I’ve recently been involved in some leadership coaching training that has taken place in a very ecumenical setting. My fellow students have come from a wide array of denominational groups, and it has been a pleasure. Our recent time together coincided with some large Baptist meeting in which the inane and insane proceedings that mark the larger Baptist family were on display for all the world to see. One new friend finally sidled up to me during a break in our work and asked sincerely: “Bill, why DO you stay a Baptist?”
It turned into one of those “I’m this kind of Baptist, not that kind of Baptist” conversations that we all know inside and out. Later that evening, I began thinking more deeply about his question, and I tried to dig deeper for an answer to the question.
I ended up writing down three lines. Line one: to quote my friend and teacher, Jim Slatton, We’re right about so many things. Biblically and Christologically, we are right about soul freedom, religious liberty, pastoral authority, church autonomy, ethics, missions, evangelism, education, governance, to name a few. We have inherited a proud tradition of thoughtful, heart-felt, intense, open-minded, fervent faith. It is a gift I cannot walk away from.
As grateful as I feel for our past, I must tell you that my second thought was this: I am concerned about where we are today.
The plateau we find ourselves on, the waning energy I sense around the moderate world, the concretizing of institutions and methodologies, the devotion to vehicles over vision has me worried.
While the dream of a moderate alternative to the fundamentalism of the SBC is alive and well, I do not believe we have fully arrived at what God intends us to be or do as we enter the 21st century. I’m not even sure that the best vehicle for carrying us down the road of being an authentic Baptist has been discovered yet.
I recognize many think that feeling this way and saying this out aloud is akin to disloyalty to CBF, but I say this as one who is committed to and grateful for the ministry of CBF. I believe the future of moderate Baptist life is yet to be revealed and that it if it is to be a viable future, we must be pliable and flexible with regard to structures and organizations.
I believe CBF will play a key role in whatever that network or organization is, but that “it” is still in the incubation stage–and probably always will be. I hope and pray that we will be willing to see ourselves as a forerunner or what could be, rather than a finished product–even willing to diminish ourselves if something greater emerges.
That takes a level of maturity and a big-picture approach thinking that is too often lacking among us. My concern is that we simply continue to do what we are doing and that our impact wanes and our plateaued status turns into one of retreat. Some of us have not given up on the idea of a growing, expanding, broadening moderate Baptist/Christian movement in America and beyond.
Having visited the past and the present, I turned to the future, and I must tell you that I feel a growing hope for the future of Baptists like us. The seeds of a dynamic, nimble and relevant future are in this room.
The groups I know best cause me to feel great anticipation as I think about tomorrow. BCE has modeled an organization that thinks outside the box and that is unafraid of long odds and new methodologies.
But what gives me the most hope is what is happening in local churches. Local churches are rediscovering their role as the center of the religious universe. The degree of innovation, adaptation and proactive visioning that is taking place is the real story and key to our future. Local churches are learning how to partner and network in a way that has always been done for us. What we thought was a burden has become an opportunity, and the resulting vitality and energy that comes from that process is literally capable of turning plateaued and declining churches around.
Why stay a Baptist? We have inherited an amazing heritage, and while it is messy, our current setting offers us an opportunity to create a future that is unlike anything we have seen or known to date. What we need is courage, vision and humility.
Bill Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga. He prepared these remarks for delivery at Thursday’s BCE anniversary luncheon, but in the interest of time they are published here instead.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.