I recently heard BYU's Robert Millet comment that Mormons don't know nearly enough about other denominations. He is the "Manager of Outreach and Interfaith Relations" for Church Public Affairs, so he speaks with some authority on that point. I'll do my part to remedy the problem, beginning with the Baptists and using the book Baptists in America (CUP, 2005). The Wikipedia entry "Baptists" is also helpful. Baptists take a rather conservative approach to religious doctrine and social issues in general, surprisingly similar to LDS positions (apart from distinctive LDS beliefs like temples and the Book of Mormon). But it takes some effort for Mormons to grasp the different conception Baptists have of religious identity, which I'll try to discuss in terms of membership, congregation, and denomination.
"I am a Mormon" and "I am a member of the Mormon Church" mean much the same thing to Mormons. But "I am a member of the Baptist Church" has no parallel meaning for Baptists. For one thing, there is no "Baptist Church," but a bewildering array of fellowships, associations, and conventions, the Southern Baptist Convention being the most recognized of the bunch. Instead, being a Baptist means something like the following. First, having a striking personal forgiveness experience or "being saved." Second, subscribing to a general set of Baptist doctrinal beliefs, although Baptist orthodoxy is surprisingly broad, with many different Baptist groups differing on particular points of doctrine. Third, being a member of a Baptist congregation.
This might sound similar to a Mormon view of religious identity, but it is rather different in practice. Baptists affirm the religious autonomy of individuals to read the Bible by their own light and follow their own reading of the doctrines therein. There is strong resistance to any sort of top-down dictation of official or required doctrine. This doesn't stop Baptist ministers from asserting that their reading is correct and anyone else's (whether Baptist or not) is wrong, of course. It does mean there is a lot of disagreement within the broad Baptist community on what one might regard as fundamental points of doctrine.
For example, traditional Baptist theology derived from Calvinist theology, stressing the total depravity of fallen mankind and God's pre-election of those who would, through no merit of their own, qualify for God's grace and obtain salvation. This sort of thinking is diametrically opposed to free agency and "works righteousness." Yet there is also a strong Arminian thrust to more modern Baptist belief and practice, stressing the availability of salvation to any individual who hears the word and (exercising their free agency and choice) responds to it by turning from sin and being baptised. So strains of Calvinist and Arminian theology coexist comfortably within the Baptist perspective, even within one congregation's or one individual's thinking.
So most individuals explain what "being a Baptist" means largely in terms of their personal forgiveness experience, "finding Jesus," and the beliefs they and their particular Baptist congregation accept (which differs on some particulars from what another Baptist or another congregation spells out as Baptist doctrine). It is a radically egalitarian approach to membership and doctrine.
The fundamental unit of the Baptist movement is the congregation, not the denomination. In Mormonism, authority runs from the top down: senior leaders select local leaders. Apostles call stake presidents who call bishops. In the Baptist movement, a local congregation selects its own minister (traditionally lay ministers rather than professional clergy), and groups of like-minded congregations combine to elect representatives and leaders of larger groups like the Southern Baptist Convention. Church governance and discipline is strictly local (in fact, not just in rhetoric) as there is no official hierarchy above the congregational level.
It is difficult for hierarchical Mormons to really sense how a congregational church works. A Baptist congregation owns its own building, selects its own minister, may decide to change its view on points of doctrine, might call and send its own missionary or missionary couple overseas to preach, and so forth. If the congregation wants to, it can withdraw from membership in, say, the Southern Baptist Convention and join the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, or vice versa. Congregations are truly independent. Contrast this with Mormonism, where individual congregations don't even own their own library books much less their own meetinghouse.
There is no doubt a good deal of self-selection. A Baptist looks for a congregation that professes the same set of Baptist doctrines she accepts and follows the same sort of worship style she is comfortable with. Think how different LDS church life would be if you could choose your own LDS congregation to attend! So for a Baptist they identify with their congregation not just because it is Baptist but also because they have chosen to be part of that particular congregation, as opposed to other Baptist congregations that one might join. "My church" means "my congregation" to most Baptists, I suspect.
I already touched on the first step to understanding Baptists at a denominational level: There is no Baptist Church. Instead, there is a whole assortment of national fellowships or conventions that bring together like-minded congregations for various programs or purposes. When serious divisions arise within a given group, a schism is the likely outcome. Here's a quote from Baptists in America (p. 124-25) that narrates a recent split, for example:
The Alliance of Baptists is a relatively new Baptist organization, founded in 1986 under the name of the Southern Baptist Alliance. It was instituted largely in reaction to the increasingly rightward direction of the Southern Baptist Convention and the inability of moderates in the denomination to stop what they considered to be a takeover of trustee boards in convention agencies and seminaries.
Denominational identity has been weakening in most denominations — the LDS Church is a real anomaly here. As a result, many Baptist-affiliated congregations no longer sport the term "Baptist" in their name. For example, the Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, California, perhaps the most publicly visible megachurch in the United States, is Baptist, but you'd never know it from their flashy homepage. I can't find the term "Baptist" anywhere on the website; even a Google search for "Baptist" on the site comes back empty. Its minister, the dynamic Rick Warren, is hardly the stereotype of a Bible-thumping, narrow-minded fundamentalist. His latest book, The Purpose Driven Life, has sold over four million copies. Interestingly, Warren's page at Purpose-Driven Life.com says that Saddleback Church has "been named the fastest growing Baptist church in history, and the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention." They're Baptist, they just don't advertise it. I'll bet some of the Saddleback congregants don't even know they're Baptist!
So how does all this help further Millet's Outreach program? How does this help Mormons be better religious conversationalists? Try this: If you strike up a conversation with a Baptist, don't ask what they believe. Instead, ask where they attend church and what they like about it. Ask who their pastor is and what he or she says in Sunday sermons that is interesting. Ask what experiences they had that led them to become Baptist or join their congregation, as opposed to a different denomination or congregation. I'll bet this results in a much friendlier and more enlightening conversation than the standard doctrinal discussion, which is likely to end up focusing on the Mormon beliefs that Baptists obviously disagree with.