In 2003-4, as an undergraduate at San Jose State University, I was looking for a seminary. I wanted a strong theological education, and, at first, I didn’t want to leave the West Coast. I looked into Phoenix Seminary and, most seriously, Westminster Seminary in Escondido (San Diego), where I used to live.
Providentially, God directed my attention to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Now, when you’re from the heart of Silicon Valley, a California native, and a non-denominationally bred young dude, Kentucky is not the most attractive option. But looking closer, I concluded two things: (1) SBTS would provide the best available education; (2) SBTS would provide the best opportunity not to remain single (i.e. a larger enrollment of girls than the other options).
For my first semester, I paid full, non-Southern Baptist tuition (double), because I could not in good conscience sign a covenant saying I would agree to minister in the Southern Baptist Convention. I was expecting to go back to California, maybe San Francisco, so I could watch the Giants at home and minister to a beautiful city that needs Jesus.
Jesus had other plans.
I got the two things I was looking for. I got a top-notch theological education, and I am grateful. Even better, I got a super cute girl to notice me, like me, and marry me. Laura was born and bred Southern Baptist. In a recent conversation, someone referred to her past as “SBC royalty.” So there was the “Laura-is-SBC-factor”; but, also, God was moving my heart toward South Florida and toward Southern Baptist life.
It’s a long story, but we started looking for a position, and God opened one at Pembroke Road Baptist Church, where I began pastoring in March, 2009. By God’s grace, I plan on serving my life in ministry here, in this church, and therefore in this Convention. In some ways, I feel like the SBC is a family I married into, and the longer I know the family, the more I see the good and the bad up close. My friends who are life-term, SBC born-and-bred, often have a more jaded view of things, and I see their point. I’m new, and I tend to see the good in general, so I’m not as sensitive to the broken parts of this Convention of churches. I see broken parts, but I also love the parts that work. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Missions. The heart of the SBC is the Great Commission, and funding missions is a high priority. I am from a non-denominational background, where all mission is “faith-based”, meaning it’s based on faith in God to raise support. This model was popularized by Hudson Taylor, and until I went to Southern, I had no idea there was another way. But there is, and it is much better. Some of my good friends are “independent” missionaries, and they have to spend a lot of their lives raising and sustaining financial support networks. Their only financial infrastructure is the one they build and maintain. It’s hard enough to preach Jesus in a far away place, to people very different from you–but always having to worry about money? That stinks.
Enter the Cooperative Program. I know, I know. It’s broken in a lot of ways: Too much money stays in the state, gets sucked into bureaucracy, and doesn’t get to Mumbai, Myanmar, or Manila (SBC folks understand what I mean). But it is still so much better than the other way around. SBC missionaries are free to serve without having to raise their own salaries. That’s good. No, that’s awesome, and before I was a Southern Baptist, I didn’t know it could be done that way.
Likewise, the (increasingly renewed) emphasis on church planting from the North American Mission Board encourages me. We need more good churches everywhere. The SBC was committed to church planting before it was cool, and that commitment has grown massively since I started at SBTS. I love that.
2. Ecclesiology. The biblical teaching on the church. Ok, so the SBC in general is not strong on this point. In fact it’s currently lamely weak Convention-wide. But if I had never been connected to the SBC, I would likely not have been immersed in historic Baptist ecclesiological convictions. In my second semester of seminary, I went with my buddy and roommate Will to a 9Marks Weekender at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. That ministry has profoundly shaped my theology and philosophy of ministry, and it is more “Southern Baptist” than many Southern Baptist churches. It is truly and historically rooted in Baptist convictions about the church. I had a non-existent ecclesiological framework when I started at SBTS. That has changed.
3. It’s where the fireplace and food and fellowship are. At the end of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says:
I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions – as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.
Of course, some traditions place too much emphasis on the tradition itself, as if the tradition is more important than Christianity itself. On the other hand, evangelicalism in general tries to live in the hallway of Christianity, disconnected from any historic stream of Christian faith. It seems lonely there, and I don’t think the solution is to set up camp in the hallway and make a fire on the floor. It is so much better to enter one of the rooms and get connected. For me, that room is the (Southern) Baptist room, where I would rather stay than set up a cot in the hallway and hope someone says hello. Sure, there are people there who are different than me, there are folks who don’t care about the family, there is all sorts of dysfunction, but I think the warmth of the fire and the feast of fellowship is worth it.
I have a lot more thoughts on the SBC, and they’re not all glowing. But I am grateful that Jesus called me where he did. This is my family now, and I’m glad.