One summer Friday afternoon in 1978 a teenage boy named David Gushee wandered uninvited into a Southern Baptist church in Tysons Corner, Virginia. I had never attended worship at that church but my then-girlfriend attended there with her family — though they were out of town. I was on my own, a total stranger to that congregation and whoever might have been in the building that day.
I walked into the church in something of a spiritual crisis. Two years before, I had left the Catholic Church of my mother and heritage but had not been able to shake, or to slake, an abiding spiritual hunger. The afternoon that I walked into that building I was looking for something that I did not know how to name.
That Friday afternoon I accepted the invitation from the youth minister to a youth mini-golf and ice cream outing that evening. It was fun. There was another activity on Saturday night, which I therefore attended. The next day I came to that church on a Sunday morning for the first time. I returned for Sunday night service. That night, a youthful drama group from California offered sketches about Jesus and Christianity that to me were compelling.
I said Yes to yet one more activity — a Monday night home Bible study.
At that event, the teacher asked us to break into groups to discuss these questions:
- What was your life like before you met Jesus?
- How did you meet Jesus and commit your life to him?
- How has your life changed?
- What are you doing now to tell others about Jesus?
It was during this discussion that it became decisively clear to me that on the terms of this paradigm, I was not a Christian. I had not had a personal meeting with Jesus. There was no commitment, no before and after. My life had not changed. I had never told anyone about this Jesus that I did not know. This all came to me as shocking revelation.
I was hungry that night, asking questions, trying to sort it out — an obvious evangelistic prospect. One of the drama group leaders, still in town because their van (mysteriously) wouldn’t start, asked if we could hang out after the Bible study. We drove around in my car, while I asked him all kinds of questions. By the end of that night, I was ready to “invite Jesus into my heart to become my Savior and Lord.” I did that, in a rush of excitement, relief, and tears, and became a Christian on the terms that were presented to me that day.
Two weeks later I was baptized by full immersion. I immediately began the intensive round of personal and church activities that were expected in the version of the faith that the Southern Baptists of Providence Baptist Church were offering. That version “took,” and I became a full-on born-again Bible-reading friend-evangelizing Baptist Christian. Within six months I felt sure I was called to become a Baptist pastor. My life had an entirely new direction.
That little congregation was hardly the idyllic haven of true Christianity that I thought it was at first appearance. They had their share of fissures and fractures, of divergent visions and fired ministers. But at that ur-moment in my spiritual journey, they offered what I needed and was ready to hear. They taught me that being a “born-again,” “Baptist” “Christian” “disciple of Jesus” meant something like this: aided by the Holy Spirit, to accept that Jesus had died on the Cross to atone for my and the world’s sins (e.g., “accepting Jesus Christ as my Savior”) and to “commit my life to serving Jesus as Lord,” that is, the one in charge of me.
Thus the way of Jesus in this first primitive introduction involved both gift and task — the gift of a staggering sacrifice to atone and forgive me for my sins (I was aware that they were abundant), and the task of learning how to become a faithful servant of a new Lord — no longer my wretched self-curved-in-on-itself, but Jesus Christ. This latter project, it was soon clear, was demanding, open-ended, and lifelong — one never arrived, one was always on the way, there was always more to learn, more growing to do, more sin to repent, more Bible to read and (better and better) understand, more people to (better and better) love, more millions to evangelize… and of course more Sunday School classes, church services, youth choirs, Bible studies, and mission seminars to attend.
I would not hesitate to put forward this basic paradigm of what it means to follow Jesus as foundational for me and far preferable to many available alternatives even today. Christianity as receiving the ultimate gift (of God’s saving love in Christ) and undertaking the ultimate task (of reorienting one’s life to serve Christ with everything). If one wants as close to a near-consensus Baptist vision of discipleship as might exist, I think that is it. I think it tracks with centuries of Baptist history, would be recognizable in most parts of the global Baptist world, and still deeply inspires the vision of many Baptist churches and Christians today.
By now, of course, in the year of our Lord 2022 (!), many more complexities could be named, and much has changed in Baptistland.
Complexities: The good news, God’s good gift, should not simply be reduced to Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins. The mission of God in the world should be broadened to include a cosmic redemption that goes beyond individual souls, and therefore the mission of the church must go beyond discipleship training, personal evangelism and world missions. The conversionist paradigm fits badly with a developmental-staged faith that often better reflects people’s life experiences. Personal discipleship training needs to watch out for perfectionism and guilt-mongering. A social, ethical, political vision is needed and not just a personal one. Theology matters and not just a few scripture nuggets and lots of personal-experiential religion. A historical sensibility is needed to compare and contrast Baptist ways with other ways and to understand the ebb and flow of Baptist patterns over time. Such awareness would lead, among other things, to seeing that the churches as covenanted communities of disciples, and not just earnestly striving individuals, is the longer Baptist heritage.
Changes: Southern Baptists, in particular, fractured not long after I entered the community. For one thing, a Calvinist vision surged. Such was entirely absent from my primal Baptist congregation, though admittedly a large part of Baptist history. Southern Baptist conservatives and fundamentalists (some but not all of them hardcore Calvinists) prevailed over moderates and liberals, and three denominations formed where once there had been one. Eventually, you could tell where you were in Baptist life by social-ethical-political symbols and nudges from the platform or program within an hour of walking into most any Baptist congregation in the US. Southern Baptists in particular became part of the Religious Right from the 1980s forward and a huge part of what became #MAGATrumpvangelicalChristianity, which has little if any family resemblance to the serious Jesus-as-Savior-and-Lord Baptist Christianity that I cut my teeth on in 1978.
I find greater health and hope these days in global Baptist circles. I supervise Ph.D. students from around the world and am an integral part of the educational efforts of the International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam. I like conversations that are not dominated by the scorched-earth wounds and stuck arguments of forty years of US religio-political warfare.
Imagine the young people today who are just as fired by spiritual hunger as that young man who walked into that church on a lovely afternoon in July 1978. Today they have so much more to navigate: exactly which flavor of Baptist is this congregation? Do I vote the wrong way to be accepted here? Does this church offer a vision for following Jesus worth building a life on, and people who actually model it?
At the risk of hopeless anachronism, I yearn for Baptists to return to that long-ago message. God’s love to human beings has been expressed in Jesus Christ. The best possible human life is to serve him as Lord.