by Brian Edwards, Pastor of Hope Church, Danville, VA —
I had never known anything other than the Independent Baptist church. I faithfully attended one nine months before I was born and virtually every day thereafter. My dad, Craig Edwards, was a popular Independent Baptist evangelist who preached approximately 50 weeks a year in over 70 churches in at least 25 states, and every one of them was Independent Baptist. That meant every church I attended, every camp meeting I sat through, and every sermon I ever heard all had one thing in common—they were exclusively Independent Baptist. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I heard a sermon that wasn’t delivered by an Independent Baptist preacher. I had no need to hear anyone else or associate with anyone else. I believed what I frequently heard pastors say, “I’m Independent Baptist born and bred, and when I die I’ll be Independent Baptist dead.” That mantra became my mantra—I was fully convinced that our way was the right way and there was no other acceptable way. I was a committed Independent Baptist who planned on pastoring an Independent Baptist church and honoring its cherished traditions for the rest of my life.
In 1991 when I planted Blessed Hope Baptist Church in Danville, VA, that was really all I had—a series of traditions engraved on my heart and embedded in my mind. Those traditions shaped my view of the Scripture and the church. Sadly, those traditions also took center stage in the preparation and presentation of my sermons. I was nothing more than a phonograph reproducing the sounds I had heard made by the preachers I esteemed most highly. What I believed, what I preached, and who I associated with were all filtered through an unwritten collection of approved, acceptable traditions. Sure, my heritage had given me some priceless treasures—a commitment to courageous preaching, a willingness to sacrifice financially for the sake of the Gospel, a sensitivity to the leadership of the Holy Spirit, a desire to see men and women come to Christ, and a love for passionate worship. Each one of those valuable treasures was deposited into my life through the Independent Baptist church, and I thank God for each one of those treasures. The problem was that all of the traditions that accompanied those treasures received equal reverence.
I’ll never forget reading Mark 7:13 and mumbling the words, “That’s me. I am the one allowing my allegiance to tradition to limit the power and effectiveness of God’s Word in my life and my ministry.” That was a life-changing moment! My flawed religious foundation violently shook, and, like Paul, the stocks and bonds that held me captive were broken, and it was the truth that had set me free. God was at work in my life in a way that I had never experienced before. I was being liberated, and I loved it. He was changing me inwardly, and those changes were becoming visible outwardly. It was only a short time before I realized my years as an Independent Baptist had been a chapter in my life but they weren’t meant to be the whole story. The day God made that clear to me, He required me to make a decision, a big decision that would forever change my life and the life of Hope Church.
No longer were we going to be restricted and restrained by tradition, but we were going to pursue being a church consumed with the mission of God for the glory of God, no matter the cost.
I wasn’t prepared for the isolation that would follow that decision. I didn’t realize the truths that God had revealed to me would be so offensive to those whom I considered my closest friends. Almost immediately, rumors started to spread that I was a compromiser. I was abandoning the “old time way,” which was considered by most of my peers to be the unpardonable sin. Virtually all of my speaking engagements were quickly canceled, and all too often I’d receive a phone call that started with the words, “I wanted to call and apologize for listening to a group of pastors gossip about you tonight.” Those were dark days in my life. The sheer weight of the rejection of my “friends” was unbearable, but looking back now, I realize it was unavoidable.
A New Identity
Over the course of the next several years, God led our church family through one change after another. Many of them were difficult and numerically costly, but they were necessary. Blessed Hope Baptist Church eventually embraced our new identity as Hope Church and emerged from our season of transition larger and more committed than ever to advancing the Gospel. However, we were still an island all to ourselves. We were teaching the family of Hope Church that God calls His people to live in community for His purpose, but we were only applying that message individually and not corporately. Ultimately, the increase of God’s Word through our local congregation was being limited. Yes, we were one church in four locations. Yes, the six original members of Hope Church had grown to over 1,000 people meeting in three different states. Yes, we were impacting people and places far beyond our walls in ways we would have never imagined, but we were still missing the joy and benefits of connectedness with the greater body of Christ. Thankfully, God in His wisdom and sovereignty directed us to the SBC of Virginia and, in the SBCV, we have found like-minded followers of Jesus who are devoted to advancing the Gospel together.
As an Independent Baptist, I believed Southern Baptists were the enemy, but now as a Southern Baptist conservative, I have realized that misguided belief had kept me from benefiting from and belonging to one of the strongest Gospel forces on the planet. That’s why I now urge Independent Baptists to prayerfully search the Scriptures, to carefully listen to the great conservative Southern Baptist preachers who are passionately standing for truth, and to realistically consider the limitations of isolation…then make the obvious decision to partner with Southern Baptists to saturate the globe with the message that Jesus saves.
There was a season in my life and ministry when I avoided all things Independent Baptist. To be honest, I was bitter. My attitude was, Why should I care? But now, thank God, the bitterness is gone, and I care more than I ever have before. My heart is burdened for those Independent Baptist pastors who ferociously love Jesus and His church, but their fear of rejection holds them captive to their traditions. The great news is that you won’t drown in the chilly waters of rejection. The SBCV will embrace you. I say that from experience. I have been lovingly embraced and spiritually encouraged by men who understand that our fellowship is in the Gospel. I was welcomed to the table in Lynchburg, VA by fellow pastors who believe the Church flourishes when the attitude of “us” prevails over the attitude of “me,” and I would have never experienced this beautiful community of Christ followers had I remained independent. I am honored to be a part of the SBCV, I am grateful that Hope Church is an SBCV church, and I believe this partnership will allow us to experience the greatest days of ministry we have ever known.