During the early years of Baptist life in Oklahoma, the entire idea of cooperative missions outreach teetered on the edge of collapse due to the convergence of three primary factors: personality conflicts which grew so fierce that various Southern Baptist leaders would not speak to each other; a doctrinal controversy that coalesced around theological ideas of “modernism” vs. “fundamentalism” with evolution at the center of the debate; and a weak national economy culminating with the stock market crash of 1929. Any one of these events could have severely crippled mission efforts in and throughout Oklahoma. All three elements combined to form a cascading effect resulting in polarization and years of fractured relationships resulting in loss of money and passion for mission endeavors.
The Baptist Messenger’s founding editor, C.P. Stealey, was at the center of the storm. Stealey was appointed by the state convention as Oklahoma’s director of the 75 million campaign (the pre-cursor to the Cooperative Program) in 1919. Edgar Young Mullins, President of The Southern Seminary, served as the “southwide” director for the campaign. Mullins’ first visit to the state was to promote the initiative among churches throughout Oklahoma. When the two men initially met, Stealey was rude to him and openly opposed him at every turn. To his face, Stealey regarded Mullins as a modernist—referring to him as a “trained” theologian intent on turning people away from the Bible toward something totally unrecognizable to the average Oklahoma Baptist.
One newspaper of the day reported that “a sharp exchange occurred between the two men, and from this time onward a growing personal resentment towards Mullins” was observed in Stealey’s news stories and editorials. Soon after Stealey was removed as editor in 1927, doctrinal divides and personality feuds (both among pastors and church leaders in Oklahoma and at Southern Seminary) began to ebb away. Yet the seeds for future competitive sparring between the state convention and entities of the Southern Baptist Convention had been sown.
A voice of cooperative reason during this era of Oklahoma Baptist life emerged from an Alabama transplant —Edna McMillan. The wife of an Oklahoma oilman, she labored to raise money from Baptist congregations for work among Native-American tribes and championed aggressive church planting where local congregations would become the center of life for an entire community. During her time as president of the Woman’s Missionary Union of Oklahoma (1927-1938), she encouraged local churches to see themselves as resources of “gospel wealth” for which they were responsible to both “share and send” through cooperative efforts.
In many ways, the Oklahoma of the early decades of the 20th Century resembles life in the state a century later. The early land runs of Oklahoma that once offered pioneers a new life with land of their own has met the modern state where (according to U.S. census data) housing is more affordable and taxes, on the whole, are lower than other regions of the United States.
Since 2005, Oklahoma has gained nearly 56,000 new residents from out of state as outward migration has drastically slowed. The state is fast becoming a state of younger people. Between 2000 and 2005, the “under 18” age cohort lost 7,968 people while the “25 to 44” age cohort lost 42,890 people. Yet, between 2005 and 2009 those same age cohorts gained people—with the “under 18” age cohort adding 34,923 people and the “25 to 44” age cohort adding 27,784 people. The state’s birth rate is rising rapidly. Between 2000 and 2005, new births averaged 50,671. Between 2006 and 2009, the average of new births jumped to 54,079—an average of 3,408 more births per year.
The population changes now being experienced in the state has created a cultural hodge-podge of cloistered communities that are separated from each other even as they reside near or embedded in traditional Anglo neighborhoods across Oklahoma. Within the state’s major metropolitan areas, the pronounced borders of ethnic communities serve as a vivid reminder that racial difference can often create radical dissonance to the point that white majorities are fast becoming a growing minority.
These trends present challenges to congregations across the state—especially Southern Baptists. Contextually, the traditional “Southern Baptist” culture dominated by corporate-like programs and citywide crusades seemingly does not penetrate communities largely skeptical of “Americanized” Christianity.
Lostness—a relatively new missiological term used to describe both the individual and cultural absence of the presence of God now dominates areas of Oklahoma once thought thoroughly evangelized. The new strategy to impact lostness? The Church.
In the words of Darrin Patrick, “the church is God’s Plan A to redeem the world. And God has no Plan B.” The early Christian movement was noted for its aggressive intention of congregationalizing new believers. Churches planted churches who, in turn, planted churches. Sadly, early missionary passion easily collapsed into structural distraction as church planting always slowed as the formal organization of the church (notably identified by large buildings with lavish furnishings) overshadowed its biblical imperatives of continuous evangelism and discipleship.
Strategic church planting always involves more than a willing heart. Vigorous vetting and careful training are required of all those called to insure that new congregations are grounded on sound Bible doctrine and gospel imperatives. Put bluntly, it comes at great cost—to the man, the church and any other mission agency that seeks to partner with local congregations to establish new churches.
The 2010 Edna McMillan State Missions Offering allocates 25 percent of all receipts to aggressive church planting in ways that seek to maximize a local congregation’s ability to extend their reach beyond their walls directly into growing communities where no church exists. It is often targeted to subcultures where many traditional congregations do not reside, and it works to lengthen the resources of local congregations who invest in the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s (BGCO) training and investment strategy for new local churches.
The greatest enemy of church planting in Southern Baptist life, however, is seldom a methodological disagreement. In other words, it is substance, not style. Void of the biblical gospel, “church” soon becomes defined as something other than a community of regenerated believers confessing Jesus is Lord organized under qualified leadership who lead the entire congregation to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Once this happens, personality conflicts and hostile competition between local congregations, state conventions and SBC national agencies once part of Oklahoma’s past can easily intrude into the present. Competition is the enemy of cooperation and the casualty is often a local church.
The voice of cooperative reason must rise once again to unite the soldiers of Christ to plant gospel-centered congregations in communities across Oklahoma. With gratitude for the leadership of Edna McMillan, the Oklahoma annual missions offering stands both as a memorial to her life and a challenge to the future to invest in that which Jesus promised the gates of Hell would never overpower (Matt. 16:18).
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.