By Kevin Riggs

“At 7:30 o’clock Tuesday evening, November 5, 1935, in Cofer’s Chapel Church, Nashville, Tennessee, the National Association of Free Will Baptists convened in its first session. After a lively devotional service of songs and prayer . . .the organization of the association was deferred until Wednesday afternoon in order to give all delegates ample time to arrive and take part.”1

Those are the opening paragraphs of the first minutes of the National Association of Free Will Baptists. The denomination has grown since that brisk, fall day in 1935, with 2,400 churches in 38 states and 11 countries. We have our own publishing house, a denominational college, two state colleges, 2 independent colleges, and numerous Christian schools, bookstores, and Bible institutes.

We have a great history, a rich heritage…but where are we headed? What do the next 70 years hold in store? We have no way to know for sure, but I believe our future is bright. Let me tell you why.

The denomination recently experienced a complete change in leadership. During the past few years, new leaders have taken the helm at the Executive Office, Home Missions, International Missions, FWB Bible College, Randall House, Women Nationally Active for Christ, Hillsdale FWB College, California Christian College, and Southeastern FWB College (and that doesn’t include all the changes at the local and state levels).

As a denomination it would be an understatement to say we are in the midst of tremendous transition. But change is a good thing. We are positioning ourselves for future growth. As a result, however, we have experienced some growing pains, and we will probably experience more in the immediate future. How we respond to the challenges of transition will determine our direction for the next several decades.

New leadership means new challenges. New leadership doesn’t necessarily mean new visions, but it does require a clarification of the vision and a clearly communicated plan to bring those visions into reality. New leadership also demands a new degree of flexibility on the part of the followers. I must be willing to give the new leadership a chance to get their feet on the ground, figure things out, and decide what direction to go and how to get there.  I must recognize that changes do not happen overnight.

Change is never easy, but it is less difficult if those who direct the change are disciplined and honorable people who lead with integrity. I believe this is true of our leaders, and I look forward to where they will lead. Free Will Baptists stand at a crossroads in history. What direction will we take? What will be our heritage?

Where are we going?

Right now, the denomination is characterized by transition, leadership, and crossroads (TLC). Our challenge is to handle these characteristics with another kind of TLC—tender, loving care. We believe God has called our denomination into existence. We believe He has sustained us, and that He will continue to do so. However, we also believe strongly in free will, and we understand that God works through people. In other words, our denomination will be what we want it to be. It will not exceed anyone’s expectations but our own. It will reach the goals we set. It will move forward when we move forward. It will reach new heights when we reach new heights. The National Association of Free Will Baptists is not located in Antioch, TN. Our denomination is located in the hearts and minds of each individual member in each local church.

When I accept the challenge to handle my denomination with tender, loving care means I commit myself to pray for its leaders, its pastors, its volunteers, its members, its health, and its growth. Accepting this challenge means I strive for cooperation and unity. Our denomination has suffered every time we have lost churches to a merge or split.

I know I will not agree with every decision made by the denomination. I know I will not agree with everyone who carries the name Free Will Baptist. But I believe in our denomination, and I will put my personal agenda on hold and cooperate to the best of my ability. People need my prayers, not my personal attacks. My denomination needs my input, not my impatience. Our greatest need is prayer, cooperation, and unity— treating each other with tender, loving care.

I own a book entitled, The Church Member’s Book, published by The Free Will Baptist Printing Establishment in 1855. This book was a forerunner to our present day Treatise.2 Chapter five contains “The More General Duties of Church Members in the Church.” In that chapter, if you were to replace the word church with the word denomination, here is how the opening paragraphs would read: “[The denomination,] being a religious compact, a union entered into for the mutual good of the whole, as well as for spreading the knowledge of our Savior in the world, all its members should take a deep interest in all the plans and labors of the [denomination], and seek its prosperity by all laudable means…However numerous the [denomination] may be, whatever is accomplished by it, is the result of individual exertion…No member for one moment ought to harbor the idea that he has nothing to do to promote its interests. Having made choice of some particular branch of the [denomination] of God as their home, Christians ought never to be indifferent to its best welfare…Every Christian should be, to say the least, as deeply interested in the state and prosperity of his own [denomination], as he is to the success of his own temporal affairs.”3 (removed “and if every member is engaged, it is but individual effort in concert”)

Where are we going? The answer to that question depends on the roles that you and I play, the decisions that we make. Perhaps a better question is, What kind of heritage do we want to leave behind? When the 2075 edition of ONE Magazine comes off the press, what will it look like? What will they write about our history? What will they say about you?

1 From, G.W. Million’s book, A History of Free Will Baptists; published in 1958 by the Board of Publications and Literature National Association of Free Will Baptists (p. 137).

2 Treatise of the Faith and Practices of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Inc. 2005.

3 The Church Member’s Book: or Admonitions and Instructions for All Classes of Christians. Published by the Free Will Baptist Printing Establishment; 1855 (pp. 137-138).

Article adapted from ONE Magazine, August-September 2006.