(Editor’s note: This is the second 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 first is available here.)
By Bill Leonard
In the first installment of this commentary yesterday, I laid out some of the many societal and denominational trends with which Baptists are coping as we begin our fifth century as a movement. How might Baptist individuals and faith communities respond to these transitions?
Baptist commitment to a believers’ church offers an important witness for individual faith in the context of a communal spirituality. Persons are called to claim faith for themselves, but within a nurturing Christian community. Likewise, congregational polity and autonomy make it possible for churches to be intentional about the specific directions of their ministries in ways that best relate to their communities and spiritual gifts. Baptist congregationalism may be messy, but it is also quite manageable and adaptable in varying cultural situations. This approach has positive implications for a new connectionalism.
Amid multiple transitions, churches still need resources for educating and securing ministers, cross-congregational fellowship and strategies for global ministry. Many Baptist churches are thriving in the current environment because they have found their “niche” — providing basic ministries, but with special emphases that connect persons to particular aspects of the faith. These specialized ministries reflect the gifts and efforts of specific churches to meet the needs of target groups in their communities. In a time of permanent transition, niche ministry may offer the best short-term — and perhaps long-term — option for many Baptist churches.
Strong regionally based Baptist organizations may have the best possibility for meeting the needs of local congregations seeking collective ministry. Regional coalitions may be structured around “non-geographic” associations that offer significant options for creating congregational partnerships, addressing regional needs, and inculcating Baptist identity.
An expanding community of younger ministers, many of whom graduated from Baptist-related colleges and theological schools in the last two decades, are developing new networks for encouragement, fellowship and friendship. They also seek affiliation with Baptist bodies that can facilitate placement, community and connection. Now is the time to cultivate those coalitions. Such networks have global implications. Indeed, globalism is an essential element that must be extended alongside and beyond mission trips and traditional missionary connections. Churches and individuals must continue to explore traditional and non-traditional initiatives that have broad implications for connecting young people as well as ethnic/racial collaborations and new dialogues.
Theological education is essential for an appropriate Baptist future. Churches must give serious attention to mentoring persons to both faith and Christian ministry. Training for persons interested or already engaged in ministry is essential. New options for gaining theological education online have the potential to challenge or expand options for those considering the ministry. Many new Baptist schools provide a highly personalized theological education in smaller student bodies, offering significant opportunity for mentoring and community with Baptists and non-Baptists alike. Funding, recruitment of students, connection with churches and development of a new generation of scholar/teachers offer great challenges, but are essential for the Baptist future. New degrees, online and global studies, multicultural experiences, coaching/mentoring opportunities, and renewed connections to congregations through internships and other programs offer important possibilities for the future.
Baptists must confront their history — good and bad — while claiming the best of their traditions as rooted in a believers’ church, their sacraments/ordinances, local-church identity/autonomy, freedom of conscience, countercultural dissent, religious liberty and the witness of the minority. Given their history, Baptists should lead the way toward a renewed Christocentrism (Christ-centeredness) amid radical religious pluralism. It is our best hope of remaining a viable gospel people amid the transitions ahead.