back to teaching people that the tithe is the beginning of honoring the Lord and then to ‘grace give’ above that,” Richards said. “It takes a shared giving vehicle but also the Savior’s spirit. See, how we do what we do is very important — we can never become angry, we can never be disagreeable even when we disagree.”

Before Richards spoke, New Orleans Seminary President Chuck Kelley took a few moments to thank him and the SBTC for their generous support of the six Southern Baptist seminaries. Under Richards’ leadership, the SBTC has become a partner with the schools.

In addition to supporting the seminaries through Cooperative Program giving, the SBTC held a special offering in 2001 that benefited the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC Executive Committee and the six seminaries.

Individuals and churches contributed $100,000 to the Great Commission Partners in the Harvest campaign. In addition, half of the in-state surplus received from SBTC churches was contributed to the one-year offering, providing nearly $1.4 million. New Orleans Seminary received $150,000 from the campaign. The check the seminary received from the SBTC helped the school complete a much-needed new student apartment building. The seminary named the building Texas Manor in honor of the sacrificial gift.

“We want you to know,” Kelley said, “that on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary that you will always be recognized as one of the most important leaders in Southern Baptist Life.” He presented Richards with a replica of the plaque attached to the apartment building that reads: “Texas Manor. Built through the Generosity of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: SEMINARY TOUR and ONLINE VIDEO.