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Young, Southern Baptist… and Kingdom-focused!

I wasn’t born and raised a Southern Baptist.  I was a born and raised a sinner.

In 1980, I was born to my family in Bowling Green, KY.  You hear of people who are “E. C. Christians,” meaning they only go to church at Easter and Christmas, but my family wasn’t even that.  I guess my story is quite different from Brad Whitt’s, our South Carolina brother who had an article in the March 2 B&R.

Fortunately, faithful churches made sure I at least went to VBS—churches like Iva Missionary Baptist, Mt. Olivet Cumberland Presbyterian, and Richardsville Baptist.  Mt. Olivet even sent me twice to their summer camp.  It was there, around the age of 10, that I first felt the gospel draw of the Holy Spirit, but I resisted and hardened my heart.  In high school, I sometimes went to Mt. Olivet or a Free Methodist church, and at the age of 17, God saved me.  It was glorious, but I wasn’t saved in a revival service or even in a church building like many of the testimonies I hear.  God saved me on my drive home from spring football workouts.  At the Girkin crossroads, I pulled my car over and cried out to God in faith and tears to save me.  I was eventually baptized at Hillvue Heights, one of the leading Southern Baptist churches in Kentucky.

I soon headed off to Hanover College in Indiana.  It’s not Baptist-affiliated, but I wasn’t going for theological education.  There I attended the weekly gathering of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry but mainly went to church at the Assembly of God because of its outstanding college ministry.  During the summers, I worked at a United Methodist camp.  It was there that God called me into ministry.  Therefore, in my senior year, I pursued a ministry internship through my college.  I wanted to learn about youth ministry, and one of the local Southern Baptist churches—Calvary Baptist—had the premier ministry.  So, they took me on staff in 2002, and I began my relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention, which has been ongoing for roughly a decade now.  Since then, I’ve served Southern Baptist churches in Kentucky, Indiana, and now Tennessee, and earned a masters from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I share all of that with you to say I’ve had plenty of opportunity to go down different Christian denominational paths but in the end, stand a strongly committed, young Southern Baptist.  I’m a Southern Baptist by choice!  And I pastor a church that is strongly committed to the cause of Christ through the SBC.  We give 10% of our budget to the Cooperative Program.  We further match from our budget the amount given by our members through the Annie, Lottie, Golden, and Children’s Home offerings.  Every month we take up an offering for the SBC World Hunger Fund and give from our budget to our Association’s Hispanic church work.  I can’t tell you how excited these efforts make me.  As pastor, I’ve applauded them all the way and have never encouraged a cut-back.  In fact, I just led my congregation this month to begin supporting a NAMB Mission Service Corps missionary who’s planting a church in Saskatchewan, Canada.  I want us to do even more!

I’m excited and enthusiastic about the SBC, and you should be too.  I’m drawn by its doctrinal fidelity to the Scripture and unrelenting desire to win the world to Jesus Christ.  I love the emphasis on the autonomy of the local church and its grassroots authority.  I’m thankful for the ingenuity and pragmatism of the CP.  I’m captivated by the commitment to unity in the essentials and mission of Christ while allowing diversity in the nonessentials and methodology.  I completely agree with Whitt who said, “I am not ashamed of being a Southern Baptist, and I am proud and passionate about my SBC involvement.  I have benefited personally from the cooperation among Southern Baptists, and I don’t believe that there is a more effective and efficient way for churches of all sizes to make an eternal impact on this world for Jesus.”

However, it must be said:  the Kingdom of God is way bigger than the SBC.  Some of you might close your browser at this moment and walk away, but what I’ve said is true.  I know it from Scripture and from experience.  I’m afraid we sometimes get denominational tunnel vision.  We at times can develop the mentality that if a person or church isn’t Southern Baptist, we must separate from them and not give them an ear.  That’s the approach I believe was being encouraged by Whitt’s article, but that mentality is unnecessarily divisive and in the long run detrimental to the cause of Christ and our SBC ministries.  Certainly, there are those from which we must separate at certain times due to theological impasse, but it must not be because they’re not Southern Baptist.

There is much we can learn from non-SBC people because again, the Kingdom of God is bigger than the SBC.  Whitt mentioned non-SBC names like Tim Keller, CJ Mahaney, John Piper, and RC Sproul along with SBC names like Adrian Rogers and Jerry Vines.  I appreciate aspects of the ministries of all these men and rejoice in God’s gift to us in them, even while differing at some level with all of them.  But, is there not much we can learn from these non-SBC Christian leaders and other godly people outside the SBC camp?  I say there most certainly is.  Otherwise, we should throw out all Christian influence prior to 1845 when the convention was formed.  Can we not be true, committed Southern Baptists and have influence from other godly men outside the SBC with whom we have secondary doctrinal differences?  I absolutely believe we can and should.  In fact, we’ll be better for it!

I’m afraid that Whitt’s vision is uniformity more than unity.  He implied that true Southern Baptist experience is connected to a certain style of church—a suit-wearing pastor, a church choir, revivalistic invitations, certain sanctuary lighting, preaching from a pulpit.  Let me say there’s nothing wrong with that style.  Those words for the most part describe my church.  But, even if that’s the majority style of SBC churches, that’s not what makes for a true Southern Baptist.  My goodness, I pray we have loftier, more God-honoring goals than that!

