This past week I got to go with my wife and her parents to the 2009 Southern Baptist Convention, held in my hometown of Louisville. It was also the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of my alma mater, Southern Seminary.
Many have commented on the graying of the SBC, and the increasing trend of younger ministers to disengage with the Convention because of theological concerns, methodological differences, apathy, or jadedness. So why should a 26 year old recent seminary graduate care about a convention where less than 15% of those who attend are under the age of 40? Simply, I believe in the SBC as a powerful and efficient cooperative fellowship of like-minded churches for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission.
Also, in recent months I have struggled with asking myself “Why am I a Baptist?” And beyond that, why am I a Southern Baptist? Being at the annual SBC meetings was both an eye-opening and intriguing experience into how the machine works and what can happen with 8,000 preachers get together. It was also interesting to talk with older men there, who had struggled through the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC, and to hear about what they had gone through in order for guys my age to study in a confessionally sound seminary. I am proud to stand on their shoulders and am very thankful for all their work for the Kingdom.
Which brings up the original question, in a day when denominations are no longer hip and cool, and younger ministers would rather network at Starbucks or go to conferences hosted by other hip and cool guys with square glasses, why am I a Southern Baptist? I am, for these reasons:
1) Believer’s Baptism and Local Autonomy – People joke with me about being a closet Presbyterian, but I always respond to them with “No, a Reformed Baptist.” In many ways I am grateful to godly Presbyterian brothers for their contribution to exegetical preaching, to theology, and for the approach to worship. I have to break with them, and side wholeheartedly with Baptists, on two key areas. I believe that only those who have professed saving faith in Christ, evidenced by fruit in their lives, based on their testimony should be baptized (and that baptism should be done by immersion in the midst of a local body of believers). I do not believe in baptizing infants or non-professing people. Saving grace must come before baptism, which is both a public testimony of faith and a private expression of obedience to the Lord. I also believe in local church autonomy. I do not believe Jesus instituted the papacy when He called Simon by his new name. Each church has the authority in itself to make decisions based on the leading of Spirit and Scripture. I believe local churches may join together voluntarily for gospel ministry and fellowship, but reject any notion of hierarchy or superiority.
2) The Cooperative Program – In 1925 Southern Baptists took a great step on faith and established what would become known as the CP. We break from many Independent and non-denominational churches on this by establishing a network of financial resources among like-minded churches. In short, there are local, state, and national levels. A local church designates a portion of its offering for the CP, and then the money is distributed at various levels. While it does not seem like much, thousands of churches partnering together leads to an annual giving total of over $200 million!
The CP goes towards supporting many state ministries (including college BCMs, evangelism training, camps, etc.), providing discounted education for the Big Six, funding the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and lastly NAMB and the IMB (our missions agencies). The CP enables our missionaries to focus on the field, instead of coming home every 2 years to solicit support. God has truly blessed Southern Baptists with the CP, and our cooperative spirit can be used for great Kingdom impact.
3) The IMB – Jesus commanded us to make disciples, that is the mission of the church. It pains me when churches neglect this in their vision statements in order to be creative, clever, or put something else (say, evangelism) as the primary command for the church. Disciple-making invokes all the things we Baptists support (evangelism, worship, fellowship, missions, ministry, etc.) This command is also directed in a location, the ends of the earth. The Gospel is worthy of all acceptation, and no people should think themselves superior to another group and withhold from them the Gospel. The IMB is over 5,500 missionaries strong who are going to the ends of the earth carrying something greater than silver, gold, or Western culture. I can think of few organizations within the SBC so worthy of our money, time, and prayer as the IMB. God is using SBC missionaries in countries we cannot name to overcome the vice-grip of Islam on the people, and God is freeing people from animism and secularism across the world. We cannot forsake the nations in our mission emphasis, we have been called to go. I love the IMB and pray for my friends serving across the world with the IMB, and look forward every Christmas to Lottie Moon Offering to support these brothers and sisters.
I am Baptist in both theology and practice, and I join with thousands before who profess to follow the Baptist lineage dating back to the 17th century (sorry Landmarkers). We are a unique people who seek the glory of God in our churches and lives, who command all men to repent and believe in Christ, who value baptism as an expression of salvation, and who believe in liberty of conscience, priesthood of the believer, and autonomy of the local body. I am proud to be Baptist, and for the reasons above, proud to be a Southern Baptist. I look forward to what God has in store for the SBC, and I am anxious to see the next generation of men and women He has raised up to serve and lead in the Convention.