My family has attended our area’s most well-known non-denominational church for over 20 years. I spent my childhood within the Bible-teaching, family-loving, community that my independent church offered, and watched the congregation slowly outgrow the little white church that we started in, moving to our high school auditorium, then to the gym of a local elementary/middle school, and finally to a shiny new building all our own.
Through the years, I participated in Sunday school, VBS, and youth group while my parents served as an usher and greeter. I often heard sermons that emphasized our church’s commitment to the “word of God” and its supreme authority and power. I still remember the words of our (now resigned) pastor during each pre-sermon prayer, asking God that through the message, “believers would be edified, and lost people would come home.”
I would generally describe the teaching and feel of my childhood church as somewhere between Baptist and Presbyterian, which, based on my experience at other conservative non-denominational churches, seems like an attractive theological flavor for many church-going millennials. Alongside today’s young, restless, and reformed movement is a subculture of non-denominational churches accommodating the needs of theologically curious and culturally aware young people who desire real community, and who are dissatisfied by the religious rhythms of their youth.
When I went to college, the first church that I was invited to attend was a small multi-ethnic church plant affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). There I saw Asian-American students from neighboring schools, white and black families from the local community, and a Korean-American pastor. This community is very different than the >95% white congregation that I grew up in, and more committed to engaging cultural issues and the church’s place in a changing society.
Right now, both the multi-ethnic SBC church and the independent church of my youth are growing exponentially. Both seem to have healthy leadership structures, a seemingly diverse age demographic, large children’s ministries, and the gospel is shared weekly from the pulpit. So, does it matter if your church is affiliated with a denomination? Long term, I think so. Let me share two primary reasons why I am leaving non-denominational churches behind and committing to the SBC as my Christian community and home.
I’ll first start with a reason for leaving the independent church for a denomination that may be distinct to my own story. I left the non-denominational church for the deep roots that life in the SBC provides. Like many young Christians who are growing up in an increasingly secular America (by which I mean that it is becoming ever more difficult to find Christian influences on secular culture, or traditional Christian values being welcomed into the public square), I am eager to learn how my faith applies to the world around me. Salvation is important, especially for the young restless and reformed sub-culture of millennial Christians, but there is a growing collection of young people who recognize that salvation is not the end of Christian faith and community, and that Christ-likeness and day to day acts of faithfulness are just as crucial to cultivating a mature spirituality. For the generation before us, and especially for our revivalist parents, salvation was central. As a result, many church communities became insular and committed to conversion instead of wide-reaching cultural engagement or personal discipleship. As these latter emphases are coming back into focus, emerging leaders from my generation are leading a charge to make Christianity relevant and applicable in all the right ways.
For me, seeing a collection of young leaders who are affiliated with and committed to the historic denominations, while simultaneously upholding a call to engage the culture and make disciples before converts stoked in me a desire to see Christ grow more and more central to my life. Following leaders like Russell Moore, Jared Wilson, Jen Wilkin, and Jackie Hill Perry who use the resources and channels that large denominations have to advance the gospel, and speak boldly about issues facing real people, in real cities and towns around the country. The SBC community, both through its teachers and scholars, but also through its various ministries, including the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, International Missions Board, and North American Missions Board has shown me that there is a whole world to learn from and engage with outside of my local community.
One major advantage that most denominations have over independent churches is that established denominations have more access to focused ministries that promote consistent theology and worldview. The reality is that these non-denominational churches, apart from smaller coalitions and collections of pastoral or missionary partnerships, have very few leaders with enough influence and resources to move seamlessly from the local to the global.
Within the SBC, I have found that the current approach to church life and Christian witness being promoted by our leaders is both refreshing and motivating. Men like Al Mohler at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Bruce Ashford at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary give me hope that the next generation of leaders within the denomination will be well equipped to speak, write, and teach for the glory of God and the edification of the church. These are men, among other men and women, who I trust to direct the church toward radical discipleship, distinctly Christian moral and ethical worldviews, and renewed affection for the scriptures.
The second, and perhaps more universal, reason that I decided to commit to growing and leading within the Southern Baptist Convention is because of the historic theological and philosophical traditions that inform modern church life as part of an established denomination. I appreciate, (and I think that all serious church-goers should) that the decisions our local church leaders make are not only bound to the accountability of the other elders, deacons, and church members, but also to the historic confessions, statements, affirmations, and denials that have shaped denominational life for years.
While SBC churches are officially self-governing, I find a great deal of security in knowing that our denomination has collectively upheld and returned time and time again to the confessions that make us distinctly Baptist; set apart by emphasizing our commitment to the reliability of the Christian scriptures, the importance of fighting for religious liberty for all people, and submitting, as a collective church body, to God’s sovereign will.
Al Mohler’s entrance into the office of President at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993 is one example of how boldness and conviction by our leaders to uphold the historic and documented faith tradition of protestants broadly and Southern Baptists specifically can lead to revival and restoration. In the face of immense pressure from his colleagues and students at Southern Seminary to do otherwise, Mohler clung to the tradition’s storied adherence to the scriptures as God’s inspired and un-corrupted word, and to the Seminary’s purpose of equipping men and women to do ministry wherever God may call them. Mohler faced fierce opposition, yet maintained the confessional integrity of the denomination and solidified the seminary’s future as a decidedly Christian, and purposefully Southern Baptist, institution.
I want to be part of a community of believers that celebrates the sort of leadership that conserves what is necessary to the faith while working to understand how the church is meant to continually adapt and grow in the face of cultural ostracization. Now, as I become an increasingly more informed and theologically aware member of my church, I want to know that my local church leaders can be held accountable in some way to the commitments that our other 47,000+ Southern Baptist churches have made and upheld for generations. This is one aspect of denominational life that cannot be equally replicated in non-denominational churches. It becomes especially important to have checks and balances that reach further than your local body when inevitable disagreements and scandals threaten the well-being and integrity of the church community.
Notice that I haven’t proclaimed the SBC as the nation’s only right and true denomination, nor have I announced the supremacy of my current multi-ethnic church over the homogeneous church of my youth. What I want to emphasize is that the expressions of Christianity in America take on many forms, stem from many cultures, and at times emphasize different aspects of the faith. The SBC is one expression of Christianity that I have grown to appreciate and resonate with. I love that our current leaders are bold in the face of cultural opposition, and I like that we collaborate well with other denominations and communities that share the broader expressions of our faith. I am grateful for the growth that I had during my time in an independent Bible church, but I’ve chosen a wider allegiance to a larger body of believers that will endure wherever life takes me. I know that wherever I am, like-minded Baptist believers will welcome me into their church with open arms.