The fruits of cooperation are beautiful to behold
I recently read the story about some boys who were exploring a field. They came across an abandoned section of railroad tracks. It was just a short section of abandoned railroad tracks, not more than 10-12 feet long. And, as you know, boys will be boys and so the boys turned their discovery into a game – a contest of sorts. The boys tried to see which one of them could walk the farthest down the tracks – each boy walking on one side of the rails. They would each get up on one rail, and walk as far as they could – but not very far. Each of the boys – one after the other would climb up on one side of the rail, go for just a few feet and then fall off the rail.
Two of the boys, finally, made a bet. They issued a dare, I should say, since I know that Baptists don’t bet? But, the two boys claimed that they could walk the full length of the tracks. Immediately, the other boys said, “Double dare!”
And so, the boys climbed up on the rails. They positioned themselves, one on each side of the tracks – each of them on a separate rail. They extended their hands one to the other. They balanced each other. And, together, the two boys walked the full length of the tracks without any problems. That’s the power of cooperation.
Over 200 years ago, Christians who understood the power of cooperation crossed the Mississippi River and established the first evangelical church west of the Mississippi. They called it Bethel Baptist Church. Recently, almost 300 modern Missouri Baptists met on the premises of that great church to celebrate the history of “Old Bethel,” of cooperation and of missions. On Aug. 18, Missouri Baptists gathered at the restored site of the original Bethel Baptist Church to rededicate “Old Bethel” and to remind us of the missions legacy of that early Missouri Baptist church. We also were reminded of the pioneer spirit that first built “Old Bethel”.
Prior to the Louisiana Purchase – especially Baptist preachers risked their freedom and their safety to preach the Gospel in that territory. The commandant of the District of Cape Girardeau in those days allowed only the practice of Catholicism. And so, when 15 charter members founded Bethel Baptist Church, they included the following in their constitution:
“We the members of the Baptist Church, having been a long time destitute of having the privilege of being in any church order, do feel it our duty to embody ourselves together in the fear of God as a church … .”
May I stop there long enough to make a couple of comments that come to mind? When I read about Baptists who had “… been a long time destitute of having the privilege of being in any church order,” I am ashamed of the complaining I have done and heard about the modern church. And I wonder sometimes if Missouri Baptist churches might be stronger if we had to endure a little old fashioned persecution? I don’t know? But the spiritual warriors at “Old Bethel” were:
“Hoping that God will bless us, in so good an undertaking, with the teaching of His Holy Spirit and enable us, through grace, to live the declarative glory of Him, and the praise of His Gospel …”
And blessed they were. And God was praised at the establishment of the Bethel Baptist Church. Old Bethel began in 1806. Six years later they built a meeting house that would seat from 100-150 people –understanding, of course, that they packed people in a little tighter than we do today. By 1813, there were 143 members of Bethel Baptist Church. At that time, the church also boasted 43 members of “daughter churches” that they had birthed. Bethel Baptist Church was a missionary church. She would have been a great 21st century Missouri-Baptist-Convention-type church because Bethel Baptist Church was a church planting church. In all, Bethel started nine other churches. One of those new starts was First Baptist Church (FBC), Jackson. FBC Jackson was well represented at the Old Bethel dedication, hosting a special prayer breakfast early that morning and celebrating the missions legacy that is theirs. Bethel Baptist Church again proved her heart for missions when she and nine other churches formed the Cape Girardeau Baptist Association. Those 10 churches came together to cooperate in missions. Truly, Bethel Church began as a missions-minded Missouri Baptist Church.
But, the time came when Bethel Church changed. She became nearsighted. She began to look inwardly rather than outwardly. And the church began to decline. I am pleased that Missouri Baptists have seen fit to restore Old Bethel. It was a thrill to be a part of that day of celebration and dedication. But, I pray that we also will learn from Old Bethel’s history. As long as it was cooperating with other churches in missions, Bethel Church was indeed a Baptist church. What the original Bethel Baptist Church congregation did that was so right was to cooperate with other Missouri Baptist churches in the goal of following God completely – even “… to the ends of the earth.” Modern churches, also, will flourish when we stop looking at ourselves and our so-called problems and start looking for opportunities to share the Gospel of forgiveness and salvation.
I once saw a Peanuts cartoon that left a lasting impression on me. Linus was already watching television when Lucy walked into the room and demanded that Linus change the channel – threatening him with her fist if he didn’t. Linus protested. He wanted to know, “What gives you the right to come in here and take over?”
“These five fingers,” Lucy said. “Individually, they’re nothing. But, when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.”
“Which channel do you want?” Linus asked. And he changed the channel. But as he walked away, he looked at his own fingers and said, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?”
And I am wondering why the modern church in general and Missouri Baptist churches in particular can’t get organized like that? When Christians come together as a denomination, they are able to accomplish far more than those same churches could ever achieve individually. When we get organized like that, we too form a weapon – not terrible, but beautiful to behold!