No one had a crystal ball but speakers at the October conference at Union University on “Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and the Future of Denominationalism” drew from historical facts and from current trends to posit a future for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and evangelicalism.
Denominations will always be around because “like-minded people will always find a way to associate with one another,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. “Denominations are inevitable in mission-focused churches, and the best denominations may be understood as networked cooperative relationships for mission.”
Stetzer, a frequent contributor to books, articles and conference platforms, said, “For now I find strength in my denomination. It is not a prison, but a home. God has allowed for the cooperation of churches in networks and denominations so that the greatest number of people in our darkened world can be most effectively reached with the one thing that brings true unity: the gospel.”
Nathan Finn, assistant professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, acknowledged a decades-old debate as to whether Southern Baptists are evangelicals. A current identity crisis for “evangelicals” is that as many groups and individuals claim that identity for themselves the definition has grown so broad as to be without value._ÑŒ_ÑŒ
“Though there is surely a sense in which Southern Baptists are evangelicals, there are times that Southern Baptists must be against evangelicals,” he said.
“As long as evangelicalism remains a parachurch-driven coalition, Southern Baptists will remain nervous about certain types of cooperation with the broader evangelical movement,” Finn said.
“While we can and should cooperate with other evangelicals in a variety of worthy endeavors, such cooperation must not come at the expense of an ecclesiological downgrade that would transform us into something other than Baptists.”_ÑŒ_ÑŒ
Finn commended concern among younger Christian leaders for such problems as poverty, racism, sexism, the spread of AIDS, worldwide human sex trafficking and religious persecution. He cautioned, however, against allowing cultural engagement to trump passion for evangelism and missions.
“When I attend the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, I sometimes hear louder shouting and endure longer ovations for Religious Right victories than gospel advances reported by our two mission boards,” Finn said.
“I wonder if Lottie Moon herself would be greeted with the same adulations that some Republican politicians have received at recent convention meetings.”
‘Well positioned’ to deal with decline
Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, suggested that even as denominations are seen as largely in decline, the Southern Baptist polity of local church autonomy is “well positioned” to deal with the problem.
“It seems to me that there are ways the SBC might be able to hold on to benefits of denominational life and denominational structure without some of the drawbacks of denominationalism,” Litfin said.
He cited some local churches’ decisions to “play down” Baptist identity or SBC affiliation “without severing the connection or leaving it behind. Nor is it being waved in people’s faces.”
Litfin predicted the decline of denominations may “force the SBC to become less insular.”
While some Southern Baptists leaders may still prefer “insularity” from evangelicalism, many in the SBC have chosen to network with the “broader evangelical world,” Litfin observed.
Harry Poe, Charles Colson professor of faith and culture at Union University, offered a critique of evangelism materials developed during the 20th century. He said denominations and parachurch groups produced programs designed to produce converts.
But he felt creation and publication of evangelism programs is a sign of failure, suggesting “that Christians and churches no longer talk about their faith in Christ as a normal part of everyday life.”
‘Missional’ and ‘attractional’ churches
Mark DeVine, associate professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., urged patience and appreciation for the innovations of young church planters who labor in challenging contexts, often in urban areas.
“Perhaps the most misinformed comments I hear about the emerging church are those that apply a quick and dirty analysis that ends by reducing and dismissing the phenomenon as the convulsions of typical youth rebellion against Grandma and Grandpa’s religion,” DeVine observed.
For various reasons, church planters are often dissatisfied with the “models of church that nurtured them” or that they have otherwise encountered, DeVine said.
“When young men, dissatisfied with the models of church that nurtured them, strike out on their own and actually plant churches, how typical is that?” DeVine asked.
“Church planting … is a fairly impressive way to rebel, I think.”
DeVine said theologically conservative and doctrine-friendly church planters want to plant “missional” churches, as contrasted with “attractional” churches.
“An attractional church focuses disproportionate energy as to what takes place within the walls of its church buildings: worship services, religious education, various clubs, recreation and other programs,” DeVine said. “All of these are advertised and promoted in various ways and are meant to attract unchurched believers and unbelievers into the churches’ facilities where enjoyment of the various programmatic offerings keep them there. Once someone crosses the threshold of that church facility, much of the work of church growth is done.”
Younger church planters may “recognize the effectiveness of attractional models for some,” DeVine said. “But they also are convinced that growing proportions of the unbelieving population will not be reached by such an approach. Some unbelievers must be reached outside the walls of the church building. They must be reached where people live, work, study and play.”
‘Nimble networks, not stolid bureaucracies’
Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston and an associate director of the school’s Center on Race, Religion, and Urban Life, pointed out that more than 12,000 churches affiliate with the Willow Creek Association, which is more churches than in all but five Protestant bodies.
The association’s success, Lindsay said, has come from its provision of things many denominations used to provide, such as “excellent continuing education programs … (and) a platform through which ideas can be shared and professional connections can be made.”
As far as denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention does a better job than most at continuing to provide these things, but “a lot more work needs to be done thinking about how our institutions can really be like nimble networks, not stolid bureaucracies,” Lindsay said.
Lindsay affirmed the importance of institutions which “provide buffers against our worst instincts. Churches need denominations because they provide institutional ballast when the storms of an organization hit.”
Lindsay also affirmed the capacity of denominations to exercise what he called “convening power … the ability to bring together disparate groups of people to get something done. … Convening power is the resource that flows through networks. It allows leaders to marshal resources, to share information and to deflect criticism.”_ÑŒ_ÑŒ
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Hinson is an associate in communications services for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.)
Union University conference asks: ‘Do denominations have a future?’
Academics, some preachers and a few Baptist editors converged in Jackson, Tenn., in October to discuss “Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and the Future of Denominationalism,” at a conference by that name held at Union University.
It was a timely topic given the forlorn language many use when discussing the future viability of denominations. Although scheduled previously, the conference followed a recent revelation that — given trends of the past 50 years — the Southern Baptist Convention could lose one-half of its membership by 2050. These stories (see links below) give a sense of the opinions of conference speakers. — The Editor