Where do younger ministers think Baptists should head in the 21st century?

Yesterday’s editorial disclosed what a handful of seasoned, global Baptist leaders and thinkers say about the future. One shared that Baptists ought to recapture the radical nature of their forefathers and foremothers, challenging 21st-century Baptists to read radically the Bible and to live at the margins of society, instead of preserving orthodoxy and maintaining the cultural status quo.


Another weathered respondent called for interfaith dialogue, while a noted critic of the Religious Right urged an inclusivity that would encourage the Southern Baptist Convention to rejoin the Baptist World Alliance. An Asia Baptist general secretary urged transparency in missions over the “secret agent” strategy. Others underscored the need to meet human needs.


Having heard these experienced Baptists speak, I thought it would be useful to listen to a younger generation of Baptists, especially since the 20th Congress of the BWA next week has a focus on the future.


At my request, a younger pastor recommended folk to whom I put the question about the future. Granted, I emailed an American-centric group who are graduates of a limited range of theology schools. Nonetheless, their opinions ought to be taken seriously, not as representative of the global Baptist family but as voices of influence. While no Baptist speaks for another Baptist, those at the margins of leadership will one day define what it means to be Baptist.


Stephen Cook, pastor of First Baptist Church of Danville, Va., noted in an email that while some saw the church’s diminished role in culture as a negative, he saw it as “an opportunity for Baptists to be at our best.”


A graduate of Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond (BTSR), Cook wrote, “Baptists in the 21st century are in a position to lay claim to our radical heritage. We need to count less on having privileged status in the culture and instead focus more on the mission of God in the world. Baptists in the 21st century should go after Jesus and the things that mattered most to him. For a people who like to consider ourselves ‘people of the Book,’ we should take up our Bibles and read, especially the writing in red.”


Learn to speak a second language, recommended a Latina graduate of Baylor University and George W. Truett Theological Seminary.


“Baptists in the 21st century need to be global thinkers, embrace diversity and speak two languages,” said Laura Cadena with a needed note of pragmatism. She pointed out that the United States had “become the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world.”


Bailey Edwards Nelson, a minister in residence at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., expressed concern that Baptists spend too much time staring into the rearview mirror.


“The problem with always looking back is that everything comes to you secondhand. By the time you have spotted it, it is already gone, and there is something new on the horizon. It is time for us to stop continually finding ourselves one step behind,” she wrote.


Nelson also asked how long Baptist pulpits would remain vacant of female pastors.


Andrea Dellinger Jones, pastor of Millbrook Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., centered her thoughts on ways to improve congregational polity.


“Baptists will not kill the business meeting, but assist it, devising more ways of hearing from each other on issues related to the church’s mission. Baptists will seek more than a bare majority vote on many issues, and even a unanimous consensus on some,” said Jones. “Baptists will set up more checks and balances in their democratic polity, just as wise democratic nations have done in theirs.”


Jones, a graduate of McAfee School of Religion who is pursuing a doctorate of ministry degree at BTSR, challenged the long, powerful trend toward Baptist pastors as church authorities.


“In regards to ordained ministry, Baptists will finally drop their attachment to models of pastoral leadership inherited from Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans. Baptists will expect their ministers to be wise and educated advisors, not spiritual or ecclesiastical authorities,” wrote Jones. “Baptists will stop setting up pyramids of pastoral leadership that privilege the senior pastor, and start constructing circles of mutual trust and accountability that respect the autonomous leadership of every priest, lay or ordained.”


Tripp Martin, pastor of Vineville Baptist Church in Macon, Ga., responded to my email by urging a reclamation of the heritage of conscience, freedom and missions.


“It is an outlook that is open to a new future…built upon words like ecumenism, justice, community and hope,” said Martin, a Wake Forest University divinity school graduate. 


Martin expressed hope that in the future Baptists would dialogue more with other Christians and form mission partnerships with them. 


One young-generation Baptist pastor turned the question of where Baptists should head from one of geography or activity to inward transformation.


“I’m convinced that the place where Baptists need to go this century is the space between their heads and their hearts,” said Matt DuVall, pastor of First Baptist Church, Middlesboro, Ky. “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.”


Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.


Editor’s Note: DuVall’s column about where Baptists should head in the 21st century will appear on Monday.

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