Still Baptist . . . After All These Years


By Gary Ledbetter, Director of Communications of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, and Editor of the Southern Baptist Texan


The first report of the committee appointed by SBC President Bryant Wright to consider a new name for the SBC indicates that they know their job is a hot potato. Chairman Jimmy Draper assured us that they are approaching the task prayerfully and deliberately. He also made clear that the committee does not favor changing the word “Baptist” in our convention’s name. As expected, “Southern,” seen as some to be an inappropriately regional identification, and “Convention,” with its institutional flavor, are up for grabs.

I’m not surprised by anything Dr. Draper has said up to this point and it is good that he has nailed down that we will continue to be called something Baptist for the foreseeable future. But with that communication from the ad hoc committee, I’m comfortable to sit back and wait for their final report.

I can’t help but wonder if those most dissatisfied with the convention’s current name will be eased by any response that retains the word “Baptist,” though. Some have actually found the term “Baptist” problematic for their ministries. Maybe it’s for embarrassments like Westboro Baptist “Church” (not Southern Baptist but many don’t know) or things we have done like the Disney boycott. Some churches may find a broader base of attenders by not leading with “Baptist.”

Thus, there’s a wave of “we’re still a Southern Baptist church, but we’d rather meet you before you know that” thinking. Many churches formerly “First Baptist [your city]” or “[your community] Baptist Church” now do business as simply “[your community name] Church” or “The Church at [your community name].” Some are more creative still, like Connection Church, launched in South Dakota by my friend Doug Hixson. I don’t really want to argue that your church answers to me or anyone else for the name you choose. I’m arguing instead that if you’re committed to Southern Baptists but are changing the sign out front to something more generic than Calvary Baptist Church, you’ve started down a more difficult road than you might think.

My family attended a Willow Creek-style church in a Midwestern city for about a year. It wasn’t called a Baptist church but we knew it was affiliated with other SBC churches on three different levels. As we considered membership, we began to ask those in our Sunday School class about the denominational identity of the church. They didn’t know we were Southern Baptist. Neither did our teacher know. We were interested to know how the church participated in cooperative missions so we asked a staff member (an SBC seminary grad) we’d met. He couldn’t answer our question but said he would find out. He brought us a budget summary that did not address our question to any discernable degree. We had to talk to the pastor to find out how the church we were planning to join was involved with other Southern Baptist churches for the purpose of missions. As best I could tell, few others knew the pastor’s vision for the church’s denominational involvement. I’ve heard similar stories from members of other churches for over a decade. The dissipation of Baptist identity within those churches was not the intent of church leaders as they chose a name or rename for their church. And yet, there seems to be an inevitable pull toward a more vague identity.

It sounds simplistic but having Baptist in the name means that the pastor doesn’t have to often say from the pulpit, “We are a Baptist church.” In churches with or without the formal Baptist designation, I’m saying he should do just that, and then he should explain why being Baptist matters.

It matters because Baptist churches have been key advocates for religious liberty in America. Our government’s occasional efforts to encourage freedom of conscience for people around the world are the legacy of Baptists in the United States. Baptists advocate for liberty because we were discouraged, even persecuted by other denominations of the time for preaching the gospel without their permission.

It also matters because Baptists in the U.S. have been among the most, if not the most ardent and effective advocates for missions in every place. That’s our heritage but it’s not just the past. We are still working hard to target the remaining unreached peoples of the world. We have a system that serves this purpose and we have a plan to address this goal. Yes, others are doing missions and smaller groups may be more flexible than our large enterprise; but when we call ourselves “Baptist,” we’re saying that we’re committed and poised to work together for the spread of the gospel.

Being Baptist matters because churches, made up of redeemed people who talk to God, operate under the direct headship of our Lord and Savior. No hierarchy and no outside conclave should interfere in that relationship. Self-governing churches made up of people who discern the will of God in community with other like-minded believers are a very Baptist interpretation of biblical (and Reformation) doctrine. Non-denominational churches may operate this way; newer and smaller denominations may be cooperating groups of autonomous congregations. Where this is so, these congregations are behaving in a right Baptist way.

I think being Baptist matters because there is a body of doctrine that describes us. Baptists believe that the two ordinances are symbolic and significant but not salvific. We have a polity we share with others who bear the name. Baptists believe that Jesus is the only means of salvation and that the Bible is his story—faithful in all that is purported there to be true. Of course, some Baptists accept infant baptism; others are not convinced regarding the authority of Scripture or even the uniqueness of Christ. These Baptists are notable exceptions and frankly have a dubious future among us. “Baptist” is still a useful shorthand way of saying something of what a church believes.

And yes, I do very much love and respect the various community churches and “churches at” one place or another. The pastors I know who’ve led their churches to adopt such monikers are Baptists and overwhelmingly not ashamed of it. For this valuing of these churches’ denominational lineage to trickle down over future generations, these pastors must go out of their way to make the story plain.

They must highlight, alongside various projects originated in their local congregations, the work done in concert with national, state, and associational partners. No church can do all that it’s commissioned to do without working with strategic partners.

Pastors of creatively named (and traditionally named) churches should highlight to church members the portion of their church budgets allocated for Cooperative Program ministries. Most vocational church leaders were educated through the generosity of Baptists they never met. Nearly every church was born with the assistance of Baptists in other locations, even other states and most often through CP funds. Freely we have received; freely give.

How about using new member orientation classes to highlight the reason and content of your church’s denominational identity? Years ago, my church used material produced by a sister church that completely bypassed the subject. It was a strange and inappropriate choice for a traditional and quite Southern Baptist church. Now, our material discusses the Cooperative Program and why we support it. Is there any good reason why any Southern Baptist church by any name should not do this as part of its orientation of new members?

Whether it is through Disaster Relief training and deployment, various kinds of ministry training (Sunday School, VBS, etc.), or some other kind of denominational partnership, church leaders should encourage their members to see and do firsthand the work of their fellow Baptists. In my experience, church members so oriented to their Baptist identity become more committed and useful in ministries of their home churches.

It seems clear that the Southern Baptist Convention is not going to change its name in any way that could obscure our Baptist heritage. The trend for new and established churches to choose names less denominational is also observable. It is a very Baptist thing these churches are doing—deciding for themselves how they’ll be known in their own communities. With a bit of intentional and continued work, our churches by nearly any names can also remain very Baptist things.


This article was first published in the Southern Baptist Texan on November 4, 2011 and was reposted with permission of the author.