Am I Emergent-Baptist?

I minister on the periphery of Baptist life, trying to start a progressive Baptist church in the heart of the old empire.  I’m old enough to remember well the Baptist wars of decades ago, and yet new enough to ministry to be constantly frustrated by progressive Baptists’ preoccupation with differentiating ourselves from what we left behind.  When I go to Baptist conferences, I hear lots of conversations that can be grouped into two categories: the first is handwringing over the future of progressive Baptists, and the second is of the “aren’t we more enlightened than other unnamed Baptists” variety.  And I’m not really interested in either (though like everyone else, I sometime engage in both).

The first set of conversations annoy me because I believe we are called to be the church—for me, emphatically in the Baptist tradition—and if we are the church, live out the Gospel, and properly manage our institutions (and budgets), the future will take care of itself, one way or the other.  As deep of a Baptist as I am (mine is the seventh generation of my family to include a Baptist preacher), Baptists are not a “remnant,” and God’s kingdom will continue to break into earth whether “Baptists” are around to do it or not.

The second set of conversations just puzzles me.  They’re like listening to a person argue with their father, when the father has long since died and been put in the ground.  We need to let go of the argument, of the need to be right, and get on with living.  Also, the insecurity underlying this need to differentiate is no longer justified.  At this point it’s clear, mostly, who’s going to be left in the tent with us.  (It’s also clear who’s going to be progressive only on the “down low.”)  We can rightly be proud of the last 20 years, of the struggles and grieving, but it’s time to let all that go.  We have healed, and that healing has come at a cost.  It’s time, finally, to put that healing to good use and make our presence felt in the world.

I say all this as background to giving my reflection on the Phyllis Tickle/Emergence Christianity gathering that took place in Memphis last weekend (Jan 10—12).

Over the past several years, I have been disappointed by the scarcity of Baptist faces (and voices) at conferences I’ve attended on community development and on the Emergent church.  Much of the rhetoric about the new age of post-denominationalism heralds the arrival of decentralized authority and networks of support in lieu of chains of command.  But we still assume that this mostly involves just Baptists, and it doesn’t—or at least it shouldn’t.  Organizations such as OxFam, the Christian Community Development Association, and the American Friends Service Committee are excellent examples of potential partners in the Gospel work we are called to do.  Likewise, Baptists have a proud history of being at the vanguard of protecting religious liberty, our own and everyone else’s, and we should find a way of accepting the support of likeminded non-Baptists in this endeavor.  And we should find a way to do both these things without sacrificing our baptist-ness (and definitely without sacrificing the word “Baptist”).

One solution may be to enter the age of the hyphenated Baptists.  For in precisely the same way that Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and many, many others have found in these unwieldy hyphenated terms a way to maintain their cultural distinctives while claiming a common American identity, so too we Baptists need to find identifiers that help us hold on to our baptistness while solidifying bonds with those outside the Baptist tent. (By this logic, I suppose I’m an Emergent-Baptist, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.)

It was so great to be at the Emergence Christianity gathering where people were truly excited and filled with the spirit talking about how lucky we are to get to imagine how church can be done differently.  The creativity, the hope, were both so energizing.  There were non-denominationals, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Vineyard folks, as well as enough progressive Baptists to make me proud.  And the fact that there was this intermingling across denominations only added to the excitement.

I look forward with great joy to the annual CBF meeting to be held in Greensboro this summer, but more Baptist leaders simply have to go to more conferences that involve mostly non-Baptists and become a part of the conversations that are going on, currently, without us. We have so much to offer, and so, so much to learn. For the past 100 years, Baptists, like Texas, have been big enough to pretend we’re all that matters. We don’t have that luxury any more. That’s what this “emergence” stuff is about—not just talking about post-denominationalism, but actually living it.

John Carter

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The writer is a lawyer and Baptist minister living in Nashville, Tennessee. You can follow him on twitter @roguebaptist.

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