We went to church on Sunday, not something we always do on holidays, but we both felt it would be good to gather with some others for the morning so we choofed off to Broome Baptist church.
It wasn’t the only choice before us, but it was where we finished up. Before we left I was pondering why we would make that choice – instead of gathering with the SDA church on Saturday, or lobbing in with the Pentecostals just down the road… Why are we Baptist?…
So (as I do with all tough questions) I asked Danelle… ‘honey why do we go to a Baptist church?’ And in typical Danelle fashion she replied with ‘because we always have?…’ That was what I was thinking but it just seemed a bit lame… However for reasons of history and longevity and familiarity this seems to be our tribe or our clan. I was hoping it might be a theological claim or a particular inspirational aspect of our identity but I think if we honest it’s really just that it’s what we know best.
And it’s not that I like everything about who we are. I don’t. I see many ‘Baptist blind spots’, but it’s still my tribe. I did jump ship once back in the 80s when I started teaching and found myself in a small country town (Wagin) where I ended up joining the Uniting Church. Seems odd – and I think it seemed odd to some of the local Baptists who knew me and thought I would head their way. But I made a friend in the Uniting church who is still a good mate today and that was what landed me there. Good people in that church, but since then I’ve been a ‘Baptist’ for 26 years. (I even got invited to be a youth pastor at a Pentecostal church at one point in that time but I was only two years into teaching and it just didn’t feel right.)
Back to being Baptist though…
If I had to choose words that would describe most Baptist churches they would probably be words like ‘quiet’, ‘reserved’, ‘orderly’, ‘predictable’. The ‘upside’ of these qualities is that we don’t trade in hype, but the downside is that we can often appear lethargic and dull – uninspiring even – and sometimes we are. I don’t like that about us. In fact it irks me badly. There are days I wish we could express some excitement visibly and spontaneously without it feeling forced or odd. But for some reason when it gets announced in church that someone in the church is healed of cancer (or similar) we sit there sedately as if we had just heard that there was a change in the morning tea roster.
As an introvert by nature I find a lot of our qualities appealing, but I would hope we could express more energy and passion in our gatherings and relationships. Actually as I consider it more closely it seems that it is primarily our worship gatherings that carry this reserved and steady (absence of) energy.
There is a cerebralness to Baptist churches that seems to typify our DNA. I am probably a typical example of that. I could sit thru the most awful singing and music week after week (and I’m not saying I do!) if I knew there was a decent bit of teaching to follow. I think that’s pretty typical of most Baptists – get the preaching right and you can keep a lot of people very happy. Which isn’t to say that doesn’t matter in other traditions, buy for us a well developed expositional sermon really is the ducks nuts.
I imagine I could ‘jump ship’ if I had to but I don’t think I could jump far. I couldn’t settle easily into a pentecostal church theologically or culturally. I wouldn’t feel at home in Anglicanism although there are aspects I like. The Salvos?… Good people but funny clothes… There are some closer to home – Vineyard and Churches of Christ that would fit us better but for better or worse I seem to be a Baptist.
Ironically there is much to like in our distinctives (even we don’t always adhere to them). The priesthood of all believers is a biggie – but still bigger in theory than in practice. I think the more paid staff a church has the harder this one gets to maintain.
Congregational government in its best form (discerning together the will of God as opposed to ‘voting’/democracy) is something I can cheer for and hope to see more of, but it is an unwieldy method of decision making in a larger church. (The easy solution here is to keep churches sufficiently small for it to be possible and I think that deserves some serious thought.)
Freedom of conscience – allowing one another to differ on our position on various issues – is another one I can say ‘yeah baby’ to but it has it’s challenges too as we enter contentious areas. Churches – especially conservative ones – seem to feel a need to ‘mark their territory’ so lines get drawn and people get hemmed in when it isn’t always appropriate. I’m not sure if Baptist churches allow ‘freedom of conscience’ on the issue of gay marriage, as it seems that in the debates around the place the denominations are tending to draw boundary lines and defining some as ‘out of the tribe’… Which seems just a bit ‘unbaptist’.
Then there’s believers baptism as a distinctive and ironically this is one I am less concerned by. Theologically I see it as the preferred baptismal mode, but all those others who have read infant baptism as normative aren’t mugs… So one of us is possibly wrong… Maybe it’s us?
The authority of scripture is another big one, but hardly a distinctive. Of course the question in there is what ‘authority’ means in practice. How does it work in our interpretation and application?
I could go on…
I am certainly ‘Baptist’ because I see value in our core distinctives, but if I’m honest I’m ‘in’ more because it’s where I feel at home – where my family are – and where I feel I belong.
I do sense my life is poorer for not being as expressive and celebratory as my Pentecostal friends. I sense there is something in the sacramental Anglican churches that I miss because I just don’t regularly connect with God like that. And I also miss the warmth and flexibility of simple church gatherings that use homes, parks or wherever they like to get together.
So I’m not about to change seats at the table (‘change teams’ is a bad analogy) at this stage, but I do hope we will be able to find ways to enrich the culture of our own church so that we aren’t ‘typical’ Baptists, but rather can learn from the best of all traditions while retaining our own uniqueness.
I used to hold my ‘Baptist’ identity lightly, and in one sense I still do – (‘Christian first – Baptist second’) but I can’t deny that this my mob and I’m ‘in’ for better or worse.
Just some reflections from under the mango tree on a balmy afternoon in Broome…
Good stuff, Hamo. I spent 6 months “double attending”church. A Roman Catholic church at 8:30 and an non-denominational evangelical church at 10:30. But, since I’m such a cynical type I found myself pitting them against each other rather than appreciating each for it’s strengths. If I’m honest, it would come down to the preaching for me. The Catholic makes up for (at times) weaker preaching by the collects, hymns and prayers that are chosen to compliment the lectionary readings for the day. If the homily stunk, you can still reap depth from the other elements. The evangelical church may have stronger (?) preaching but you frequently find yourself at the mercy of the pastor’s current agenda (or whatever book he happened to read last). And if the sermon stinks, the songs and extemporaneous prayers along with the lack of actual Bible reading leaves almost nothing.
In the end, we go to the Catholic church and exposit the readings together at home as a family.
But why Catholic? Because that’s how I grew up. It’s most familiar. We’ve tried Lutheran, Anglican, Pentecostal, Baptist, Assembly of God, Covenant. But we return to “what we’ve always done” for no other reason than that.
This is a good thinker, though.