Pastor’s Friday Comments (08.23.19)

I tried something on for size the other day. I was at a faculty meeting for the Contextual Education program at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. We were introducing ourselves to each other with our names and where we served. When it was my turn, I said, “I’m Jim King and I’m pastor of Parkway Church in Johns Creek. We’re a Cooperative Baptist congregation.”

It was a little wordy, I’ll admit, but I liked the way it sounded.

If I had stopped with “Parkway Church” it would have had both positive and negative messages attached. By leaving out the word “Baptist” it would have avoided some of the “brand” connotations with which we do not choose to identify. For people not steeped in the Baptist tradition (and even many who are), the denominational label of Baptist has come to mean ultraconservative, judgmental, and identified with a specific political agenda. While that might be an accurate description of many, if not most, Baptists, it doesn’t represent me (I pray) and I don’t believe it represents our church.

It is ironic that the Southern Baptist Convention, the group that has done the most to taint the brand, is now full of churches that have taken the word “Baptist” out of their title or have removed it from their signage. And it is rare indeed to find a new church plant that voluntarily pins the Baptist label on themselves.

But the negative message that would be connected with simply saying “Parkway Church” is that it says almost nothing about us, except that we are Christian. I was in a room with United Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, members of the United Church of Christ, and others, and their denominational labels told me a little bit about who they were and with whom they most closely associated. We may live in a post-denominational age, where the average church-goer doesn’t care much about your group identity and where many newer churches have no affiliation with a larger group, but when you do, I think you should say so.

So I said we were a “Cooperative Baptist congregation.” I could go into a lot of detail about what that means, and if I said that in many contexts I would need to explain, but most of those in the room understood what I was saying: “We’re not that kind of Baptist. We identify with the Baptist tradition; we hold to the basic tenets of the Baptist faith; we cooperate with like-minded churches in supporting missions and education. But our theology, polity, views on social issues, and approach to our culture bear little resemblance to the larger body of Baptists known as the Southern Baptist Convention.”

I fully understand the difficulty in making a major part of your identity emphasizing who you are not, but for Baptists that’s the first step if you ever want to get to the next step of witnessing for Christ.

In the near future I’d like for us to have a serious and in-depth conversation about how we as a church present ourselves to the world, but for now, if someone asks you where you go to church, say something like, “I go to Parkway Church. We’re a Cooperative Baptist congregation.” I hope that will start a dialogue about who we are and not about who we aren’t. And that can lead you to the more fruitful conversation on why you are a follower of Jesus Christ. That’s where any conversation about church should be heading anyway.