Associated Baptist Press writer Jeff Brumley recently posted an article responding to research by the Public Religion Research Institute suggesting that “the rise of religious progressives and a conservative decline presents a challenge to those in the middle, including moderate Baptists.” Brumley received good feedback from several informed observers including individuals involved in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists. Most called for denominational leaders to be more proactive in addressing this challenge in order to assure organizational viability.
My immediate response to the article was, “When it comes to denominations, what do we really expect in the 21st century?”
What do Christians and particularly young adult believers want from a denomination in the 21st century? In the 20th century, the way to influence policy very often was from the top down. If a group with an agenda could gain the favor and support of the leadership of the organization, they would be assured that the organization (a Christian denomination, for example) would use its considerable resources and influence to further their cause. We see this exhibited in the work of some denominations to support boycotts related to apartheid in South Africa and lobbying for civil rights legislation in the United States.
We no longer live in that world. For one thing, denominations do not carry the kind of influence and authority they once did. Most are extremely fractured over both internal and external issues. Our friends in the Alliance of Baptists may be an exception when it comes to solidarity, but they were formed out of churches that had already made decisions on the local level to pursue a progressive agenda. Their strength is in the churches and not in the judicatory.
Second, denominations like CBF don’t have a lot of resources to toss around. Churches are more focused on maintaining control over their own mission dollars and the Global Missions strategy of CBF seems to reflect this concern.
Third, churches (especially those with a congregational polity) will not defer to denominational entities on “hot button” issues and individuals should not expect the churches to give up this responsibility. Those who are passionate about issues such as sexual equality, racial reconciliation, and poverty will be more effective at creating change on the local level than by seeking a directive or policy from a denominational office in Atlanta or Valley Forge. The African-American leaders in the civil rights era of the fifties and sixties came out of the local African-American churches and not from their national conventions.
Perhaps a way to think about this is to contrast two military conflicts of the 20th century. World War Two was a conflict of nations against nations. One might argue there were certain principles and values at stake on both sides. The way to prevail was for nation states to fight other nation states in great campaigns until one alliance surrendered and adopted a different system of principles and values.
The Vietnam conflict was very different. Despite the efforts of American forces to mount major campaigns, the decisive battles were fought from village to village and for the “hearts and minds” of the population. The emphasis was shifted from macro operations to micro operations.
If those affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship want to pursue a more progressive agenda, I suggest three courses of action:
- Individuals who want change must find ways to network with one another and develop grass-roots strategies. Such individuals, many of them millennials, are already in places of leadership in denominations, churches, and religious organizations. Their influence will continue to grow in this decade and their compatriots need to encourage them.
- Great sources of strength in Fellowship Baptist life are the CBF partners—seminaries, service providers, advocacy groups, and resource providers—most birthed in the past two decades with marginal Fellowship support. As in the example of the sexuality conference held in Decatur last year, an entity like McAfee School of Theology may have to take the lead to promote both dialogue and action on volatile issues.
- The local church is “where the water hits the wheel.” In Brumley’s article, Bill Leonard commented on the “fragile connections” of local churches with judicatories such as CBF, ABC, and SBC. Because these linkages can be easily disrupted, it is unrealistic to expect denominational policy statements to either be forthcoming or to facilitate change in local churches.
In the 21st century, progressive churches and individuals cannot abdicate decisions about justice and equality to denominational leaders. Churches and individuals must step up and take responsibility for the things that are important to them.