Adopted by First Baptist on Fifth in November 2021
What We’re Doing and Why
We, the beloved community of First Baptist Church on Fifth in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, partnering with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, hold deepest gratitude for the ways God has guided us throughout our church’s life. After years of congregational transformation, upon this moment of new beginning following the covid-19 pandemic, and on this, the occasion of our church’s 150th anniversary, we reaffirm and clarify our commitments to God, to each other, to downtown Winston-Salem, and to the world in this, our Confession of Identity.
We lament that the witness of the church in our own time is divided and confusing, often betraying the very heart of God, the life-giving way of Jesus, and the liberating movement of the Spirit. Christ’s love compels us to confess the Christian church’s complicity in exclusion and division, and at times we have been negligent, indifferent, and silent in the face of injustice. We confess our sinfulness, and, with God’s grace, we seek to express within our lives the true faith to which we have been called.
We believe that the truest story we’ve ever known is the story of God who so loved the world. The overflow of God’s love for us and our love for God takes a particular form in our local congregation. Our church’s vision statement, adopted in 2018, speaks of the shape of our obedience: to be “a community in the heart of the city called by Jesus to practice bold love of God and neighbor and boundless compassion for all people.”
We are a Community
For 150 years as the first Baptist church in our town, we have continued to change. We are imperfect, yet hopeful travelers who choose to journey together with God throughout the seasons of life. Although much about our church’s identity has changed over the years — our space, our makeup, our size, our location — we believe that God’s dream for our church has stayed at the heart of our calling by Jesus, our connections to each other, and our commitments to the world.
Today, we’re smaller in size, varied in demographic, and abundant in hope. Within First on Fifth, you’ll see retirees and families with rambunctious little ones, teenagers discovering their identities and middle-agers juggling all the demands of this season, young people navigating adulthood for the first time and seniors rich in wisdom and encouragement. You’ll find us as educators and non-profit leaders, business administrators and managers, mechanics and engineers, caregivers and coaches of all kinds, and people who give their energies to a spectrum of work activity, paid and unpaid, both in and outside the home. You can read our fiery op-eds in the paper, pass us moving about on the city streets, see us building ramps for the underserved, catch us finding beauty in our gardens and on hiking trails, and experience us taking delight in the world. In our similarities and differences, we catch a glimpse of the “beloved community,” an image articulated so generously by the great civil rights leaders before us, pointing toward a future vision of the kind of world we strive to bring to life.
At the core of our community, we are folks who love each other well: bringing our true and honest selves, seeing, knowing, and caring for each other in that fullness, overcoming barriers that would otherwise separate us, and finding grace on the other side. Yes, sometimes it’s messy, and yes, sometimes we disappoint each other. But because we know the sting of loneliness and the salve of belonging, we are choosing to knit our lives together, time and time again.
In the Heart of the City
First Baptist on Fifth was born in the heart of Winston-Salem. For 150 years, even through historic seasons of transitions which could have propelled us elsewhere, we have committed and recommitted ourselves to downtown. We believe this is where God has called us to serve.
Rooting ourselves in the city center means we embrace the complexity of its landscape, doing ministry out our front door (500 West Fifth, a hub of entrepreneurial innovation and business leadership) and our back door (Crystal Towers, a high-rise of affordable housing for people who are elderly and disabled), to one side (Benton Convention Center, which welcomes visitors from around the country) and the other (various businesses and organizations, like the Winston-Salem Center for Education and the Arts which was birthed through First on Fifth, and the West End neighborhood). Here, we are present “in the heart” with God’s heart: at the crossroads of human experience.
Our downtown home isn’t just a city block in which our building sits. Rather, downtown Winston-Salem has become the place that shapes our priorities, our resources, our relationships, our imagination. Here, we are from, and from here, we are sent. It is our neighborhood, the primary place we share together the call to live neighborly.
Called by Jesus
This calling by Jesus threads through the everyday moments of our lives: from where we go, to who we love, to how we vote, to what we buy, and all manner of things in between. We understand calling to be a summoning to a particular way of life. And because that calling comes from Jesus, we are beckoned to a Jesus-shaped way of living: one of loving God and loving neighbor as we love ourselves, all the while pursuing the present and future kingdom of God.
Callings are personal and communal, intentional and intimate, Spirit-led and scripture-encouraged. Some write or counsel, some build or fix, some encourage or proclaim, some advocate or care. All who sense God’s claim on their lives are called to sacrifice and to serve, to be “transformed by the renewal of our minds.” We give thanks for the opportunity to recognize God-given gifts in each other while seeing the God-stirred convictions emerge among us.
