Keeping the Baptist Movement moving

By George Mason

Something is happening among Baptists. Do you sense it the way I do? There’s an energy and creativity at work among progressive Baptists that has all the marks of the Holy Spirit being afoot.

Since the start of our wrinkle in time in the larger Baptist movement, we’ve been working to become something and wondering what would become of us. We started with a passion born of grief and loss. In the parlance of market change theory, we were formed by what is called disruptive innovation. What we had known was no longing working, and so we launched a new organizational model that would serve an emerging market. We determined to be a fellowship, not a convention, a network of Baptist churches and individuals.

It has been a felicitous choice. We struck on a model that was firm enough to hold us together and flexible enough to allow for nimble reshaping. We’ve done some of that reshaping lately as we enter our third decade together.


The challenge now is sustaining innovation. This is the more adaptive process that keeps the movement moving.

Last fall many churches observed Reformation Sunday. Some of us Baptists observe it as a way of honoring Protestant kin who bravely started new church traditions half a millennium ago as a disruptive innovation. Others of us nod at the radical reformers, like the Anabaptists, who are our spiritual cousins. Still others of us use the day as a teaching moment to remind our people that we aren’t Protestants at all but Separatists, and what that might mean today in light of the challenges of a changing cultural and religious landscape.

A learned layman in our church went to the pulpit that Sunday to offer the Prayers of the People. He had studied his order of worship and wanted to connect his prayer to the day. So he wrote in bold capital letters the words REFORMATION SUNDAY, but when his mouth formed the words it came out as “Restoration Sunday.” Not many people caught the Freudian slip, but I smiled knowingly because this man had grown up in the Church of Christ. He had heard all his childhood about how the Church of Christ was a restoration movement — attempting to make the church today nothing more or less than the New Testament church.

Baptists are neither part of the Reformed movement that thinks of its work as semper reformanda — “the church is always being reformed” — nor part of the restorationist movement that is always trying to restore the church to its New Testament order — semper restituentis. I would submit that Baptists are better characterized by the metaphor of regeneration. We seek to be a regenerate church that is always regenerating — semper regeneratus.

I like this metaphor because it draws on biblical language and on our tradition of being a believer’s church, and also because it’s deeply organic. The root of the word regeneration is the word gene. And that yields all sorts of cognates like generations, generativity, generosity and ingenuity — all of which are components of what it takes to keep a movement moving.

There’s a life and death process in our cellular structure that takes place continuously. It’s a hidden work of newness that keeps a body healthy across time. Every cell in our bodies is replaced in the regenerative process every seven years. We are altogether new then, and yet we bear the same code within us that allows our identity to persist across time.

But regeneration doesn’t stop there: over time and by the feature of reproduction, it involves not just replication but mutation. Cells not only replicate, they mutate. There are bad mutations and good. Good mutations allow us adapt better to the environment. The changes that happen then are not just keeping things alive; they are making things thrive.

And that’s what we are after in our movement: how to regenerate our life by going back again and again to our deep identity markers, and also how to adapt to our changing circumstances in order to grow as we do. Reformers tinker with change, restorationists resist it mightily, but the regenerativists confront it boldly.

These two aspects of regeneration go together to keep a movement moving: a replication process that keeps us linked to our past and an adaptive process that breaks out of inherited routine in response to changing times.

Isn’t that our story? From the beginning we said we were going back to first principles. We would preserve the distinctives that make Baptists Baptist. But we innovated at the very same time. We were not trying to build a future on the year A.D. 30 or 1609 or 1845. We didn’t even think it was our calling to bring back the glory days of “A Million More in ’54.” (You need a lot of gray hair to remember that.)

So what is called for today to keep us moving? I want to address three things: membership, leadership and discipleship.

First, we must regenerate our church membership.

You must be born again, Jesus told Nicodemus. Against the Augustinian notion of a church in which the wheat and tares grow up together and God sorts us out in the end, Baptists have sought to be a believer’s church. We come into fellowship with the church by coming into fellowship with Christ first. No one is coerced into our ranks. We enter into the body freely, by conscious faith that comes from a free act of conscience. This is a cardinal rule of Baptist life. We must continue to call people to personal faith in Jesus Christ and invite them to follow the Lord together with us.

