A Presbyterian is just a Baptist who moved to town, the playful old joke goes.
Or, beginning early next year, a member of the old Prescott Memorial Baptist Church who moved to Shady Grove Presbyterian Church.
Earlier this month, Prescott’s congregation voted 45-1 to join Shady Grove’s congregation in February. Members will worship for the last time as Prescott Memorial Baptist Church on Jan. 26.
“Our decreasing numbers have inhibited the expansion of our ministries into the larger community,” Prescott’s church council wrote in a letter to members Nov. 20. “With this decision made, we can envision a future in which we can more freely serve Christ in the world.”
The unusual decision ends nearly a century of determined and, at times, defiant discipleship that led Prescott to become the first Southern Baptist congregation in the area to accept African-American members, elect women as deacons, ordain a woman to pastoral ministry, and hire a woman as senior pastor.
In the process, Prescott was “disfellowshipped” by the local Southern Baptist association. It left the Southern Baptist Convention before it could be kicked out. Along the way, its membership has declined from about 1,700 in the 1950s to around 30 on a typical Sunday the past few years.
“In our journey we have taken risks and left behind the familiar again and again,” the church council wrote. “At times we stood alone. Yet there is no member among us today who regrets actions we took in response to the leadership of God, no matter how frightening they felt at the time.”
The decision to join Shady Grove, a member of the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), came after a year of prayer, discussion and fellowship, initiated by Rev. Jarad Bingham, Shady Grove’s pastor who grew up and was ordained in a Southern Baptist church.
Earlier this year, Shady Grove’s governing “session” voted unanimously to extend the invitation to Prescott.
“The real movement was within the congregation at Prescott to look around for another like-spirited ministry, and then make the faithful choice to share that ministry more beautifully with the world,” said Bingham. “That’s a remarkable example for the Christian church in our time.”
Presbyterians and Baptists grew out of the less liturgical, more democratic Reformed branch of Protestantism. But, as with all denominations, differences emerged.
Presbyterians recite creeds and have a constitution. Baptists have statements of faith, but aren’t required to affirm them.
Presbyterians are governed by a hierarchy of elected councils, from the congregational “session” to the denomination’s General Assembly.
Baptist congregations generally govern themselves, although most choose to associate with state or national “conventions” that agree on standards and practices.
The two traditions affirm baptism and communion as scriptural, but practice them in different ways. Presbyterians baptize infants, for example; Baptists do not. Presbyterians sprinkle, Baptists dunk.
Some of those matters are points of discussion, but they are not sources of tension.
“We’re taking the baptistry with us,” chided Prescott’s John Whirley, church council president. “We think a lot of Presbyterians need to be fully washed.”
“They’re not bringing the baptistry,” Bingham said with a smile. He briefly attended Prescott when he moved to Memphis around 2000. “We all wash every day.”
“It’s going to be fun,” said Billy Bickers, who joined Prescott in 1970. “The Kingdom of God isn’t segregated by doctrine. Now we look more like the Kingdom.”
These days, differences among congregations tend to be more social and political than theological or doctrinal.
Nearly half of all U.S. adults have left the denomination in which they were raised, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Among married couples, four in 10 spouses grew up in different denominations.
Members of both congregations say Prescott’s decision wasn’t about Baptists joining Presbyterians; it was about Prescott joining Shady Grove.
“Prescott is a Baptist church full of people very much like you and me,” Bingham wrote to his congregation.
“People who would rather champion the kingdom of God than champion themselves. People for whom the gospel is meaningful, not just to confirm what society already says, but to challenge society until it becomes a more just and beautiful community.”
Prescott’s council sees more common ground.
“Many Shady Grove members, like many Prescott members, have come into their faith community after being hurt by other churches or after having given up on church completely,” the Prescott council wrote. “They came not seeking to be Presbyterians, but to be part of this particular congregation. Yes, they even have former Baptists.”
Like Peggy Rayburn, whose father was a Baptist preacher and whose mother was a Presbyterian.
“All you got to do is love the Lord,” Rayburn said Tuesday evening at Prescott, where her fellow Shady Grove Presbyterians and Prescott Baptists shared a Thanksgiving meal with members of Beulah Baptist Church and the Peter Cooper Unitarian Fellowship.
They ate and talked and joked. They sang old hymns and prayed. They served each other, and made plans to serve the Lord.
1916: Founded with 13 members at 499 S. Patterson
1967: First Southern Baptist church in the Mid-South to welcome African-American members.
1968: Rev. Bob Troutman was one of two white Baptist pastors to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in support of striking sanitation workers.
1970: Evelyn Stell and Anette Bickers, first women deacons in a Southern Baptist church in Memphis.
1983: Sent members Jimmy Burkeen and Tom Walsh on peace mission to Soviet Union, leading to formation of Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.
1983: Voted to affiliate with American Baptist Churches.
1984: Ordained a woman, Diane Housam-Abbott, to pastoral ministry.
1985: Established sister ministry with Beulah Baptist Church in Orange Mound.
1987: Called Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested to become the first female pastor of a Southern Baptist church in Tennessee.
1994: Voted to withdraw from Southern Baptist Convention.
1997: Approved full membership rights and privileges for gays and lesbians.
2004: Sold historic sanctuary to the University of Memphis, moved to 961 Getwell.
2013: Voted 45-1 to join Shady Grove Presbyterian Church.