In an address to the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship a few years ago, I noted that hometown obituaries often include the phrase that he or she was “of the Baptist faith.”

Typically, the obit will say something like: “He enjoyed fishing, hunting and NASCAR, and was of the Baptist faith.” It took me awhile to decipher, but I believe that phrase means his momma went to church but he didn’t.

But to say one is a “Baptist” tells you something, but not everything. These photos from recent travels give an idea of the diversity within the faith tradition.

Church historians generally trace the Baptist movement back to Holland in 1609 — which, of course, is 400 years ago this year. There are a few Baptists still holding to the idea that their church has a direct link to the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Baptist.

That journey requires riding a historical roller coaster that leaves one dizzy. You have to believe in the destination strongly to believe the route that gets you there.

Today, few church signs are as blatant as the one in Charlotte (above) that self-identifies the congregation as liberal. Other signs give clues, however, with words like “fundamentalist,” “Bible-believing” (as if others aren’t), or “KJV-only.”

“Independent” Baptists are typically more conservative, but the term could and should apply to all. One rare common characteristic of Baptist churches is autonomy. Decision making — including whom a church calls as minister — rests within each congregation.

Other aspects of “freedom with responsibility” have been upheld by Baptists traditionally. That is, individuals are free to interpret Scripture for him/herself and responsible for one’s own response to God. Likewise, since faith cannot be coerced, religious liberty for every human being must be granted.

However, some Baptists — especially the fundamentalists who now run the Southern Baptist Convention — have weakened those historic positions. They are ever too eager to impose their ever-narrowing doctrine on congregations and to seek government favoritism for their particular brand of faith.

But, despite some anomalies, most Baptists worldwide (evident when the richly diverse 200+ member bodies of the Baptist World Alliance gather) continue to embrace the historic marks of freedom and responsibility that brought the first Baptist congregation led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys into being.

Yet, Baptists today come in a wide variety.

My old campus minister colleagues often recall hanging out at a hotel pool in the early ’80s when a traveling sales representative inquired about our work.

We spoke vaguely about being from Georgia and working on different college campus. But she was persistent in her questioning until we were forced to use the “B-word.”

“Baptists?” she said with disgust. “You mean, like Jimmy Falwell?”

I responded: “It’s Jerry Falwell — and no.”

Then we left our kind colleague Bobby Evans to finish the conversation.

It is important to remember that then you see “Baptist” on the sign, it tells you something. But it doesn’t tell you everything about those who gather inside.

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