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"What Does it Mean to be Southern Baptist?" (Part 1)

07.19.21 | Newsletter | by Nathan Moore

    Over the last several months the designation “Southern Baptist” has been in the news a bit more than normal. One reason for this is that Southern Baptists just held their annual meeting, which happened to be the largest Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting of the 21st century. Another reason for the attention is that the SBC is the largest protestant denomination in the US, with more than 47,500 churches nationwide. The sheer size of our denomination means we make waves whenever our ship moves–even a little bit. Because of this, denominational conversations about sexual abuse, racism, and other difficult issues tend to be brought out into the public.

    As a lifelong Southern Baptist, a graduate of two SBC seminaries, and a SBC pastor, I’ve always been interested, intrigued, and even saddened to hear the different things people associate with the label “Southern Baptist.” Some people seem to be hesitant or even embarrassed to be considered Southern Baptist. But what I’ve found is that many people, including those who attend a Southern Baptist church, aren’t sure what it means to be Southern Baptist. Instead, their perception about the SBC has been shaped by stereotypes or one-sided reports they hear on the news. Now, I will be quick to admit that we have our problems, and our long and storied history is not without stains (Did you know the SBC was founded in 1845!), but that is only part of the story.

    I love being a Southern Baptist, and my goal over the next several months is to write a series of  articles to introduce  you to  the  SBC. Hopefully,  you’ll learn some things. And maybe along the way,  you’ll gain a new appreciation for what  it means to be a Southern Baptist.    

    This month, I simply want to answer two questions, What is the Southern Baptist Convention? and What does it mean to attend a Southern Baptist church?

    What is the Southern Baptist Convention?

    There are two words you need to remember in order to understand the SBC: cooperation and mission. If I had to give a one sentence definition of the SBC, I’d say the SBC is a group of like-minded, evangelical churches that cooperate together to fulfill the Great Commission.

    I’ll address cooperation more in a future article, but the bottom line is that the SBC is comprised of churches that are    passionate about fulfilling the Great Commission. Furthermore, Southern Baptists recognize that there are many strategic, missional endeavors that one local church, no matter how large, just could not accomplish on its own; cooperation is needed.

    For example, did you know that Southern Baptists cooperate to train, fund, and resource several Gospel-workers who work full-time to engage the students of ETSU with the Gospel? We even own an awesome facility, known as “the B,” on-campus. Now here at Trinity, we could never pull a ministry like that off on our own. But what if we were to pool our  resources with lots of other like-minded churches? What could we do then? Who could we reach? This is the logic behind cooperation. Of course, our mission isn’t just to reach ETSU, but our mission extends to every nation, people group, and person on the planet. A task that large needs some coordination. That’s what the Southern Baptist Convention is: a group of like-minded churches that cooperate to fulfill the Great Commission in very specific and strategic ways.

    What does it mean to attend a Southern Baptist Church?

    To attend a SBC church simply means that your church doctrinally aligns with the doctrinal statement of the SBC (known as the Baptist Faith and Message 2000) and cooperates by giving money to the Cooperate Program (more on this later) or to other SBC ministries. At Trinity for example, we cooperate in a significant way by giving 9% of our undesignated  receipts to SBC ministries. Additionally, we participate annually in special offerings such as Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong, and the Golden Offering, each of which supports specific SBC causes. So practically, by attending Trinity–a SBC church–means that a portion of your tithes and offerings go towards Southern Baptist Great Commission efforts.

    But not all SBC churches participate in this way. In fact, there is some pretty major wiggle room here. Did you know that each year, there are thousands of “SBC churches” that don’t give a penny to SBC causes during that particular year? Yet, in most cases, they technically remain SBC. The takeaway here is that churches decide on their own, how much they want to cooperate. Not surprisingly, churches can vary dramatically on how committed they are to the SBC. (Note: just because a SBC church doesn’t give to SBC causes doesn’t necessarily mean they are not missional–they may be  fulfilling the GC in other very effective ways.)

    Unity, Diversity, and Scope

    However, I believe this diversity in giving illustrates an important point about what it means to be in the Southern Baptist Convention. While Southern Baptists are united by a common set of beliefs and a common concern for the Great    Commission, we are not a monolithic people. There are a number of ways where Southern Baptist churches are increasingly diverse, not only in our level of participation but in ethnicity, language, culture, style, and philosophy.

    For starters, Southern Baptists are not necessarily southern, but are found in every state and territory in America. We attend young churches and old churches, traditional churches and contemporary churches, urban churches and suburban churches, and everything in between. We even cooperate with Cowboy churches?! Best of all, there are dozens of ethnicities represented in our denomination. In fact, nearly 1 out of every 4 SBC congregations is majority non-anglo.  Each week,  Southern Baptists  gather to  worship the Lord in  more than 100 languages. I believe this diversity is right and good; a wonderful foretaste of heaven, where one day people from every tongue, tribe, and  nation will  gather, united as one body to worship the Lord God (Revelation 7:9). But that day is not here yet. And our diversity does bring a variety of challenges.

    While Southern Baptists agree on major points of doctrine and the urgency of the Great Commission, local churches (and members within those local churches) can and do disagree on all sorts of things including secondary points of  doctrine and how to do ministry. Remember there are 47,500 SBC churches! This is because Southern Baptists are committed to the biblical principle of autonomy, which we will explore in a later article. The key takeaway here is that Southern Baptist churches are a diverse group, but united on the essentials, especially a love for the Gospel and a  commitment to fulfilling the Great Commission through cooperation.

    I sincerely hope this article helps orient you to the SBC and provides insight on what it means to attend a SBC church. Keep an eye out for future installments where I will answer questions like: What do Southern Baptists  believe? What is autonomy? Why is it so important? And how do Southern Baptists cooperate to fulfill the Great Commission?

    In the meantime, I pray that we would continue to strive each week to fulfill the Great Commission through the primary means God has ordained for reaching the world: the ordinary yet glorious local church–just like ours here at Trinity Baptist Church.