Navigating the Denominational Food Court

One of the mixed blessings of Martin Luther’s 500-year-old legacy is finding one’s place among […]

Larry Parsley / 10.24.17

One of the mixed blessings of Martin Luther’s 500-year-old legacy is finding one’s place among the hundreds of denominations which roughly fly under the Protestant banner. In other words, how does one find the “right” denomination, assuming you profess faith in the lower-case catholic church? This is a particularly acute question for me, born and raised by Southern Baptist parents and educated and ordained in Southern Baptist institutions. As you might have guessed, Southern Baptists are rarely invited to sit at the cool tables in the denominational cafeteria (and often for good reason). A pastor friend once led his well-heeled Baptist church to engage a marketing firm to survey the first thing that came to people’s minds when they heard the word “Baptist.” If memory serves, phrases like “judgmental” and “prejudiced” and (curiously) “fried chicken” were among the top responses. Sadly, “mission-minded” was missing.

As I have listened to various stories of denominational wanderlust through the years, many see late adolescence/early adulthood as a time to pursue a denominational version of “open enrollment,” leaving the church of their youth to discover a new church tradition with a richer experience of Jesus. As a pastor, I hear many stories, both of entrances and exits to Baptist life. A common entrance story? “For years I attended a (heavily liturgical) church, bored by the rituals and never taking the cellophane off my Bible. But then I came to your church and met Jesus in the amazing world of Scripture, and I will be forever grateful.” A common exit story? “All those years of monotonous and flag-waving and censorious Baptist sermons, and no one ever mentioned that there was a lectionary, or a church year, or a prayer of absolution, or the mystery of Eucharist, etc. Coming to this (liturgical) church has opened up the gospel for me.” On my better days, I respond: “The Lord be praised!” to both versions. On other days, perhaps cynically, I call to mind what my country relatives say about flies on a screen door — ‘those who are out want to be in, and those who are in want to be out.’

At earlier times in my life, when I’ve fleetingly considered open enrollment for myself, I’ve imagined myself in some sort of Protestant food court, sampling the teriyaki chicken of various denominations. I’ve coveted the theological precision of the Presbyterians, the uninhibited celebration of the Pentecostals, and the organizing skills of the Wesleyans. Many times I’ve wished I could grab that Book of Common Prayer and slap a Baptist cover on it, or steal (most of) Luther from the Lutherans. And for all my sorrow over my denomination’s past (which sometimes isn’t past), I retain a humble gratitude for Baptist evangelists like Billy Graham and Baptist prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. (even if King was largely a prophet without honor among the Southern Baptists of his day).

Ultimately (despite my disdain over many Baptist spokesmodels who regularly fail to speak for me on cable news networks), I’m still here, and my primary reason comes down to an admittedly loose application of the 5th commandment — Honor your father(s) and mother(s). I discovered Jesus while sitting on the laps of my Baptist parents and under the preaching of Baptist forbears. As Paul was a spiritual father and mother to the Thessalonians, my Baptist “parents” fed me grace by the spoonful. And while I deeply respect all who feel led by conscience to leave one denomination for another, I have felt led to stay. I do so in part because of the debt of gratitude I owe. I do so in part because my people have shaped how I read and live out Scripture. I do so in part because I share the cussed loyalty with which many people from my part of the country are afflicted. I do so in part out of a desire to practice a form of St. Francis’s prayer to be an “instrument” of the Lord’s peace. Only in my context, it might sound more like “where there is judgmentalism let me sow grace,” and “where there is prejudice let me sow racial reconciliation,” and of course, “where there is fried chicken, let me sow even more fried chicken.” Because who could have a problem with fried chicken?