Talking with friends in Virginia about my move to Georgia and the opportunity to speak to you, one of them suggested that I describe what it is like to move from Baptist Promised Land back into captivity among the Egyptians.
I offer three observations:
First, when any Baptist group “wins” control of a larger body, that victory brings both opportunity and burden, whether it is the moderate victories in Virginia or Texas. What you win may leave you wondering if you actually won.
For all the good it accomplished, our victory in Virginia over a well-organized opponent in 1997 brought with it a denominational structure that was committed to maintaining the status quo and had enough employees in place to ensure we were unable to act prophetically for years.
The national body shunned us, using under-the-table money and pork-barrel funding to finance our opposition. Employing innuendo and guilt-by-association tactics, they worked tirelessly to undermine our best efforts to be true to our Baptist heritage.
Many of the churches in our “camp” joined us out of convenience, not conviction. Not wanting to make a hard choice, they let others choose for them and then began to criticize and critique that choice.
The end result has been less of a cutting-edge progressive march into the future than we had hoped, and more headaches than we had imagined.
For all the pain and loss authentic Georgia Baptists have endured, there is some significant blessing in the midst of that carnage. The people in this room are here because they choose to be, some of you at a high price. Your participation in this school and other organizations is a costly one that comes only after you have found your voice and used it to say “no more.”
Out of our “defeats” have come significant victories. These years have been a fertile season of dreaming and visioning. Creative energy has produced a remarkable array of lean, focused and efficient institutions and ministries. For all that we have lost, look at what we have gained. Look at the creative energy that has been unleashed in the last 13 years and thank God for that. Sometimes a loss may be a victory.
Second, the average woman or man in the Baptist pew is in a fog when it comes to the realities of Baptist life.
How many times have we said it across the years? Most of our Baptist brothers and sisters are woefully uninformed about what has happened among us in the last 25 years.
How is that possible?
You know the culprits: a compromised press, many state papers that openly practice censorship, poorly defined and waffling leaders, anxious pastors who live in fear of any additional ripple of conflict in the church family, a willful ignorance on the part of many that reflects poorly on the depth of their faith, informed moderate pastors who talk a good game at meetings and fall silent upon returning to their home pulpit, and an understandable exasperation with denominational politics that all too often circumvents appropriate involvement.
As the pastor of an “oasis” church, meaning one that has self-defined as moderate in a sea of soft and hard fundamentalism, I am regularly meeting lay men and women who have had enough of the fence straddling and are hungry for clarity about conviction and conscience.
I believe the future for such congregations is bright and positive. Being the minority voice will never land us on the cover of the denominational program guide, but it does free us up to become a beacon to those who are, remarkably, just now awakening to the fact that “there is a problem in the Baptist family.”
I am learning to cherish that role and know that many of you do, too.
Third, the battle for the heart and soul of local churches will be won or lost one church at a time. The struggle will require lay men and women of conviction who are willing to stand firm in the face of heated opposition.
The church I am privileged to pastor came close to allowing a well-organized minority cell to seize control of its future. The only reason that did not happen was because some heroic women and men decided not to let it happen.
The church-takeover scenario is being played out daily in the Baptist churches across our state. This school is a key player in that struggle. As one who has come from the role of majority voice to minority voice, I must tell you that the Mercer and Shorter communities are beacons of truth-telling and hope to this state in a way that I can only hope you appreciate.
We desperately need you to grow. Last year there were approximately 375 graduates from our 11 moderate seminaries and divinity schools. There are some 12,000 students enrolled in the six Southern Baptist Convention seminaries.
We need you to produce graduates who are called to the local church field.
We need you to send your faculty into our pulpits to speak the truth in love.
We need you to teach us, all of us, how to be a vibrant church community in the 21st century.
We need to know daily about the good things that are happening in the life of this school.
I have found in Georgia a vibrant, lean, active, alive and authentic Baptist community. Thank you for your courage and resilience in the face of seeming defeat. Thank you for your optimism about our future and your investment in tomorrow. It is a good day to be a Baptist, a real Baptist, in Georgia.
Bill Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.