Congregational Self-Identity: Part 4 of 4


Part Four: “Congregational Witness: Proclaiming the Good News”

by Bruce T. Gourley

cbflogoIn the fall of 2013 the Baptist History and Heritage Society in partnership with the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship conducted a congregational identity survey to which individuals from 78 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregations in 14 states responded. This 2014 non-scientific survey asked open-ended questions, prompting responders to speak freely. This series of articles is an interpretive analysis of survey responses. 

According to a fall 2013 congregational identity survey, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Baptists perceive themselves as the “other” in the American Bible Belt South, evidenced in primary commitments to local church autonomy, priesthood of all believers, religious freedom/liberty for all, church state separation, bible freedom and individual freedom of thought. In practice, CBF congregations frame their Baptistness against popular conceptions of Baptists and/or alongside broader Christian traditions.

Self-perceptions, congregational commitments and church practices collectively impact the outward witness of a given congregation. The congregational survey sought to assess congregational witness by posing the question:

How do church members talk about your congregation to their unchurched friends?

As with other questions, this query was intentionally open-ended, allowing responders to answer freely and at length, if they so chose. Answers were then grouped into clusters of similar responses.

By far, the largest cluster of responses centered around four related words, with two or more often being used in tandem, which collectively communicate an emphasis on intimate community: “welcoming,” “warm,” “friendly” and “family.” Some 40% of respondents used these words, and/or variations thereof, in describing how church members talk about their congregation to unchurched persons. Such language, while perhaps hearkening back to the “open invitation” aura of earlier revival eras, seemingly reflects a default (whether genuine or conditioned) openness to others, as well as the belief (whether intuited or calculated) that community is inherently desirable.

Secondly, approximately 25% of respondents indicated that church members bore witness of their congregation by discussing the missions and ministries in which their church is involved. In most cases, the focus on missions and ministries was specifically qualified with a local emphasis. Whereas the largest cluster of responses focused on the intimate nature of congregational community, this second most common response cluster is complementary, conveying the image of the local church concerned and involved with meeting the needs of persons outside of church walls, especially local persons.

While the first two response clusters regarding congregational witness are framed positively or affirmatively (and avoid the word Baptist), the third most common response could be considered reactionary or defensive: some 20% of respondents revealed that members of their church describe, to outsiders, their “Baptist” congregation as “different,” “other,” “not typical,” “not that kind of Baptist,” or something quite similar. The takeaway here seems to be that a sense of otherness within the larger Baptist world, previously mentioned in this series of interpretive articles concerning the congregational survey, permeates CBF Baptist thinking to such a degree that, among many, it is an ever-present construct which often serves as a succinct cultural snapshot of what CBF Baptists are not.

The fourth largest response cluster focuses on the concepts of open and progressive, apart from the word Baptist. Approximately 12% of respondents indicated that congregational members speak of their church to outsiders utilizing such words or phrases as “progressive socially,” “progressive theologically,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “open and progressive,” “open-minded” and similar phraseology. Such responses, counter-cultural in the conservative Baptist infused Bible Belt South, frame congregational identity as “other.”

The fifth most-mentioned response is the flip side of the third and similar, yet different (in that the word Baptist is invoked), than the fourth: about 10% of respondents revealed that their congregational members bear witness of their church by speaking of their Baptist identity in positive, or non-defensive, terms. This cluster of responses specifically qualified a church’s “Baptist” identity by using such words and phrases as “CBF,” “Cooperative Baptist Fellowship,” “open,” “progressive,” “ecumenical,” “moderate” and “open-minded.” The effective message thus conveyed is that the congregation is counter-cultural yet denominationally traditional. The fact that relatively few responders offered this nuanced congregational witness is perhaps reflective not merely of residual effects of the Southern Baptist fundamentalist controversy that birthed the CBF, but also larger religiously-infused cultural and ideological polarizations in contemporary American Society.

The third to fifth response clusters collectively raise questions related to the dynamics of the usage, or avoidance, of the word “Baptist” in congregational witness. Additional studies of CBF Baptists on the basis of age, gender, geographical and perhaps political demographics could be helpful in ascertaining perceptions of publicly embracing the language of “Baptist.”

Finally, other responses to the survey question focused on congregational witness fell into clusters representing less than 10% of respondents. Among these smaller clusters words such as “caring,” “loving,” “diverse” and “loving” were predominantly used, words that collectively portray a community open to outsiders.

In conclusion and broadly speaking, among CBF Baptists, the Good News of congregational witness is centered around biblical and baptistic freedom themes. Congregational witness as evidenced by church members in the survey conveys a community identity that is firmly rooted in Baptist freedom traditions (albeit often minus the word “Baptist”), traditions which encourage openness short of zero-sum theologies.

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