In this season of our church’s life, those shared callings have opened our minds, hearts, and lips in cultivating the well-being of children, mitigating poverty in our community, becoming a teaching and learning church, and growing in number and faithfulness. These callings have prompted our deepening work for racial justice, our embrace of LGBTQ individuals and families, and our commitment to equity and inclusion for all people. Each of these commitments reveals much that we’ve learned and even more that we don’t yet know, yet each is connected to the heart of Christ.
We believe that our efforts to follow Jesus are never perfected, only practiced. The truth is that no matter who we are, all of us are struggling and starting over, figuring things out and finding our way again. Thank God for the grace that comes with each new day!
We practice because we’re learning to be more honest than we are and more loving than we have been. We practice not out of a sense of burden or duty, but out of joyful responsibility to God and each other. We practice because it’s in daily living — of actually doing the things that shape and form us in Love over and over again — that these seeds take root.
We practice our faith together in the ways that followers of Jesus have done for centuries: gathering regularly in worship, Bible study, fellowship, and mission, praying and caring for and with each other, serving God when we’re together and when we’re apart, giving generously of ourselves and our resources, breaking bread together, and sharing God’s story of Love with those we meet.
These practices help us remember who and whose we are. They orient us with intention away from our tendencies of scarcity and towards God’s gifts of abundance. They surround us with other practitioners on the road, so we know we are never alone. They sustain us through all seasons of life: at birth and death, through relationships and vocations, in times of joy and suffering, and in the ordinary grounding of our living. They cultivate within us the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. And in their own way, they plant hopeful seeds of the kingdom of God.
Bold Love of God and Neighbor
Our love for God and neighbor calls us to welcome, affirm, and celebrate all people in the fullness of who they are: beloved for their differing ages and races, sexual orientations and gender identities, means and sufferings, physical and mental abilities, levels of education and backgrounds, cultures and nationalities, doubts and beliefs. Why? Because God’s love knows no boundaries, therefore our love shouldn’t either. It is the ‘bold love’ of which we speak. So we say with fierce gladness: all are created in God’s image, and all are unconditionally beloved. We know this to be profoundly true, because we have experienced it in our lives and within our church.
We see that God’s call to serve and lead within the life of the church extends far and wide, and we give thanks for the variety of voices giving shape to our congregation’s life together. We believe that any person who professes faith in God through Jesus can share in the gifts of full membership of First Baptist on Fifth, including baptism, communion, marriage, covenant with children and their families, ordination of deacons, ordination to the gospel ministry, celebrations of life, teaching, worship leadership, and pastoral care.
Boundless Compassion for All People
We seek to practice boundless compassion for all people by lifting the lowly, caring for the poor, pursuing and amplifying the voices on the margins of life, calling out injustice wherever we see it, extending our care for all of God’s creation, and working for the freedom of the oppressed. Our boundless compassion flows outwardly to our neighbor and inwardly to ourselves, for each of us is in need of God’s liberation from all that holds us captive. As scripture teaches us, “we are members of one another.” In our belonging, we bear each other’s burdens and hardships, so that in mutual love and shared suffering, we all may be set free.
On our block or around our world, the compassion we hold is one of our deepest commitments as a church, and becomes an outgrowth of that bold love of God and neighbor. But mostly, it reminds us that caring for our neighbors and ourselves is never the final move. Mercy insists upon justice; compassion compels us to action.
Practicing this kind of boundless compassion is akin to how we understand the “now and not yet” kingdom of God: we try and we fail, we do so now and we know we aren’t yet where we need to be. And yet the courageous compassion of Jesus is our model, one ever more countercultural in this fractured, polarized age, and one we seek to practice each day.
With God’s help, we confess and commit ourselves to God, to one another, and to the work of cultivating a beloved community ‘for the living of these days.’
Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever!
The congregation of First Baptist Church on Fifth
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
How Our Confession Came To Be
Let me tell you a story of a people, a calling by God, and a Confession of Identity. Intimately connected to this season and bearing the voices of so many in our church family, this Confession represents fourteen months of congregational conversation about our identity and six weeks of focused congregational conversation around the need for, and language of, a Confession of Identity. This Confession is the epitome of leitourgia, or liturgy, that wonderful Greek word throughout the New Testament that speaks of the “work of the people.” This letter is to tell the story behind the words, attempting to capture the holy ground upon which we’ve walked and the breath of the Spirit which so clearly animated the work of these months.
