By Michael Mills
“I’m a Millennial, so I don’t like labels.” -Tomi Lahren
Ironic? Terribly. But does anyone like being labeled?
I’ve been a Baptist my whole life. Some of my earliest memories come from the small Baptist church my family was a part of. Many of these early memories are not first-hand memories because I was too young to remember. But the passing along of stories has become my memories. It’s funny how stories do that.
Like the story when my older, five-year-old brother stood up at the end of a prayer service and asked for prayer for our dad. “Could y’all please pray for my dad to not be so angry? He wakes me up in the middle of the night just to beat the tar out of me.” Now, that should rightly signal all kinds of red flags, unless you know my dad, who is one of the most peaceful people you could meet.
Growing up and receiving religion as a formative structure in my identity was natural. I was Baptist because my family was Baptist. I put it on like a comfy sweater that fits just right.
As I grew into my own and experienced more of the world, exposure to the slightest bit of diversity was troubling to my comfy sweater. It began to itch. I didn’t understand how someone could claim to be a “Christian” and drink alcohol or cuss outside of the occasion of hitting your thumb with a hammer or not attend morning and evening worship services on Sunday. Over time, this dissonance only grew.
In some ways, I adapted. In others, I pleaded ignorance. In others still, I was confused. Wearing my Baptist sweater was becoming more and more of a problem.
The decisive moment came during my time at seminary. I was never a confident student, always feeling like I was two steps behind my classmates. Maybe I just knew what I didn’t know and I knew to keep my mouth shut about it. Whatever the case, on day one of a class on modern church history, the professor asked us to go around the room and state our denominational affiliation. Immediately, my stomach drops and my heart begins racing. Not only do I despise speaking in large groups but I didn’t know my answer to the professor’s prompt. Or, more truthfully, I didn’t like my answer to the professor’s prompt.
“Methodist.” “Presbyterian.” “Presbyterian.” “Presbyterian.” (Because there’s a lot of that at Fuller Seminary.) “American Methodist Episcopal.”
My classmates boldly declare, one after another, the denomination they are so proud of and I couldn’t do it. I knew I was Baptist but I wasn’t proud of it. In fact, I was ashamed of it. Being Baptist wasn’t the way to make friends at my seminary. In fact, being Baptist put a target on your back because the common image of a Baptist in our culture is not a positive one, especially in an academic setting like the largest interdenominational seminary in the world.
As my classmates continued and it was almost my turn, I quietly slid off my Baptist sweater and let it drop to the floor.
“Nondenominational,” I ashamedly announced.
I no longer knew who I was but I knew I wasn’t that.
In his memoir, Stanley Hauerwas writes this:
“It is so tempting to think you need to have a ‘position’ if you are to be a ‘thinker.’ …That many theologians think they need to have a position is, I suspect, the result of the loss of ecclesial identities…Positions far too easily get in the way of thought.
“It is true that I am a pacifist, but that does not mean my pacifism is a ‘position.’ Positions too easily tempt us to think that we Christians need a theory. I am not a pacific because of a theory. I am a pacifist because John Howard Yoder convinced me that nonviolence and Christianity are inseparable.”
Several years after my shame-filled denouncement, I’ve learned the difference between having a position and knowing who you are. Prior to that moment, my position was that of a Baptist. I received that identifier and if pressed, would feel the need to try to defend it, although I would certainly fail. The more I grew, the more I saw that it didn’t fit. I could no longer be Baptist, at least not the image of it that I held. So, I dropped the position.
Today, I proudly declare that I am Baptist. I am able to do that because, over the past seven years or so, I’ve learned who I am and I’ve learned that I am, after it’s all said and done, Baptist. The difference is I am not holding the position of Baptist, I am Baptist. I have rid myself of labels, done the difficult but unavoidable work of discovering who I am and what is important to me, and I have found myself on the other side. It just so happens that the person I found on the other side is quite convinced that being Baptist is actually a wonderful thing.
Now, a brief side note is necessary here. I mentioned before the common image of Baptist in our culture. I don’t believe it’s healthy nor sustainable to build an identity based on negation. To be a fully-human human, you have to know what you are, not simply what you are not. That being said, I am not the common image of Baptist in our culture today. Instead, I’ve discovered there is a deeper, more enriching Baptist identity that needs to be recovered. That is the kind of Baptist I am becoming. That is the kind of Baptist we will be discovering.
So begins another blog series. Admittedly, this journey will be different than the last. While Kendrick Lamar and John Smyth might be friends should they have the chance, their impact on the world has come in vastly different spheres. I hope you’ll journey with me as I share why I am becoming Baptist.
Michael Mills serves as the pastor of Agape Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Texas.