A true Southern Baptist is one who’s more consumed by the glory of God than the glory of the SBC.  A true Southern Baptist is one who loves and is committed to Christ more than the denomination.  A true Southern Baptist believes the Bible is God’s inerrant, infallible, sufficient Word through and through.  A true Southern Baptist has the heart of God for the lost and dying world.  A true Southern Baptist upholds the doctrinal distinctives outlined in the Baptist Faith and Message, including cooperation.

Therefore, those who are true Southern Baptists come in many forms.  Some are traditional while others are contemporary, progressive, or historic.  Some are covenantal while others are dispensational.  Some are more Arminian while others are more Calvinistic.  Some are continuationists while some are cessationists.  Some are urban, and some are suburban while others are small town or even rural.  Some use the KJV while others use a modern translation.  Some are cowboys and hold their services in barns while others are white-collar professionals who meet in highly-modern ministry complexes, and there’s all in between.  Uniformity shouldn’t even be a goal for the SBC.  There are simply too many different ministry contexts to not have diversity, but praise God that we have unity around the gospel and our biblical Baptist distinctives.  There’s room for everybody who fits in under that tent!  If we are not careful, SBC pride manifested in traditionalism could become a stumbling block for our cooperation and the very purpose for which we cooperate—evangelization and education.

That’s why Whitt’s article struck a nerve with me.  It contained veiled jabs at people and was rather pessimistic about the direction of the SBC.  We have so much in common and too much at stake as fellow Southern Baptists to have people promoting infighting and discouragement.  He lobbed bombs at those he says have “soft Southern Baptist convictions and commitments” and those he calls “outsiders from within” without defining exactly what he was talking about in either pejorative.  I think he was actually aiming at are those who do not fit his SBC mold, those who don’t give to the CP at the percentage he recommends, and those who are trying to affect change through the Great Commission Resurgence and its implementation.

I’ve already demonstrated that the SBC mold is not found in a style but in being gospel-centered and beholden to the biblical Baptist distinctives outlined in the BF&M.  As for the CP percentages, each autonomous, cooperating church decides what percentage it should give in light of its ministry context.  A church is not less faithful, as Whitt implies, by choosing to hire a staff position rather than increase CP giving.  When did giving a higher percentage to the CP become equivalent to having a higher commitment to the cause of Christ?  As for the GCR and its implementation, Baptist Press reported that the amended report along with its recommendations passed the 2010 Convention vote by an estimated 3-to-1 margin.  The Convention overwhelmingly spoke.  Undoubtedly, some tough calls have already been and will continue to be made at all levels in response to the will of the Convention, but these changes must come as we realign ourselves for greater effectiveness for the cause of Christ through the SBC.

It’s time to move past bickering and infighting over nonessentials.  We must focus on the Kingdom of God instead of denominational politics.  Satan loves when we get sidetracked and draw enemy lines within.  Personally, I’m encouraged by what’s happening now in the SBC.  I feel like we’re heading in a direction that’s intentionally trying to make the SBC about the cause of Christ instead of about the SBC.  These are exciting days!  You see, the SBC doesn’t exist to perpetuate the SBC and its entities.  It exists to spread the glory of God through the gospel at home and abroad.  Therefore, we must be ready to change radically if we lose sight of that goal or run into ineffectiveness.  Otherwise, irrelevance is inevitable.

I’m praying against Southern Baptist irrelevance.  I’m hoping our commitment to the cause of Christ would always focus our commitment to the Southern Baptist Convention.  May those who are truly Kingdom-focused be given possession of the microphone!

-This article originally appeared in the March 23 edition of the Baptist and Reflector (the Tennesse Baptist newspaper) and is a response to Brad Whitt’s article entitled “Young, Southern Baptist… and Irrelevant?”, which appeared in the March 2 B&R and the March 3 Baptist Courier (the South Carolina Baptist newspaper).  You can read Whitt’s article here.  You can also read responses to Whitt’s article printed in the March 17 Baptist Courier here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  I want to thank Mark Bass & Jeremy Vanatta for helping me formulate a response to Whitt’s article.


  1. Ben, you’ve pointed out so many relevant points here. While your passion for God’s glory may offend the wordly man, all Southern Baptists should see this godly passion as not some radical notion to be shunned but a biblical mandate to be obeyed. The core message you have shared, it seems, is that Southern Baptists ought to be unified (and hopefully we are to a great extent) around core baptistic doctrines, including the centrality of Christ and His gospel and the urgency of building God’s kingdom. In other words, our common threads of the gospel and world missions historically have been our denominational glue and should continue to be so. By God’s providential pleasure, this is exactly what Southern Baptists will do–they will stick together. Not around cultural expressions of Christianity. Not around non-essential and sometimes non-sensical differences. Kingdom-relevancy is to be found in our fellowship in the gospel and its proclamation to a dying world.
    Sola Gratia,
    Jeremy Vanatta

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