An Identity Crisis: Southern Baptists’ Search For Heroic Leaders -- By: Robert D. Dale

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 01:2 (Spring 1984)
Article: An Identity Crisis: Southern Baptists’ Search For Heroic Leaders
Author: Robert D. Dale


An Identity Crisis: Southern Baptists’
Search For Heroic Leaders

Robert D. Dale

Professor of Pastoral Leadership
and Church Ministries, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

With a century and a third of ministry behind us, Southern Baptists may be entering denominational middlescence, a midlife repeat of adolescence. One of the marks of this lifestage is another identity crisis like that of any teenager. Baptists are in a kind of identity crisis. We are searching for heroes to define us as a people of God.

Heroes are the stuff of history—both religious and secular. In fact, history is often mainly the record of conflicts and the heroes who resolved those tensions. Because they often solve problems, we lionize and imitate our heroes. How a denomination exalts its heroes influences the development of talent in later generations.

Our Baptist heroes have shaped us too. Why? Because to a significant extent, we are captives of our own heroes and history. How? Because we are influenced by our own assumptions about our heroes’ faith, ministry, and our Baptist backgrounds.

Personal Heroes In Baptist History

One way of defining Baptists is to identify our varied denominational heroes. For example, I have discovered a blending of two Baptist traditions in my own background. I grew up in a rural church in the Ozark mountains. My roots are pulled up from a conservative Republican county located in “accent Missouri” settled originally by Southerners. My fellow Baptists in the Ozarks belonged to the landmark and evangelistic roots of Baptist tradition. My boyhood church experiences centered around warm and unstructured worship services, impromptu sermons, brush arbor revivals, some suspension of “Baptist headquarters,” and a rather low view of ministerial education.

When I went away from my mountains to college, I encountered my first Southern Baptists who had grown up in other Baptist traditions. I was not sure of them. They sang some hymns with which I was not familiar. They knew denominational leaders and educated pastors—and trusted them! Somehow I was not comfortable with these Baptists whose rootages were different from mine. Years later I ministered through the Sunday School Board, one of the agencies I had been taught to suspect earlier. My work at the Board consisted of leading pastoral leadership seminars across the

nation. In those seminars I met pastors from a range of traditions—all Southern Baptists, yet not all alike in heritage. I was beginning to observe the four basic Baptist traditions.

Southern Baptists have grown out of four traditional taproots...

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