Most of the people in our church did not grow up Southern Baptist. By his grace, and in answer to our prayers, many of the 700 people we baptized last year did not come from our own households, or the household of “Baptists.” The vast majority of them were adults being brought to faith in Christ—and welcomed into the SBC through their membership in The Summit Church—from outside Baptist life.
By God’s grace, our church is reaching many millennials and, increasingly, minorities. These groups come to our church with assumptions about what it means to be Southern Baptist. Whether justified or not, they have preconceived notions about who Southern Baptists are and what we stand for. Minorities, for instance, often think of us as the denomination founded on slavery, on the wrong side of the Civil Rights Movement, and in some cases still insensitive to ongoing discrimination and oppression. Sometimes these perceptions are distorted and exaggerated, but they are still perceptions we must overcome. Thankfully, over the last several decades, God has raised up leaders to help us acknowledge our sins, lead us in corporate repentance, and point us to commit ourselves to the ongoing work of justice.
When I announced to my church in February that my name had been placed in nomination for the SBC presidency, I knew that for many people listening, they were just learning to be Southern Baptist. I was not talking to our members, since our membership class makes it very clear what we believe and who we partner with in mission. In our membership covenant, as well as on our website, we list the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 as our official statement of faith. Frequently in church services I refer to us as Baptist, and our SBC connections are not difficult to find on our website. At least four times a year—twice in the spring and twice in the fall—I explain why we baptize by immersion, why we do not practice infant baptism, and why we believe in regenerate church membership—all Baptist distinctives.
The statement I made—that “some of you just found out we are Baptist”—was for the sake of the 1,000 or so people who are new to our church in the last few months, those who have not yet joined, many of whom have not even yet made a profession of faith. Our affiliations, though plain and public, simply haven’t registered with them yet. For those new people, Christianity itself is an entirely new world for them. For their sake, I explain what it means to say we are Southern Baptist so they don’t fill in the gap with untrue images conjured up by the media. The only way to tear down stereotypes is relationally, and our relationships with these people allow us to overcome the lies and deceptions that they have heard.
I am grateful and honored to be a part of the Southern Baptist Convention. I am Southern Baptist, not by birth or by accident, but by conviction. There is no group whose doctrine, values, and mission I line up with more than Southern Baptists. My closest ministry friends are Southern Baptists.
I also know, however, that if we are going to try to grow our churches beyond simply our own children (and that shrinking segment of society that thinks of themselves as culturally Christian), then we will constantly find ourselves struggling to overcome stereotypes and build bridges.
I’m not advocating for every Baptist church to suddenly take “Baptist” out of its name. In fact, research shows that in many parts of the country this is not an issue of concern and can even be a helpful identifier. But we all must ask how we can best reach our communities for Christ. At the Summit, knowing that we are situated in a liberal and diverse college town, we have tried to choose an approach that removes unnecessary barriers.
Those who are content to reach only de-churched Baptists and lapsed believers from a Christian subculture will never ask these kinds of questions. They’ll be striving to reach a larger piece of a rapidly shrinking pie. But those of us who want to “grow the pie” have to be sensitive to the assumptions—right and wrong—of those coming in from the outside. We never do that by compromising our beliefs or hiding who we are. I am not ashamed of the people of God and I am happy to endure the scorn that the world puts on those who carry the name of Christ, scorn that has been put on every faithful generation of believers starting with Jesus himself. But reaching this “outsider” culture means we sometimes have to explain who we are with caution, nuance, and even a dash of self-deprecation. This is how we challenge and ultimately overcome unfair stereotypes. And I can see this happening in far more churches than my own. By God’s grace, over the last few years, the SBC has added thousands of people from outside of the Baptist bubble, people who did not grow up in the SBC world and were even previously hostile to it. Isn’t that what we want?
Reaching the “outsider” culture means we sometimes have to explain who we are with caution, nuance, and even a dash of self-deprecation.
God worked a miracle in the SBC in bringing us back to the core, conservative doctrines of our faith—the inerrancy and authority of the Bible, the exclusivity of Christ, the urgency of the mission, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the priesthood of the believer (to name a few). And like every people of faith on earth, we have sins, both in our past and in our present, that we have had to acknowledge and repent of. I have a number of them myself: If God marked my iniquities, I certainly would not be able to stand as a Christian, much less a pastor. Thankfully, God has raised up leaders throughout our history who have led us in this experience of repentance and faith. The future is bright for the SBC.
I can’t think of a greater group of believers to be aligned with, or a better time to be Southern Baptist. These are not easy days in our culture, but we lock arms and go forward boldly to reach a world that doesn’t always know us or like us, with the hope of introducing them to our Savior.