It’s a work of the whole church. One generation shall laud the works of God to another. We cannot neglect our witness to young and old alike. We cannot neglect our call to be churches of genuine disciples of Jesus. Every generation of the church has to work to keep this Baptist distinctive clear.

Our growing recognition of the good Christian brothers and sisters in other denominations has sometimes softened our stance on this. Warren McWilliams has written, “Although Baptists share many core convictions with other Christian groups, our insistence on a regenerate church membership is one of our hallmarks.” For all our friendship with Protestant churches, we must not suffer the loss of Baptist identity that comes from a heartfelt ecumenical spirit. We have to preserve this regenerating aspect of church membership.

And now that I have established my credentials on this, you will think I am talking out of both sides of my mouth, but stay with me. Today I believe that tying church membership in an exclusive way to our rightful practice of believer’s baptism by immersion is undermining the bonds of unity in the wider body of Christ and harming our witness.

Like some of your churches, ours has come to believe that we can be true to our Baptist heritage of a regenerate membership and be generous at the same time to those believers among us who have been baptized in ways we might call irregular but not invalid. A regenerate church can also be an inclusive church of all believers.

The circumstances of our times are different from those of our birth. We don’t have to pull away from the state or the state church to establish our identity today. We have won the day in dis- establishing the church from the state — although we continue to stand astride the wall to keep it so. We have entered now into a new missional era like unto the apostolic period, and our internecine debates deter our common witness.

It has become a scandal against the gospel rather than a scandal of the gospel when we insist on forcing fellow believers to conform to external form rather that liberating faith by being rebaptized in order to take their place among us. The logic that says that they were never really baptized — even though their churches acted in good faith in the name of the triune God and these then came to personal faith themselves — just doesn’t hold water.

Many who were irregularly baptized worship and serve among us as mature Christian sisters and brothers. They refuse to be baptized just to join the club. And that limits their service among us. We are crippling our witness by putting form before function. We are relegating ourselves to intramurals when the real field of play in the world is calling us. And we need all the players we can get on that field of play.

We can regenerate our churches by adapting to the needs of a pluralist religious environment. We can insist on the personal confession of Jesus as Lord and welcome them into full fellowship with us by the affirmation of previous baptisms, without changing our own normative practice for new believers.

Second, we must regenerate our church leadership.

We have a never-ending challenge to produce new leaders of our movement. I am greatly encouraged about this in some respects. We are seeing a youth movement in our midst. There was a time when many wondered if the energy that got us started would fade with the graying of our leaders. There are good signs that we are passing the baton. We are seeing the fruits now of all the seminaries and divinity schools and Baptist houses we have invested in.

Still, we must heed the example of Paul, who encouraged Timothy not to despise his own youth, and in doing so Paul did not despise Timothy’s youth. And yet, I hear many churches that are looking for pastors that are essentially despising the youth of candidates. Everyone wants a pastor with many years of pastoral experience — regardless of the preparation of the young ministers or their promise. Churches are losing their self-confidence in being able to help shape the ministry of young people, including pastors.

When I was being considered by the search committee of Wilshire 25 years ago, the church heard the committee describe me as their candidate. Someone stood up and asked whether they really thought a 32-year-old with only less than four years of pastoral experience in a small church would be up to the challenge. An elderly deacon stood in the back and said: “Friends, we are asking the wrong question. It’s not whether he is up to it; it’s whether we are. Great churches make great pastors, more so than the other way round.” Now that’s what we need more of today.

Young men and women are being called by God and trained to the work. But they are not being called by us into service the way they should be. And I did say women, too, didn’t I? Too often we say we believe women too are called to be pastors, but pastor search committees dismiss them because the church is not ready for a woman. Why has a church elected a search committee if not that they trust them to discern God’s call for the church? We need to do better at this is — right now.