The work of these 14 months has connected us with other congregational seasons of discernment in our history. It recalls for us the times when the church listened to the movement of the Spirit and discerned a path forward, like on the ordination of women to the diaconate and to the gospel ministry, the ability to marry interracial couples or individuals who had been divorced, the opening of our policy on baptism and the widening of God’s table of love, and the clarifying of our denominational home within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. It roots us in our long-held DNA to reach beyond our spaces of comfort toward the margins, from the racial integration of our Children’s Center from its inception in 1967, to our housing of neighbors who are homeless in the 2000s, to our partnerships in launching all sorts of non-profit organizations in the community, most acutely with the Winston-Salem Center for Education and the Arts in 2012. It connects us to the work we’ve most recently completed over the past several years on our facilities and mission. This work of clarifying identity within the church is not the first, nor will it be the last.
If the work we did on our facilities helped us to answer the question of where we are, and if the work of our mission and vision shaped our answer to -the question of how we are, the work we have completed on our Confession of Identity leads us to answer the question of who we are.
This question had been marinating in our congregation’s DNA for years, for as a ‘big tent church,’ our language around church identity has often been intentionally broad to hold together the vast theological and political perspectives represented within. And yet, as the landscape around us has sharpened and polarized, the questions that give shape to our identity were being asked around and about our church.
What kind of church is First Baptist on Fifth?, folks have wondered. In a time where so much can divide communities, what holds us together? How are we similar to and different from churches around us? Where can we give space to speak of the Spirit’s movement among us, even when that means talking about matters that inflame the heart and topics upon which we might disagree? And after we’ve completed the building work which had dominated so much of our life together over the past few years, who are we on the other side?
These questions grew, gently but persistently, such that the Pastoral Discernment Group felt it was time to center a series of churchwide conversation around identity. Appointed by the Deacons in 2018 to, as their job description says, “gather regularly with the Pastor for careful listening, honest speaking, and prayerful discernment about the communal life of our church,” the Pastoral Discernment Group is made up of leaders serving by virtue of their role and leaders serving as members-at-large. Even as the pandemic pressed us away from our church house, the Discernment Group felt that this work of clarity was too important to wait. Zoom training sessions were hosted, particularly with our older adults, to be sure that as many people as possible could access these conversations, and a large number did.
In September 2020, the congregation began a series on Zoom called “Awakenings,” honoring the experience of the Spirit’s awakening, hearing and telling holy stories, and listening for God’s beckoning to transformation in the midst of it all. Among the various awakenings we heard were stories particularly centered around awakening to race and sexuality. Beloved leaders, former and current ministers, and members of all sorts from our congregation offered their heartfelt experiences in and outside the church, speaking vulnerably with lament and love about how the Spirit had awakened them in new ways. With God’s help, we listened carefully to each other. By the time this series concluded in late November after six sessions, not one of us left unchanged.
In April 2021, the congregation gathered again by Zoom for another similar set of conversations called “Learnings,” in which we used the anniversary of the pandemic to ask ourselves what we’d learned in a season filled with such disruption of our common life: between the pandemic, racial reckoning, presidential election, and all the socio-political upheaval that surrounded it. Some of us shared our pandemic stories, and all of us were given the emotional and spiritual space to process all we’ve experienced. We concluded in June with the Spirit’s clarion call: how then shall we live?
The Pastoral Discernment Group and pastoral staff drew from all the feedback in these two sessions in order to offer recommendations about, as we had asked, how then we shall live. Among the key themes we had heard were a strong love for the way in which members of our church find belonging, a desire to extend that belonging to others in the wider Winston-Salem community, a recognition that the historic disruptions of our world had created an even more profound need for clarity about our identity, and a deep and abiding hopefulness for the future God was setting before us.
Over the course of the summer in what amounted to nearly 30 hours of meeting time and countless emails and phone calls back and forth, the Pastoral Discernment Group and pastoral staff explored what that clarity might look like. We wondered about a statement or a declaration. We pondered a covenant with each other or a series of commitments we’d make. But in the end it was the language of ‘confession’ that best seemed to fit the shape of our obedience, one rooted in the words of our vision statement that has given shape to our church’s life since early 2018: we are a community in the heart of the city called by Jesus to practice bold love of God and neighbor and boundless compassion for all people.
As we wrote, we knew this confession wasn’t a statement of belief, nor was it a policy or bylaw. We hoped a confession of identity would illuminate a clearer, more vibrant and honest picture of who we are and how we feel called by Jesus to be in the world in this precise season. The audience of this longer-form essay would be primarily external (though wholly woven into our life together), and it would live mostly on our website, but from which, we’d draw phrases, images, stories to bear witness in the public sphere. We envisioned it like a snapshot of the church’s imagination and identity as the pandemic recedes, as the 150th anniversary approaches, and as we continue listening carefully to the movement of the Spirit in our midst.
