How Being a Baptist Prepared Me to be a Good Catholic
Featuring Paul McCusker/
August 21, 2013
After joining the ranks of the Catholics, it was my hope to avoid the smug former-smoker arrogance that sometimes comes with such a dramatic change. You know what I mean: the I-used-to-be-so-stupid-and-now-I-see-the-Light attitude that is, in and of itself, irritating. (In my slow journey to the Church, I picked up a couple of well-meaning books written by former Evangelicals who exuded that very attitude. They were not helpful.) So, here’s my disclaimer: any comments I might make about Evangelicalism or Protestantism are meant to be good-natured and wry, or as close to an objective comparison as a non-academic can manage. You have my permission to call me on it if I sound otherwise.
Frankly, I doubt I would be much of a Catholic now without the benefit of all I’d been taught by Protestants as I travelled this way. I know that had I followed my father’s lead as a Catholic I wouldn’t be Catholic at all. (For him, it was a cultural identity, something handed down to him like an old coat he didn’t really want – if even that.) Any spark of faith in my life was fanned by my very-Protestant mother, faithful relatives and, in my formative years, the good people at Grace Baptist Church in my hometown.
Grace Baptist was founded in 1964 by Pastor Jack Dean who, with a group of dedicated Christians, sought to evangelize the new suburban development of Belair-At-Bowie (now just Bowie) 15 miles east of Washington, DC. The founding families were die-hard Baptists theologically and socially – gracious folks who brought the call to “accept Jesus into your heart” together with great Southern food and punch (no alcohol, ever).
I don’t remember ever hearing any hard-core anti-Catholic sermons. Catholics were simply that other group who were sort of Christians – but not really. It was our job to lead them to Jesus, given the chance.
I learned a lot of good things at Grace Baptist Church. So much that I remarked to someone from that church how my formative years as a Baptist actually prepared me to become a Catholic. I don’t think she was comforted by the thought at all. But it led me to reflect on how that happened.
One of the hallmarks of being a Baptist was the respect for the Bible I developed. We had Bible drills to learn its books and characters, timed competitions to see who could find a verse the quickest, we were told to do daily devotions and given memorization techniques to recall the most important passages (for evangelistic purposes). The Bible was proclaimed at every church occasion. Dog-eared, highlighted, annotated, and cherished – that’s what my Bible was. It was a fundamental part of being a Baptist. I never heard the phrase sola scriptura. We simply practiced it.
Now, as a Catholic, I marvel how Catholics seem to have surrendered the Bible to Protestants, as if it was their book. Yet I have found more Scriptural evidence to support Catholic theology than I ever found to prove Protestant theology. I’ve also noticed that all the verses in the New Testament we, as Baptists, found so troublesome are clearly resolved in Catholicism. The Bible truly is a Catholic book. I only wish more Catholics thought so.
This is only the start. With permission, I’d like to spend more time on my life as a Baptist and how it eased my way to Catholicism.
I’ve been reminiscing about how my formative years as a Baptist actually helped me get to Catholicism – and continue to impact my Catholic life.
It may surprise some that being a Baptist taught me to respect the authority of the church. I don’t mean the Church with the capital “C”, but the little “c” church, meaning an autonomous and local assembly with a Pastor (or pastors), a group of deacons, and the congregation. That’s the church we thought the New Testament was talking about. No Bishops, no Pope, no monolithic hierarchy with men dressed in funny clothes and hats (not counting Baptist conventions with all the polyester and toupees).
We believed our church was what Jesus Himself intended churches to be. Fallen, not perfect, but a church, doing what true First-Century-type believers did. That our church bore no resemblance whatsoever to the historical First Century church was something we didn’t know. Not that it mattered. Actually history meant very little when we could simply bypass the 2000 years and go to the Bible directly. At least our hearts were certainly in the right places.
Of greater importance, I learned that the local church was essential to Christian living, not merely the “optional extra” it seems to be now. There was no living the Christian life without it. A good Christian needed the church to survive spiritually. The church fed my personal spiritual life, which would, in turn, feed the church. That’s what it meant to be part of the Bodyof Christ, as we understood it. Going to Sunday School and Sunday morning service – and Sunday evening and Wednesday evening – and Awana on Thursday – and youth group on Friday – wasn’t a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. If I wanted to grow in Christ, then I needed to take my place in the church and all its activities.
