Cooperation is a good Baptist word. The word means we partner together, even though all Baptist entities are autonomous. There is no chain of command in the Southern Baptist Convention. My job is called a Director of Missions. That is another good Baptist term, but nobody seems to understand what it means. I oversee Baptist churches and ministries, but I have no authority over those groups. Church leaders and pastors may call me for help, but I cannot force them to make any kind of decision. So, we cooperate together. We contribute to the Cooperative Program, and hopefully to the Association as well. Cooperation is a key word in Baptist life.
Cooperation can look a little unique in an urban setting such as Miami. We have about 340 churches in the Miami Baptist Association. I never know the exact number because it changes every week. We add a couple, lose a few, and then add some more. I have a hard time finding some of our churches because two-thirds of our congregations rent a facility. They can be gone quickly, and leave no forwarding address. Our churches tend to change names, phone numbers, and addresses. We have churches that merge, drop, split, and re-start. Plus, we try to plant about 25 -30 new churches each year. When I do finally find a church, they may not speak English, so I have a difficult time communicating with them. Nevertheless, we do cooperate when we finally get together.
Cooperation can sound different in Miami. Even when our pastors speak English, I may have a difficult time understanding what they are saying. There are many different accents in English. You would be surprised how one word can be pronounced in a variety of ways—any word. Try an exercise; read a word, and then see how many ways you could possibly say that one word. I play that game every day in Miami. We have African enunciations as well as European intonations. There are a number of Caribbean pronunciations as well as Central and South American ways to say things. Many countries have a kind of British type of accent too. Then there are the usual accents like Spanish, Creole, and Portuguese.
I asked one pastor, “What language do you speak?” He told me, “English.” “No, no; what I mean is what language did you grow up speaking?” He told me, “English. That is the only language I know how to speak.” Okay. Many times I just smile and nod my head without having any idea what was just said. We may both speak English, but we are worlds apart in understanding words. We have to trust each other’s hearts.
Many in Florida may not grasp this, but 80 percent of our pastors in the Miami Baptist Association were born outside the United States. That number sounds bizarre to me. Yet, Miami-Dade County is the only county in the United States where over half of our population is foreign-born. Therefore, it is normal for our congregations to be made-up of people from many nations, cultures, and languages. Our pastors and congregations well represent the people of Miami. And it can be fun to eat meals together, just to see what everyone brings to dinner!
English does not pull people together like a foreign language. We have Chinese and Russian speaking churches, as well as churches that speak other languages. Most of our churches use more than one language to reach their people on Sunday. You can walk down the hall of any church in Miami and hear several languages. Our children go to school in English. Our government does business in English, but worship is made-up from a heart language. Cooperation is accepting people whoever they are, and whatever language they use.
So, how can we cooperate together in a setting such as Miami? Please understand that our people love the Lord Jesus Christ as much as anyone in any language. I have had the privilege of hearing some of the most wonderful testimonies from people who have been saved in different parts of the world. When we get saved in the United States it is accepted by most people. Maybe they don’t believe, but they don’t really care if you go to church or not. Listen to the people who were born again from a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist family. Wow! I get tears in my eyes just thinking about some of these people. Their families disown them. One mother burned her son’s Bible. They may suffer the disgrace from their family as they have been baptized as a Christian. Please understand the complexity of many believers in Miami. It is not simply going to church. To many of our people being a Christian is a much bigger deal than people who grow up in the United States realize. Plus, most of the members in our Association love to be called Baptists. That name sets them apart from any other denomination. Being called a Baptist identifies them with a much bigger connection than their small church group. They love having a large Baptist Health network in Miami. They are proud to be called Baptists. They do not understand when American churches take the name Baptist out of their church title.
I proudly stand with every pastor in the Miami Baptist Association. I have seen their deep compassion for God, for the Bible, and for people. An estimated 75 percent of our pastors have to work other jobs to be the pastor of their church. Many of our guys may not make it on any Southern Baptist platform. They may not grow a large church that grabs national attention, although we have some of them. But our pastors are committed to sharing Christ as the only way of salvation. Without exception, our pastors are faithful to their calling to reach people of any language. That is why so many of our churches start new works in other languages. Cooperation is a key in Baptist life because we want to make sure that everyone hears the Gospel of Jesus. Every person in the world needs Jesus.
When we cooperate with other believers, we help spread the truth. Spiritual warfare is making sure people know the truth instead of the deception that Satan spreads. There is much deception in our society. We see deception every day in Miami from scams, frauds, and con artists. Baptists know the Truth. When we cooperate with other churches, there becomes an accountability that we need as church leaders. Together, we can make a difference. Together, we can become a powerful force for truth in an unholy world.
Baptists in Miami have been here for more than 100 years. We may look different and sound different. You may not understand what we are even saying. But you can trust our hearts because Jesus is Lord. We worship Him, and study His Word. We cooperate together because we are family. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have the same Father, just different mothers. We gladly cooperate with you.
Gary L. Johnson has been the executive director of missions for the Miami Baptist Association since 2006. He has been in the ministry for more than 30 years, having served on church staffs in both Illinois and Florida, most recently as pastor of Wayside Baptist Church in Miami.
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