My reflection on the future of Baptists is rooted in my particular experience of life in the Baptist world in the southeastern United States. I have been connected to Baptist life since I was born. The men and women in my family, going back several generations, have been Baptist ministers, missionaries, chaplains and deacons.
Raised in Baptist churches, I attended Baptist schools for my bachelor of arts and my master of divinity degrees. I have served on staff in three different Baptist churches in Georgia and currently pastor a Baptist church in Kentucky.
I am Baptist. I have always been Baptist. I care about the future of Baptist life.
When I think about “where Baptists should go in the 21st century,” I am struck by how much the nature of that question has changed over the last 150 years.
Ask that question in the beginning of the last century, and Baptists, particularly in America, were looking to expand their influence to other countries and places like China and Africa. The answer was geographical in nature.
It’s still geographical for some people.
However, I’m convinced that the place where Baptists need to go this century is the space between their heads and their hearts.
The sad truth is that there seems to be too many Baptists that would prefer to circle the globe endless times before making that 18-inch journey from head to heart.
I believe that the present conversations and struggles of many of our Baptist organizations, denominations and fellowships directly relate to too much outward expansion and not enough inward attention.
Yet rather than focus some inward attention at the problems and issues facing our “collectives,” the answers that seem to be put forth continually center around doing the same thing or a new version of the same old thing – again and again – and adding “try harder and get more people involved.”
Our world still wrestles with racism and its companions on an individual and institutional level, and churches are just recently being honest about their part in this struggle.
For some Baptists, more than half of our world’s population (women) aren’t seen as capable of serving in all phases of ministry, and yet there is not a single solitary Baptist church in this country (and probably this world) that would still be functioning if it were not for the women in those congregations.
The Baptist groups who have given lip service to supporting women in ministry have done a pitiful job of getting out in front and leading the way by word and, most important, by example.
Many Baptists still wrestle with the issues surrounding these components of our humanity that can be identified on the first page of a passport, let alone issues that are much more volatile in nature, and yet there are a few Baptists who have moved on and are engaging much more difficult conversations.
Rather than spending another century focused mostly on the “doing” of outward expansion, I hope we spend more energy on the “being” of inward transformation.
Our world needs voices who are willing to engage the serious issues of the day and honestly wrestle with them instead of regurgitating talking points. We won’t get to that point if we aren’t willing to make the journey between our head and our heart. Redemption and transformation still happen, but not by getting bigger and louder.
If we “go” this next century like we have this last, I fear that at the end of all of our doing we will end up where we are today – still not much closer to loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Matt DuVall is pastor of First Baptist Church of Middlesboro, Ky.