I remember, as a teenager, skipping a Sunday evening service once. The Pastor’s wife later asked me why I wasn’t there. I honestly admitted that I didn’t feel like going. She asked, in that very Baptist way: “What if Jesus didn’t feel like going to the cross? Where would we be?” To which I replied, “At home, since there wouldn’t be a church if He didn’t go to the cross.”
She would have been within her rights to slap me.
I’ve mused that, considering the Baptist mantra of “Saved By Grace and not Works,” Baptists tend to be the hardest working people you’ll ever meet. It’s a funny thing. Catholics minimally have to go to Mass once a week and Confession once a year and they think they’re good to go. That’s pretty light stuff for a “Works-based” religion. Whereas Baptists could slide through Purgatory if only for the time they spent making chicken casseroles for the next fellowship, wedding or funeral. (If they believed in Purgatory. Which they don’t. Just to be clear about that.)
And the authority of the local church, as its leadership taught and acted according to Biblical principles, was rock-solid – at least at a corporate level. Our church would never presume to be tyrannical like that other group. As Baptists we were lovers of American democracy, which meant the authority of the church was never supposed to encroach on our personal convictions (so long as those convictions were Biblically supported). The Pastor never presumed to tell us what to do. But the Biblical authority behind his advice, as the Shepherd of the flock, was to be respected.
My sense of the place and authority of the church was so strong that, for years, I was wary of para-church organizations that tried to usurp the authority of local churches. Ironic, considering I’ve spent most of my working life with Evangelical para-church organizations.
Respect for the church was a key part of my Baptist experience and would stay with me in the many years to follow. Eventually it became a litmus test, one that led me to the pivotal question which guided me into the Catholic faith.
Most Baptists would be concerned, if not horrified, about how I went so wrong with their good teaching. But wait! There’s more.
In my last post, I recalled how my time as a Baptist actually helped me to become a Catholic – though not in any way that would have foreshadowed such an anti-Baptist decision. But I learned to respect (even cherish) the Bible and to respect the authority of the church. Both are now vital to me as a Catholic.
Another lesson I learned had to do with personal spiritual discipline. Admittedly, few Baptists I knew had any clue about concepts like “spiritual direction” or meditation or contemplation – the last two would have sounded suspicious and practiced by The Beatles. But, as a Baptist, I knew we were supposed to have personal spiritual discipline. We were told to pray. A lot. Unceasingly, in fact.
Prayer was essential to personal spiritual health and the health of the church. We prayed for ourselves, we prayed for each other, we prayed for the world – at home and at least four times in church services (at the beginning, before the offering, before the sermon and after before, during and after the altar call). The only praying we didn’t do was to or for the dead. The other group did those kinds of things and they were clearly confused.
Personal spiritual discipline extended to our church-going and service as a priority of life. Being a Baptist taught me that faith really wasn’t about sentimental feelings – unless it was time for the altar-call and seventeen verses of “Just As I Am” – but about doing. The healthy pressure to attend church on Sunday morning for Sunday School and the worship service (and helping with Bus Ministry), Sunday evening, Wednesday evening prayer meeting (or the quarterly business meeting), Thursday night Awana, and whenever else the doors were open was ongoing. And it was a good thing for me. Apart from the value of the teaching, it taught me to resist the feelings of But I don’t want to go – and go anyway.
As a Baptist I truly believed faith without works really was dead. Fortunately, many of the “works” were done as part of “fellowship.” Few groups do “fellowship” as well as Baptists. They seemed to understand the importance of relationships to commitment and growth. After any service or event, the majority of people would hang around to “visit” for ages – adding a half-hour to an hour to the worship service experience. There was no rushing for the exit as soon as the final hymn ended or the last Amen said.
I have said in other contexts how it’s ironic that Catholicism is supposed to be about Community, but tends to be very individualistic (if one were to judge by the scramble to the parking lot even before Mass has truly ended), while Protestantism is supposed to be individualistic yet tends toward Community (if the crowds hanging out and talking in the lobby are an indicator).
