(Editor’s note: This is the first of two commentaries adapted from a presentation that the author gave at a recent retreat for executives from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and its partner agencies. The second will be published tomorrow, July 7.)
By Bill Leonard
As they begin their fifth century, Baptists, especially in America, are a case study in organizational and cultural transition. Changes in institutional identity and loyalty that began several decades ago are now clearly evident throughout numerous denominationally based Baptist groups. Indeed, the last 20 years represent a bridge-time between old forms of the church that are disappearing and new forms that remain in process of development.
American religion remains in a state of permanent transition, with uncertainties in ecclesiology, theology, evangelism, mission and overall religious identity. Religious pluralism is the order of the day — a reality that Baptists invented and that many Baptists cannot accept. Across the last two decades, while some were trying to maintain old forms of denominational connectionalism and others were trying to create new ones, many religious Americans moved in entirely different directions, reshaping religious institutions considerably. Transitions in American religious culture, clearly evident but often ignored in the 20th century, are now normative in many Baptist churches and families. Baptist groups across the geographical, racial and theological spectrums are in a continuing period of reorganization, reassessment and response to declining membership, waning finances and loss of historical and theological identity.
Baptists in America (especially in the South) are themselves a case study in institutional and ideological transition, decline and disconnection. Denominations now join megachurch, emerging-church and local-church identities as one of multiple options for shaping American religious organizations. Some Baptists continue to put great energy into denominational connections while others reflect a 21st-century “society” method by which individuals and congregations join together to promote selected ministries and missions.
Societies were an early source of Baptist cooperation, uniting diverse coalitions in shared endeavors related to education, missions at home or abroad, social action and evangelism. Societies allowed churches and individuals to “shop around” for organizations that best accomplished shared ministries without having to do everything through one denominational system. Contemporary Baptists now find themselves in a similar situation, with many churches developing their own ministry programs in publishing, education and missions or joining other Baptist or non-Baptist coalitions for particular types of outreach at home or abroad. Increasingly, new coalitions of Baptists offer multiple options for interchurch cooperation and ministry relationships. “Partnerships” between congregations and Baptist/non-Baptist groups for fellowship and shared ministry are beginning to take shape and are essential for the future.
While regional, economic and racial divisions remain, a new generation of Baptists finds itself in need of mechanisms for passing on ministry, mentoring and identity. Groups of younger clergy and laity confront numerous paradoxes: On one hand, they reflect indifference to any denominational identity. Most have little or no history with Baptist organizations or spirituality. Yet Baptist approaches to church polity, localism, personal piety, religious liberty and individual conscience are strangely appealing to many who choose to explore the Baptist context.
Many are compelled to worship and work together in changing neighborhoods, interracial alliances, community organizations and ecumenical networks. The New Baptist Covenant meeting in Atlanta in January 2008 was the largest interracial gathering ever held by Baptists in the United States. Regional “covenant meetings” held throughout the country a year later gave brief-but-hopeful evidence of greater engagement between Baptist groups seeking to develop new ministries together. Whether those early efforts can lead to greater interracial cooperation and ministry experiences remains uncertain.
Years of controversy over Scripture, doctrine and politics have obscured significant theological problems that extend denominational and ecclesial uncertainties. This is evident in uncertainties related to biblical interpretation, conversion, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, ordination and worship.
Baptists also confront questions of their denominational image in the public square. Such public opinion often categorizes (or caricatures) Baptists as either a highly sectarian movement, splitting doctrinal/ethical hairs with little pastoral care or compassion or as an old-guard religious majority, the classic example of a declining denominational consciousness nationwide. In an increasingly secular society, doctrinal and ethical pronouncements that Baptists understand as convictions may be perceived by the broader culture as bigotry.
Among many Baptist groups, collective mission endeavors no longer dominate the Protestant landscape due to: 1) the high cost of sending career missionaries 2) the ever-expanding direct-missionary activity of local churches; 3) the rise of missionary efforts by groups outside the United States and the West; 4) financial shortages that threaten local-church ministries, including global ministries; and, 5) a burgeoning media globalism through cable television, Facebook, the Internet, Twitter and other communication networks. In some communities, “foreign missionaries” from other nations have come to America, evangelizing and organizing churches. In fact, the development of new mission strategies is one of the greatest challenges and opportunities confronting twenty-first century Baptists.
How might Baptist individuals and faith communities respond to these transitions?