Congregational Self-Identity: Part 2 of 4


Part Two: “Embodied Identity: Being Baptist in the 21st Century”

by Bruce T. Gourleycbflogo

In 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. 

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Baptists, anchored in the American South, appear to view themselves as the “other” in a land of biblical literalism, great poverty and income inequality, dominantly conservative politics, widespread racial segregation and low levels of education (see Part One).

On the other hand, how do CBF Baptists perceive themselves at a congregational level? If CBF congregations are oases of sorts within their predominantly southern base, what are the values that nourish these communities of faith?

Or, as posed by the congregational identity survey: “What aspects or dimensions of the Baptist tradition does your congregation most embody or identity with?”

This survey question attempts to ferret out internal congregational identity. As with other survey questions, respondents were provided a blank box in which to freely address the query. Respondents were invited to list multiple “aspects or dimensions” of the Baptist tradition relative to the identity of their respective congregations. The answers were then analyzed by placing similar responses into affinity clusters.

As expected, answers to the question varied greatly, reflective of the diversity of Baptist life and thought in the world of moderate Baptists. While the results can in no way be construed as scientifically precise, the top ten affinity clusters derived from respondents’ answers offer insights into how CBF Baptists perceive their own congregations.

In a tie for first place, the two largest affinity clusters derived from survey responses (each representing over 1/2 of respondents, the only two affinity clusters to exceed that threshold) are two hallmark, complimentary principles of the Baptist tradition: local church autonomy and the priesthood of all believers. Few knowledgeable Baptists would be surprised by this result, while in the broader context both principles are not unusual in contemporary Protestant life at large, particularly among so-called “non-denominational” congregations. Congregational freedom from ecclesiastical hierarchy and believers’ direct access to God, in short, are appreciated by many 21st century non-Baptist believers.

The third most popular affinity cluster derived from survey responses represents a tandem of Baptist convictions that have fallen out of favor with, or have been misappropriated for exclusive rather than inclusive purposes, by many modern Baptists, as well as by modern evangelicals at large: namely, religious freedom/liberty for all and church state separation. Some 40% of respondents identified one or both of these related freedom principles as part of the DNA of their congregations.

Following closely at 38% is the importance of scripture. Respondents expressed congregational allegiance to the Bible, utilizing varied phraseology such as “bible freedom” (a phrase popularized by Baptist historian Walter Shurden), “authority in faith and practice” (long-standing Baptist confessional language), and “bible only” (hearkening to the Reformation principle of “sola scriptura”). Absent from this cluster of responses centered on scripture are references to biblical literalism and inerrancy, the silence echoing the “otherness” of CBF Baptists in relation to majoritarian Southern Baptists of the Bible Belt South.

Mirroring the contextual importance of scripture, some 37% of respondents listed individual freedom of thought as an important component of congregational identity. Again, the language utilized by respondents varied. Typical of this affinity cluster are classic Baptist convictions such as “soul competency,” “soul liberty,” “no creed(s),” “freedom of conscience,” and “freedom of thought.”

One notable newer Baptist principle, both in substance and language, made the top ten of respondents’ answers: that of missions, garnering mention by 29% of respondents. While not a part of Baptist life until the late 18th century, missions has since become a leading identity marker in the majority of Baptist groups, including CBF Baptists. Some respondents used the phrase “missional,” a 21st century re-imagining of the two-century plus missionary enterprise.

Five additional affinity clusters appeared in the answers of 9% of respondents or more. They are, in descending order:

  • Christ (variously qualified as “truth,” “lord,” “lordship of,” “centrality of”)
  • Believer’s baptism
  • Women in ministry (deacons and/or pastors)
  • Preaching and teaching (including the phrases “preaching,” “teaching,” “free pulpit,” “lay leadership”)
  • Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (or CBF)

Taken together, the affinity clusters above represent survey respondents’ predominant understanding of CBF Baptists’ 21st century self-identity as embodied in local congregations. Most of the principles and concepts have been central to Baptist life from Baptists’ earliest days, and remain so to the present among many contemporary Baptists groups.

Some readers may be surprised to note that “believer’s baptism” ranked relatively low in respondents’ minds. While the survey reveals no explanation for such a low ranking, the presumption would seem to be that CBF Baptists don’t talk about baptism to the degree of earlier generations of Baptists.

On a final note, relatively few respondents included the word “Baptist” in their responses. This omission may be due in part to the assumption that Baptists were the focal point of the survey, but perhaps is also reflective of the accelerating erasure of the word “Baptist” from church names in what is perceived by some to be a post-denominational world.

Part Three: “Core Messaging: Worship, Preaching, Ministry and Missions”