Yes, I know: I’m being terribly unfair. No doubt it depends on the church.
So, to summarize: as a good Baptist, I learned how to be a good Catholic by going to church, reading my Bible, praying, working, and evangelizing –
Evangelizing! That was huge for me as a Baptist. And I’ll talk about that in the next post.
In my last few posts I mentioned that love for the Bible, for the church, for prayer and chicken casseroles were a few things I learned as a Baptist, each playing an important part in my life as a Catholic. Well, not so much the chicken casseroles. As Catholic, I think it’s been more about donuts and pizza.
The last thing I have to mention in this crazy series is the Baptist emphasis on evangelism. In the list of things a Baptist had to do, leading other people to Jesus – witnessing, sharing the Gospel – was huge. It was so huge, in fact, that every church service presented an opportunity to do it. If the Catholic Mass was centered around the Eucharist, the Baptist worship service was centered around preaching the Word so people would ask Jesus into their hearts (or rededicate their lives to the Lord).
As a member of our Baptist church, I was expected to witness to anyone and everyone about Jesus every chance I had. And I often did. You can ask some of my friends about it. I preached, passed out “Chick Tracts” at school, went through the “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet with anyone who’d listen, and even went door-to-door with members of the Pastoral staff using a well-tuned program called “Evangelism Explosion” to tell people about Jesus. I’m astonished to think of it now. The sheer audacity would be completely unacceptable these days.
It’s a puzzler, now, that the Catholic Church has been called to the New Evangelization – and no one seems to know what to do.
I have a couple of theories about that. For one thing, my Baptist Church had a great set-up evangelistically. If I witnessed to someone about Jesus, I could always invite him to a church service. Since the service itself was geared to evangelism, the person I invited was given a chance there to become a Christian. And the offer to “ask Jesus into your heart” is so simple. Anyone can do that. Technically speaking, according to some Protestant teaching, a person can do it and never even go back to church.
Catholics don’t have that advantage. Invite someone to a Catholic Mass and that poor person would be so confused by the liturgy that there’d be no chance to “bring them to Jesus.” They’d be out the door faster than most of the Catholics, if they use their elbows to get through the quickly-exiting crowd. The Catholic Mass is not evangelistically-friendly.
I’m not advocating that it should be, by the way. I’m not sure, historically, when Church went from a meeting of believers to being an evangelistic tool, and I’m not sure it should be. But it has in the Protestant realm – which gives Protestants an edge. That’s another conversation for another time.
Let’s admit the obvious: Catholicism isn’t as conducive to evangelism as Protestantism. A Protestant church – certainly my Baptist church – is focused on getting people to ask Jesus into their hearts, and all that stuff about discipleship and commitment could come later, if at all. When a person is “saved by Grace alone,” all those “works” aren’t really important, so why muddle things up be mentioning them? The important thing was to close the sale and worry about the fine-print some other time.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, puts all of the fine-print in front of people before they’re allowed to become Catholic. It’s like going through the detailed contract for a house before you ever let someone into the house. So, guess what? In this consumer-based, turn-it-around-quick society, the Catholic Church is going to lose a lot of people to other churches. As usual, the Catholic Church and its teaching is at odds with all the best marketing sensibilities. Come to think of it, so was Jesus. He repeatedly asked people to count the cost and pick up their crosses. That was a bad move evangelistically.
No wonder the average Catholic hears a phrase like “New Evangelization” and looks like they’d just read the terms and conditions for a Microsoft product. Bewilderment – panic – lethargy – what’s a Catholic to do? As a Baptist, a phrase like “New Evangelization” would have meant someone had published a new tract.
Now that I’m a Catholic, I am still passionate about evangelism. I’m simply not sure how to do it, except to make the effort to talk about my journey or correct the many misconceptions people have about the Church. That’s a form of evangelizing I’m excited about. And, for that, I can thank my Baptist church.
This article originally appeared on RCSpiritualDirection.com and was reposted with permission.
Paul McCusker is an author. He converted from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in 2007. He still works for an Evangelical organization. Paul has over 40 published works, including novels, plays, scripts, and lyrics.