I am grateful for my heritage as a Southern Baptist. I was exposed to the Bible and worship from a very young age. I grew up in a church in south Alabama that supported the Cooperative Program of missions giving. This meant that our church had the benefit of being part of a supportive group of local churches and the educational opportunities that afforded. Our state convention provided varied and effective ministries with groups like orphans, ethnic groups, and college students. We supported missionaries at home and abroad. We had good Bible study and training literature (which we paid for, of course). I went to an accredited seminary and paid a remarkably low tuition. Wherever you went on a Sunday morning (in the Southeast and Southwest, at least), you could find a church that sang the familiar hymns and studied the same Bible lesson.
In hindsight, I realize that this Southern Baptist utopia was imperfect. There were significant theological differences, often geographical, which were kept in check by a consensus on the importance of a shared missions program and support for institutions. Leadership roles were limited to white males. We thought we were “God’s last and only hope” (to use Bill Leonard’s book title). Implicitly or explicitly, we perpetuated racism.
Certainly, there were prophetic voices like Brooks Hays, Foy Valentine, Henlee Barnette, and Jimmy Allen in denominational roles. There were pastors like my home church pastor Bob Ferguson who worked for racial justice. There were campus ministers like Jim Greene, Louie Farmer, and Fred Witty who took unpopular stands in both subtle and overt ways. By and large, they were the exceptions rather than the rule.
But things changed. Both younger and older Baptists began to question authority. The structures became to seem restrictive rather than empowering. Minority voices became stronger and louder, more influential. The old ways no longer made sense to many and they wanted to try something new. Old regional differences—both theological and cultural—could no longer be held in check. The response was to fall back to the default position—authoritarianism, uniformity, elitism, and sexism. The structure was fractured.
I am grateful for my upbringing as a Southern Baptist, but as Thomas Wolfe wrote, you can’t go home again. I value my friends who are still involved in Southern Baptist work as well as those who have left to become part of the Methodist, Disciples, UCC, Presbyterian, Episcopal, or other traditions (or no tradition). I would like to think that our upbringing provides something that enriches these traditions while learning from them.
I am a recovering Southern Baptist and perhaps always will be, but times change, people change, and I changed. Thanks for the memories!