And so in September 2021, the church gathered by Zoom and once in person for the final series in a year-long arc. Called “Belonging & Becoming,” this five-session time together began with some of the questions that had punctuated our many months of conversations: how might our church respond to the urgencies of this moment with a clearer public witness? Most importantly — who is God calling us to become? We told stories of seasons of change in our church’s life, and shared which gifts from our church’s past were most important to draw into the future. We found strength from the resilience of those who have come before us and hope in the curiosity of those who will come behind us. Using the Confession of Identity as our guide, we allowed its claims to invite us to deeper conversations, even concluding with various case studies that asked us to consider how we put certain pieces of the Confession into action.
Within the Confession are three expressions of our shared identity which feel profoundly connected to this moment — (1) our way of being on mission in our urban community, (2) our increasing commitments to racial justice, and (3) our inclusion and celebration of people who identify as LGBTQ. While certainly not the only commitments or expressions of our faith, they are among the most potent and urgent ways that we bear witness to those outside our walls. For many within our congregation, these expressions of Christian identity have been part of our lives for years. But together, these three expressions have bubbled up in our church through many ways recently: meaningful partnerships with other churches and local mission organizations assisting our neighbors in need, book studies about racial justice in Sunday School classes and small groups, space in worship to lament the stain of racism in the church and the world, one-on-one conversations with current or prospective members about our church’s safety for folks who identify as LGBTQ, scripture study over several years regarding how we read the Bible using sexuality as a primary case study, and many more.
Of these three expressions of identity, one becomes a newly-stated, public commitment: that, as the Confession names, “any person who professes faith in God through Jesus can share in the gifts of full membership of First Baptist on Fifth, including baptism, communion, marriage, covenant with children and their families, ordination of deacons, ordination to the gospel ministry, celebrations of life, teaching, worship leadership, and pastoral care.” Because the clear inclusion of LGBTQ persons within those gifts of full membership is a significant, historic part of the statement — a new public commitment, but not a change in bylaw or policy or spirit — it offers a moment for joyful reflection. For the stories of our church’s courageous, faithful LGBTQ members and friends have offered a beautiful witness to God’s bold love and boundless compassion. What a gift it is to offer such a clear word of inclusion in the context of our deeper identity! In making this commitment clear, our church joins the great cloud of witnesses of those who have come before us: sister churches across downtown (like St. Paul’s Episcopal, Augsburg Lutheran, and Home Moravian), sister CBF churches in our city (like Knollwood Baptist and Wake Forest Baptist), and sister CBF churches across the fellowship (a gracious plenty, like First Baptist Asheville, First Baptist Greenville, SC, and First Baptist Macon, Georgia).
As our “Belonging & Becoming” series concluded, the Pastoral Discernment Group and pastoral staff asked for feedback. Emails, comments, questions, and thoughts from nearly 100 members about the Confession layered on top of the more than 20 hours of congregational conversation throughout these 14 months. Our congregation’s fingerprints are all over the Confession! Countless members made it more faithful and clear, more rooted in the particulars of our faith and hopeful about where God is leading us. This Confession is both descriptive and aspirational, what is now and what is to be. It unifies us with purpose and priorities, yet represents the nuance of difference and dissent. We don’t all agree with every word, yet we commit our full and honest selves to each other, trusting the God in whom “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
The Deacons offered their near-unanimous affirmation of the Confession in late October, and the congregation spent two weeks in two question & answer sessions with members of the Pastoral Discernment Group and pastoral staff. On November 17, the congregation gathered on Zoom to vote by a show of hands, voices, and absentee ballots to affirm the Confession. The vote to affirm the Confession passed with 87% approval.
Earlier this fall, one of our church members asked me a question: “why write a confession of identity now? What is it about this moment that makes it urgent?” I appreciated the thoughtful question, and shared my answer in one of our Belonging & Becoming sessions. For among all the scripture from which we’ve read, studied, preached, and listened throughout these 14 months, it has been the accounts of the early Christians, so wholly moved by the Spirit as they discovered their identity, who have felt most familiar to me. They too pressed past long-held understandings and commonly-held practices as God’s Spirit called them to bold, public, inclusive witness. I had those first followers in mind when I answered his question.
Why now? Because we simply can’t not speak ‘of what we have seen and heard.’ Because we must loosen our grip on fear and act abundantly ‘with great boldness.’ Because for our historically-white, predominantly-straight congregation, the burden of clarity is on us; our siblings have borne that weight for too long. Because the witness of the Christian church in America has become so distorted — particularly in recent years, even more so during the pandemic — that we are compelled to make even clearer our convictions. Because it is an act of hospitality to those we meet and an act of love to those already in our fellowship. Because it puts before us the witness of the already & not yet. Because God’s Spirit beckons us ever forward, each step following in the abundant way of Love.
Together in God’s work of Love,
Rev. Emily Hull McGee