Do you know the story that periodically makes the rounds about the guy standing on the edge of a bridge ready to jump off to commit suicide? Along comes another person who engages him in conversation trying to get him not to jump. Their conversation turns to religion and they find out they are both Baptist.
The conversation moves to more specifically and minutely define their kind of Baptist. They get to a point where they are talking about what version of the Bible each considers to be authoritative. When the potential rescuer discovers that the potential jumper uses a different version of the Bible than he does he says, “Jump you heretic”.
Because we often focus on Baptists who are closest to us geographically, theological, and culturally, we may not realize that there more than three dozen kinds of Baptists organized as denominations in North America.
How many of them can you name? Do you know their distinctive characteristics?
Did you know there is a conference of Baptists who worship on Saturday because that is the Sabbath that we were commanded to keep holy? Did you know there is an organized group of Baptists that have the name Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists? That sure has a hard time fitting on a bumper sticker.
How do you categorize the various types of Baptists? Do you categorize them by theology? If that is the case then you probably know some conservatives, some progressives, some fundamentalists, some liberals, some moderates, some evangelicals, and some mainline Protestants.
Do you categorize them by geography? If that is the case then you know some primarily focused around the southeast and southwest of the USA, some that are focused around the northeast and the north central of the USA, some that are in Canada, some that are on the west coast, and some it is hard to define where they are geographically.
Do you define them by the dominant language in which they currently or once worshiped? If so that you know some English-speaking, some German-speaking, some Swedish-speaking, some Russian-speaking, and so many more that it is hard to name them all.
Do you define them by with whom they affiliate? If so, then you know some are related to the Baptist World Alliance, the North American Baptist Fellowship, the National Council of Churches, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Christian Churches Together in the USA, and many other organizations.
Perhaps you define Baptists by their primary race or ethnicity? If so, then there are probably five primary categories. These are the African-American, Anglo-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, and Native-American. But even these categories are too limiting and narrow.
Then there is the Bible standard. Baptists include those who are unapologetically inerrantist, others believe in the infallibility of the message of the Bible, others appreciate the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture, and some see that the Word of God became flesh in Jesus. Where you on this continuum?
Perhaps you just move to their organizational name when defining Baptists. Here you experience Baptists with names like Alliance, American, Canadian, Conservative, Convention, Converge, Cooperative, Fellowship, General, Japanese, Lott Carey, Mexican, National, North American, Progressive, Russian, Seventh Day, Southern, and others.
The reality is that all of these people with all of these diverse viewpoints and names are Baptists. Somewhere along the way they have emerged out of the movement begun in Europe more than 400 years ago. They take the passion of that movement, and either travel in similar ways as their kindred Baptists, or perhaps travel in very different ways. However, if you have deep enough dialogue with them, you will discover there is a core of commonality and commitment among these Baptists.
You discover there is a deep commitment to being on mission. Some will define that exclusively as Matthew 28:19-20. Some will define it as Matthew 25:40. Some will define it as Luke 4:18-19. Some will focus around being the presence of God and the character of Jesus as the Word made flesh in John 1:14.
But they are all Baptists. A variety of kinds of Baptists are present within the member denominations of the North American Baptist Fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance. It is my joy to serve as the General Secretary for the NABF.
In 2014 we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the North American Baptist Fellowship in an event that is going to need a big tent; one big enough to include all who call themselves Baptists.
What kind of Baptist are you in relationship to your kindred Baptists? Are you the kind of Baptist that wants to be part of the big tent, or are you in a small tent in your backyard with those Baptists who are most like you? We need more big tent Baptists. Are you a big tent Baptist?