I am a pastor at University BAPTIST Church. If you had told me 15 years ago that this would be the case, I would have never believed you. My impression of Baptist was shaped by my experiences. There was one Baptist church in my small Northern Wisconsin town of predominantly German Catholic/Scandinavian Lutherans. I was a nondenominational charismatic. The few Baptists I knew seemed frigid and reeked of the wrong kind of religious piety. To make matters (or at least impressions) worse, the other Baptists I knew were from the area home school group of which I was a part. They were kind but struck me as culturally unaware in way that made the Amish look like hipsters. We’d gather for co-op events like down hill ski day and the Baptist homeschoolers would show up in long jean skirts with scarves wrapped around their ankles. Attempts at cultural conversations about Michael Jordan, Jackson or J. Fox were completely futile. The only Mike they new about was the one that helped Daniel.
Given this, it might surprise readers to know that I chose to go to a Baptist college. At Bethel University I discovered Swedish Baptists, which are part of the Baptist General Convention (BGC). These Baptist shared my evangelical flare, but lacked the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Lucky for them I came to Minnesota to fix that. The next four years were some of the most formative of my life, as college often is. I moved toward a Baptist identity and in the process discovered that many of my BGC friends already knew about the Holy Spirit and had a wide variety of ways of responding to that knowledge.
Variety, I would come to learn, is an identity marker of Baptist life. Pick a theological issue and you’ll find a variety of opinions from a variety of Baptists. This point was made poignantly clear to me by the stark differences in Greg Boyd and John Piper’s Baptist churches, both of which are BGC churches I visited during my four your stint in St. Paul. The two have about as divergent of opinions possible on issues including, but not limited to: salvation, providence, and God’s knowledge. If I moved to one side of the Baptist tent, what I discovered is that I didn’t have the keen vision needed to see the other side. Baptist, I learned, meant a lot of things.
It wasn’t until I got to Truett Seminary that I actually learned what a Baptist was. In my polity class we learned that the Baptist distinctives are: autonomy of the local church, soul competency, two ordinances, priesthood of all believers, separation of church and state, Biblical authority, and two ordinances of the church (give or take a few … see autonomy of the local church). At this point I thought to myself, “self, I could get behind this Baptist thing.”
The other lesson I learned about Baptist when I came to Truett is that there are a lot of politics in Baptist life. Peers would refer to the big six Southern Baptist Seminaries none of which I had ever heard of. Anonymous someones would share how people had been hurt, fundamentalists had taken over and moderates were organizing in response. I quickly learned that I was not a Southern Baptist, though I was now a Baptist in the south. So this is how I now self identify: As Baptist with a southern flavor distinguishing myself from Southern Baptist.
But it’s not just being Baptist that has taken some getting used to, it’s also the South. Madison, the capital of my home state Wisconsin, was the first city to lobby to have sex change operations reimbursed with public money. This example is accompanied by the social climate that one might suspect gives rise to that sort of political legislation. If you are a demographer of any kind you might guess that the North is a much more sterile, even religiously hostile, place. Though census reports may reveal that religion runs rampant, Christian faith and more accurately denominational affiliation is by and large a civic duty. No one talks about the Jesus at the center of their Chreaster goings.
Conversely, the first week my wife and I lived here we stood in line at Jason’ Deli listening a pair of young women in front of us talking about church planting. Instead of the yellow pages being dominated by bars, they are consumed by churches. I was shocked when I reached the center of field as a coach my son’s soccer team and the referee asked who was going to pray—a city league mind you. I thought about volunteering and ending the prayer with “and we pray these things in the name of Allah,” to make a point, but wisdom prompted me to do otherwise.
Waco has turned out to be a much different place than Tomahawk, where I grew up. It might be because the city plays host to the largest evangelical university in the world, but I’d argue that Waco lays exclusive claim to the title, “buckle of the Bible belt.”
Given this, pastoring in the Baptist South has presented me with interesting challenges and opportunities for growth. I love the passion of the South. Though I don’t always agree, I love that South Baptists care so much. I love the sincerity of people around here. People aren’t just nosy, they are concerned. I love Baptists’ insistent belief that each congregation is unique and has something to contribute to the Kingdom. I love how networked this world is. The differences between large “C” and little “c” church is relatively minimal not just among Baptists but even across some denominations.
I love the efficiency of the second person singular and plural forms “y’all” and “all y’all”. I love the Baylor Bears. I now love brisket and TexMex and will even occasional enjoy a sweet tea.
But most of all I love UBC. This community has redefined church for me in the healthiest possible way.