Catching up and looking up with Bill Sutton
A self-described ‘traditionalist’ looks to the future
May 1st, 2018 / By: Jane Rodgers | TEXAN Correspondent / comments
McALLEN At 6-foot-2, 75-year-old Bill Sutton towers over most people in more ways than can be measured by a yardstick.
The TEXAN interviewed the veteran preacher and a leader in the Conservative Resurgence at McAllen’s Trinity Baptist, where he began pastoring in 2010, two years after his retirement from First Baptist of McAllen.
Sutton, a preacher’s kid who never wanted to be a preacher, enrolled in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary after failing a U.S. Army physical because of old football injuries. He graduated from SWBTS in 1967, meeting his future wife just before his final semester.
When the TEXAN caught up with him recently, he was planning to go to one of several businesses he runs with his sons and was sporting a denim shirt, jeans and ball cap, typical Rio Grande Valley farmer attire that would never find its way into his pulpit.
“I am a traditionalist,” said Sutton, who wears a suit every Sunday.
“A coat covers a lot of fat. Most preachers look a lot better in a coat and tie than they do in a polo shirt and jeans,” he added, chuckling.
Names evoking Baptist history trip lightly off Sutton’s tongue. Vance Havner and Homer Lindsay, Sr. visited his childhood and adult homes during revivals. R.G. Lee conducted the wedding ceremonies for Sutton and his wife, Martha, and for Martha’s parents. His father-in-law was Lee’s physician and friend.
Sutton pastored FBC McAllen from 1986-2008 and served on the SBTC Executive Board during the early days of the convention. He had been
retired for about two years when Trinity called. Attendance ran about 60 “on a good day” when he arrived but has since doubled.
Sutton’s tenure has featured the relocation of the 75-year-old church from a landlocked urban site to a 10-acre property fronting Freddy Gonzales Road, a prime tract carved from the dairy farm of the deacon who donated the property and whose home is next door. A predominantly Asian church also uses the facility.
Trinity’s neatly painted building sits back on a manicured lawn with a color-matching portable structure behind. To the side, playground equipment, given by a bank that acquired it from a restaurant, is being painted and artificial turf laid beneath. A new blue mosaic tile baptistry with a fountain, visible from the road, graces the building’s front.
“Baptisms ought to be public,” said Sutton, who likes baptizing outside. The baptistry was paid for by donations. “People just continued to give. We never asked for money.”
A church’s curbside appearance is important, he said.
“Go look at the local Mormon assembly hall. They keep their property up great. No Mormon church, which doesn’t preach the gospel, should have a better appearance than the church that does preach the gospel,” he said.
Sutton knows his age and music preferences limit the demographic the church will easily reach. Attracting some younger people with “a missionary spirit” may be key, he said.
“I am just doing what I know to do. What I’ve done. There is a community that likes that. I’m not competing with any other church. I am competing against the devil. He’s got his hand in everybody’s pocket he can stick it in,” he said.
When Sutton arrived, Trinity gave about $1,200 per year through the Cooperative Program; now the church gives $12,000.
Sutton was at Florida’s First Baptist Pine Hills (now First Baptist Central Florida) in the 1970s at the dawn of the Conservative Resurgence and recalls meetings throughout the denomination among likeminded preachers fearful of increasing denominational liberalism.
His Florida church ran a bus from Orlando to Atlanta for gatherings. Preachers needing a ride stood along the highway, waving white handkerchiefs.
“All the way through Georgia, we’d pick ‘em up and never charge a dime,” Sutton recalled. The bus would be full by Atlanta, where Bill Powell and others would speak.
After Adrian Rogers, a friend then pastoring in Florida, was called to Bellevue Baptist in Memphis, “it became easier for guys of our persuasion to get into large pulpits,” Sutton said.
“That thing began to snowball,” he said of the resurgence, and soon well-known Baptist pastors—“big boys,” as he calls them—joined.
“The big boys weren’t the infantry. They didn’t start it. But … when it came time to have officers for the infantry, they stepped in and that’s when the thing began to march.”
When asked if younger Southern Baptist preachers understand the theological battles of a generation before, Sutton expressed doubt: “The people behind us were never in the fight and they don’t know what we bled and died for. They don’t know what it was like.”
He laments the loss of the days when preachers would stay a week at his home during revivals. He grew up in contact with great men of faith and tried to provide the same for his children. Personally knowing men like R.G. Lee accounts for some of his denominational loyalty, an intimacy now practically lost, gone the way of week-long revivals.
“We don’t have revivals. We have people come in Saturday night, preach Sunday morning and they’re gone,” he said.
Among other heartaches, Sutton admitted, was seeing his alma mater, Baylor, and other Baptist colleges leave the convention.
Sutton laments the loss of denominational spirit among Baptists, the kind of unity he experienced when fighting for orthodoxy. He fears that Baptist history and heritage will be lost.
To address this, he is working with Bob Pearle, pastor of Fort Worth’s Birchman Baptist, on a devotional book to highlight great moments in Baptist history. Modern schedules and family commitments have diluted denominational loyalty and encouraged detachment, Sutton said.
“I was born in a Baptist hospital. I went home to a Baptist parsonage. I went to a Baptist college. I went to a Baptist seminary. I am tied,” Sutton said, adding he believes that younger members don’t feel the same sense of “indebtedness” as did prior generations. Revivals and even Sunday night services seem things of the past, he said, because people don’t have time.
The changing paradigm of Baptist life is one reason he retired from FBC McAllen.
“I saw all this coming and I didn’t like it,” he said. “I didn’t want to fight it.”
Even so, Sutton is cautiously optimistic about the future of the SBC and SBTC, calling the formation of the SBTC—which he served as inaugural vice president—unavoidable. Otherwise, “all that would have happened was people like me would have given lip service to the denomination and pastored an independent Baptist church.”
The lack of denominational commitment motivates his work on the devotional book. If a generation does not “know history,” it will “relearn history from experience,” he said.