In the Fall of 1975, two teenagers met for the very first time on the campus of Gardner-Webb College in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. Born and raised in western Kentucky, the young man had arrived loudly at the small Baptist college on a football scholarship. The young lady, on the other hand, was the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher in North Carolina, and the school seemed like a natural fit. Just an hour west of Charlotte is where my Southern Baptist story began. It’s the denomination my parents called home for the first six years of my life. It’s the church where my mother played the piano every Sunday. It’s perhaps the reason I never saw my old school preacher grandfather wear anything but a shirt and tie until I was in college.
It’s also the same church in which we buried my mother. In fact, today she’s buried behind an old Southern Baptist church in Sorgho, Kentucky. But that’s where my Southern Baptist story came to an extended intermission. By the grace of God my father was remarried within a couple years, to a woman who played piano at another local church down the road. It’s the same church I publicly declared my faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ by baptism. It’s the church in which a local lawyer discipled me and taught me the Scriptures. It’s the church my parents still call home today.
Unfortunately college was a time of spiritual wandering and unrepentance. Despite my sexual sin, drunkenness, and youthful rebellion, I somehow managed to come semi-regularly to a campus ministry on Thursday nights filled with some very nice people who cared for me. However, a steady diet of Rob Bell and other generic church teaching left me without any sense of biblical truth. Doctrinal ambiguity only fed my life of increasing moral ambiguity. By 2009, I’d read The Shack. Twice. I was lost. But not for a compassionate campus minister and a faithful roommate who loved me enough to hurt my ego and share truth, I would have remained so.
In 2009, after college, I left on a 5-month mission trip to Africa. After four years of fraternity parties, broken relationships and spiritual apathy, my willingness to share the Gospel with the lost was also laced with a worldly desire to actually do something with my life. It’s in Kampala, Uganda that my Southern Baptist story resumes. Until that point in my life, to me Southern Baptists were the narrow-minded, tribal people who wore stuffy suits and told people like me that I was going to Hell for my life of sin. My youth had largely been spent in a culture that looked with disdain upon denominations of any kind. To me, Southern Baptists were the epitome of denominational, factional Christianity.
Then I met my first Baptist missionary. In fact, I met several Baptist missionaries in Uganda. At that point in my life, at the age of 23, I had no idea what “systematic theology” even meant or why it mattered. I honestly didn’t even know what I believed, much less what Baptists believed. But amongst missionaries I could see that, whatever they did believe, they were willing to come all the way to Uganda to proclaim it. That made an impression on a young man searching for purpose. That fall I came home and began to seriously read the Bible for the very first time in my life. A year later I became a six-month intern for the International Mission Board and was later baptized into a Baptist church. Seven years later it’s hard to say exactly when Jesus saved me. However, what I do know for certain is that it wasn’t the social conservatism of Baptists that initially drew me to seek after Christ; it was their love for the lost. Today, as a Baptist pastor, my own testimony is sometimes my greatest reminder of His call upon my life. As Paul says, “such were some of you.” (1 Cor. 6:11)
In Africa a missionary once told me there was a seminary near my house in Kentucky called “Southern.” It was only a couple years later that I discovered it was short for “Southern Baptist.” In the strange providence of God, I eventually attended Southern Seminary while my wife worked as a secretary for my dean, Dr. Russell Moore. My very first day as a student I walked onto the campus in Louisville, Kentucky not as a Baptist by pedigree, but by conviction. An outsider in some ways. Names like “Lottie Moon” and “D-Now” and “Adrian Rogers” and “Holman” and “Broadman Press” and “Charles Stanley” were foreign to me. What I didn’t know in the third world I quickly learned in America: there’s also a culture to being Southern Baptist. Good or bad. As a pastor in a denomination in which I largely wasn’t raised, I’m sometimes reminded just how factious and contentious Baptists can be. There are days when my denomination is still the same group of people I feared in college. But that’s when I remember those Baptist missionaries. A commitment to the Scriptures and a proper theological confession should always advance us in love of God and neighbor. That’s a message this world needs to hear. But it’s also a message for Southern Baptists – now more than ever. In the midst of divisions concerning Calvinism and ERLC and Donald Trump and culture, perhaps the best way to manage our tenuous household is to begin not as Baptist sons, but as prodigals.