Also, how long has it been since your church has called out a young person for ministry? We used to make this a key component of our church life. We used to think about the generativity of our ministry for the larger church. But nowadays we have become more like direct service providers to customers rather than incubating communities for the call of God.

We need to regenerate our movement with young people who will lead us in the future. And we have to adapt to new ways of calling them.

Ronald Heifitz is one of the founders of the adaptive change movement of leadership. He contrasts the conventional thinking of leadership with that of true adaptive leadership. In the usual model we think of leaders as shepherds of the flock, whose instinct is always to protect the system from everything that threatens it. But the adaptive leader takes it on, challenging the system to confront its environment and adapt the organization’s functioning to the changed culture.

I met recently in Indianapolis with Tim Shapiro, president of the Center for Congregations. He was talking to our Alban Institute board about a research grant program they are doing with 30 Indiana congregations. They are looking for innovations in youth ministry that will produce better young followers of Jesus. He said that when they brought together the leaders of these churches and asked them what their values were for youth ministry the one thing they heard again and again was about how they try to create safe space for kids. They want to protect them, to teach them how to resist the pressures of culture, and so on.

Tim said that his colleagues wondered whether that is one of the problems. No one mentioned how they were seeking to teach kids how to live adventurous lives, how to distinguish themselves from their peer groups and do daring things with their lives for Christ. That’s what will compel young people to join us in the work.

Finally, we must regenerate our church discipleship.

We have professionalized our mission work and have too often delegated it to the experts to do on our behalf. In the meantime, we have interpreted our call at home to be to support them in their work, go on an occasional mission trip, witness to our neighbors about salvation, and keep ourselves pure in heart.

In doing so we have neglected to see that our mission in the world is all of our work. And that will take expanding our understanding of discipleship as not merely personal righteousness but also social justice. The words righteousness and justice come from the same biblical root — and yet we have been afraid of justice work because it might make us disturbers of the peace.

If we are to regenerate our movement, we will need to take our discipleship to a new level. We need to go public.

Personal righteousness must be matched by public advocacy for justice. Our youth culture will no longer be drawn to a gospel preached by a church of perfect piety that neglects the poor, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged. Young people are not impressed by charity. They want to get to the root of things and make a difference that lasts.

Justice-seeking disciples will go to bat in the courtrooms and boardrooms and classrooms of our communities. If we are to regenerate our movement, we will have to take sides at times against those who would for their own gain gainsay others. We will become a people who stand up and speak up for justice because it is right, and because it is the way we love our neighbors truly and completely. As the author of Race Matters, Cornel West, has put it: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

But if we begin to change the shape of our discipleship in this way, it will bring blowback from some who will cry that we are meddling in politics and ought to keep ourselves to the private sphere of religion. That only ghettoizes the gospel in a way that will kill our movement in the next generation. The church is a political body; but we are first and last gospel partisans, and only Democrats or Republicans in between.

We must listen to Paul’s words to Timothy again: God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

The poet Seamus Heaney died last year. He was a beloved Nobel laureate. His words were plain and earthy, but they became a balm to an afflicted people. He wrote for peace in his world of Northern Ireland. It was dangerous at times to be a poet like that. But as one news report said of him in the wake of his passing: “Seamus Heaney told generations of aspiring writers: ‘Do not be afraid’ in taking up the pen. Through decades he implored politicians, north and south, unionist and nationalist, ‘do not be afraid’ in choosing the path of peace and eventually ending the Troubles by putting down the gun.”

It wasn’t just writers he urged not to be afraid. The last words he communicated before he died were to his wife in a text message. He chose his beloved Latin — the language of the church — to say the same thing one more time to the love of his life. Noli Timere. Do not be afraid.

If we could peel back that thin veil between heaven and earth, I believe the message we would hear from Baptist saints like John Smyth and Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams and William Carey and Adoniram Judson and John Leland and Issac Backus and Lottie Moon and Clarence Jordan and Martin Luther King Jr. and Cecil Sherman — to name just a few — is the same: “Do not be afraid.”

And so I would say to us, Noli timere, Baptist friends. Noli timere.

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