Who are we after the Baptist wars? - Word&Way

Who are we after the Baptist wars?

Our church’s recent quarterly business meeting seemed routine enough (if there is such a thing as a routine business meeting). But very quietly, something historic occurred that evening. In our congregational vote to grant membership letters to those who had moved to another church, we had said goodbye to the last First Baptist Church member employed at the Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated Missouri Baptist Convention, headquartered just two blocks from us.

Doyle SagerDoyle SagerA brief history lesson is in order:

The MBC was founded in 1834. Three years later, our church, First Baptist of Jefferson City, Mo., was established. As nearly as we can tell, our entire 179-year existence has seen “Baptist Building” folks in our congregational membership and leadership.

When I arrived as pastor 19 years ago, the latest church directory pictured at least 40 families either employed by the MBC or recently retired from there. Of course, by that time, 1997, the SBC fundamentalist takeover (or conservative resurgence, if you prefer) had moved to the state level.

As the controversy reached the doors of our church, our congregation chose to do a very Baptist thing — we insisted on local church autonomy and voluntary missions cooperation. In other words, most of our people began to feel more at home among friends in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (in both its state and national expression) and the Baptist General Convention of Missouri (Churchnet).

Over time, many Baptist Building staff members chose to find another church home (either through personal conviction or due to a requirement from supervisors). Finally, in 2006, First Baptist was dismissed from MBC membership. Among our alleged infractions were partnering with CBF and ordaining women. By then, only a few MBC employees remained in our church fellowship, and all of those were support staff.

That brings me back to the congregational business meeting when the final MBC staffer moved membership away from FBC.

The business meeting and the 10th anniversary of our MBC/SBC ouster have caused me to reflect about our congregation. Where are we and who have we become?

Let me begin by saying much of the congregational change we have experienced over the last decade has been driven by cultural as well as ecclesial forces. Having said that, our transition could be boiled down to one sentence: We are Kingdom-focused, not denomination-focused.

No, we are not jettisoning our Baptist identity. But that identity is not our mission; it is one of the vehicles for accomplishing our mission. I happen to disagree with those who say we live in a post-denominational time. I prefer to say we live in a trans-denominational time.

I like Carlyle Marney’s suggestion that baptist (lower case b) makes a better adjective than a noun.

Denominations remind us that something happened before we got here and that we have the privilege of standing on their hard work and clear thinking. But those entities should inform us. They should never enslave us.

First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Mo., is currently enjoying an entrepreneurial approach to ministry (that’s church-speak for “we don’t have any idea where the Spirit is leading, but we’re excited about the journey!”). We are much more engaged in our community and much more incarnational in our witness. We are no longer FBC of Jefferson City; we are FBC in Jefferson City.

Regarding our new denomi-movement home (CBF), we are very happy. 1) We love the freedom. 2) We love the progress toward gender and racial equality. 3) We love being part of something small and struggling (more humility, less hubris). 4) We love the emphasis on radical grace (everyone is welcome, with no asterisks. We really mean everyone!). 5) We love the gospel emphasis of physical-spiritual-emotional-social salvation, including the balance between passionate spirituality and engaged minds. 6) We love the fresh sense of mission.

When I came to be pastor many years ago, I didn’t know how many church and cultural changes lurked just around the corner. If I had known, I might have been frightened away.

Thank God, I came. I would not have missed this for the world!

Doyle Sager is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Mo.