MBC aims for healthier church plants
By Allen Palmeri
JEFFERSON CITY—The church health initiative launched by Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Interim Executive Director David Tolliver in September 2007 is touching every area of Missouri Baptist life these days, penetrating the very bedrock level of policy on how a church starts and how it becomes an MBC church.
“Every church plant needs to be a healthy church plant that will eventually result in a healthy church,” Tolliver said. “Therefore, we do not recognize church splitting as church starting. We want to be clear about that. We want all of our church starts to be healthy.”
The previous administration in the Baptist Building had a goal of 100 church starts a year. It was never achieved.
Tolliver won’t be going around the state advocating for a high and unrealistic number of church plants which would inevitably include church splits. He would rather talk about a ministry culture where reconciliation is king. He can envision the tender, loving work of MBC staffers who would annually nurture a couple of dozen or so healthy plants.
“The ugly church fight that ends up in a church split is what we want to avoid,” Tolliver said. “When that occurs, we don’t want to call that church starting. We don’t want to put our arms around those churches that have split off from another church just because they’re mad and want to start a new church and want us to embrace them.”
In the summer, the MBC Credentials Committee became aware of a situation involving a church start and another church. It was challenging in that it appeared to be requiring some understanding, reconciliation and healing. It fell to the members of the committee to address it, since the new church, which looked to be a split, was petitioning for membership this year.
A check of the committee’s rules and procedures revealed that while the committee has “the right and responsibility to review and make recommendation upon all questions which may arise regarding cooperation of churches or enrollment concerning the credentials of messengers,” there is no language to help it determine the sound character and health of a petitioning church. In other words, the Credentials Committee under its current rules and procedures can do little more than wave on through these types of churches—which is precisely what it did with this situation.
The Credentials Committee also went on record with a statement that it was concerned for the character of the church it voted to accept.
“The way churches are started matters,” said Wesley Hammond, Credentials Committee member and pastor of First Baptist Church, Paris. “The way churches behave matters. The way individual believers act toward each other matters.”
Committee Chairman Danny O’Guin, pastor, Parker Road Baptist Church, Florissant, and other committee members agreed that better language needs to be inserted into the committee’s rules and procedures so that in the future the committee can be proactive on matters of church health in church plants. Hammond wound up writing the amended language, which would replace the previously cited portion concerning the right and responsibility to review. The full text is as follows:
“The Committee shall have the right and responsibility to review and make recommendation upon all questions regarding cooperation of churches with the MBC or enrollment concerning the credentials of messengers. This includes churches which are petitioning the convention for membership and member churches questioned on basis of faith, polity and practice. The committee may make this recommendation by evaluating the church based on origin, character, doctrine and practice.”
Messengers to the 174th annual meeting of the MBC at the Millennium Hotel in St. Louis are being asked to adopt this new language in the spirit of providing O’Guin, Credentials Committee members and future leaders with another means by which to build healthier churches.
“Going to these new guidelines, we believe, would help us as far as producing healthy churches,” O’Guin said.
“We’re not looking to place blame (on either the church start or the other church),” Tolliver said. “What we’re looking for is reconciliation.”
The approval of the proposed language on “origin, character, doctrine and practice” and the evolving role of the Credentials Committee in Missouri Baptist life have roots in what messengers did during the 2005 annual meeting in Springfield, when single alignment was overwhelmingly passed and the Credentials Committee was made a standing committee in the spirit of welding the MBC to the center-right positioning of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
The committee has no power or authority on its own to disqualify churches, but it does meet year-round to determine which churches might be encouraged to be true to their denominational / fellowship heartbeats when it comes to their associations with particular entities. This is a process of prayer and deliberation for all Credentials Committee members, and it also can lead to churches being recommended for disqualification of membership based on the collective advice of the committee to messengers.
Since the Springfield convention, subsequent Credentials Committees under the leadership of Chairmen Rick Seaton (former pastor of First Baptist Church, Kahoka), Hammond and O’Guin have been charged with determining whether or not individual messengers meet the requirements to be seated at the convention. If all churches in the MBC are determined to be singly aligned/theologically faithful/theologically whole with the MBC/SBC, no action is required.
“Now under single alignment, under the new rules and procedures of the Credentials Committee, they have become the gateway to membership in the Missouri Baptist Convention,” Tolliver said. “So they’re the group that has to analyze what type of church this is. They analyze their doctrine. They analyze their practice. And they analyze their origin.”
One of the arguments sometimes advanced in Baptist circles is that Baptists are fiercely independent. Baptists, the argument goes, have been willing to separate from tyrannical rulers both in the government of man and in the government of their religious denomination. The priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local church always must be preserved through this spirit of fierce independence, some Baptists maintain. Therefore, the decisions of the Credentials Committee must be resisted, spurned and rejected by any and all means, these Baptists conclude.
Hammond said that type of reasoning is faulty. On every level of church life, he said, God has instituted some type of authority, and believers are to submit to it.
“Every level of Missouri Southern Baptist life is autonomous,” he said. “Churches are autonomous. Associations are autonomous. The state convention is autonomous. And the state convention has every right to determine who will be in its membership. So while the church is autonomous, and we can’t tell them what to do and they can do whatever they want to do, the convention will decide if we want them to be a part of us.”
Decisions made by the Credentials Committee in the years to come under the new language that may be adopted this year by messengers will be fair, Tolliver said. The goal is not to assign blame to either the other church or the church start. In fact, the biblical outcome in some cases may be for both parties to wave goodbye for the greater good.
“It’s sometimes best for people to go separate ways,” Tolliver said. “The best New Testament example is Paul and John Mark. Barnabas supported John Mark. Because of it, the kingdom of God was enhanced. So it’s not always negative to go separate ways, but it has to be done in a Christ-like, biblical fashion.”
In other words, the scenario where a group of disgruntled church members storms out of a church, starts a mission, and approaches the MBC to get its blessing may not play out that way in the future.
“We want healthy churches,” Tolliver said. “That includes the way they start. Churches that are started in anger and bitterness are not healthy, not biblical, not godly.
“When there is a church split, we want to seek reconciliation between those two groups. That does not mean they need to come back together.”
Agreeing to disagree is OK, Tolliver said, as long as all paths toward repentance, reconciliation and healing have been traveled. That means that as far as it is possible with men, the parties need be restored—if peace lives.
His role is to bring to the Credentials Committee vital details about church starts as they become known. The committee will then make recommendations, with messengers serving as the ultimate authority.
“I will meet with folks who are in this situation—working toward reconciliation—and then bring to the committee those facts,” Tolliver said.