EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of four essays by Baptist historians and thinkers all dealing with the theme, “History Speaks to Hard Questions Baptists Ask,” that will be published by Associated Baptist Press on each of the next four Wednesdays. The essays are reprinted from a series of 24 articles written for the Baptist History and Heritage Society to commemorate this year’s 400th anniversary of the founding of the Baptist tradition. ABP invited a panel to select the top four in the series. All of the essays in the series are available on the BHHS website. Because the articles were produced by free-thinking Baptists, the BHHS staff and board may or may not agree with their content.
By Doug Weaver
The answer to the question, “What are the top challenges facing Baptists today?” depends on whom you ask, doesn’t it?
Comedians might remind us that the call to have more children to buttress evangelistic efforts guarantees Baptist survival. Some Southern Baptists suggest that the resurgence of Calvinism will be a death knell to future Baptist witness, while others see it as the key to biblical fidelity. Conservative Baptists contend that openness to women in pastoral ministry and other characteristics of “liberal” theology will lead to fatal stagnation, as in many mainline denominations.
Moderate and liberal Baptists, meanwhile, will continue to see fundamentalism and creedalism as quicksand to the survival of Baptist freedoms. Attacks of the Religious Right upon the separation of church and state will undoubtedly continue to muddy the Baptist waters regarding religious liberty for all persons.
We recognize more than ever that Baptists are global. Baptists in your neighborhood are not simply your traditional American group — for example, they are Korean and Hispanic. This diversity is a challenge — or, better said, an opportunity.
These are several challenges, but let’s focus on one more: the trend toward post-denominationalism.
Increasingly, denominational identity is no longer the primary way that many Christians identify themselves. Some churches remain Baptist in terms of affiliation — but have taken “Baptist” out of their names, and most definitely off their websites (see Rick Warren’s Saddleback Community Church). Lots of folks have opted for a generic evangelical label. Baptist congregations are increasingly identifying themselves as community churches like Saddleback. Megachurches can be explicitly Baptist, but they often function like mini-denominations.
The emerging church is part of the post-denominational trend. Emergents seek innovation in worship and have little interest in institutional religion or denominational distinctives. For emergents, Baptist identity is a relic of a bygone era, bureaucratic baggage, or simply bad public relations in light of Baptist battles.
According to some observers, trends toward post-denominationalism are part of a larger post-Christian era. Christianity is no longer the “default” faith in the West. America is increasingly pluralistic; world religions vie for, and attract, greater attention than they used to. Some people now call themselves “spiritual,” abandoning organized religion but not faith itself. There are so many more choices, and Americans, tolerant and accepting lot that they are, now move from one religious group to another without much concern for religious affiliation.
One of the underlying factors in the growth of post- or non-denominationalism is the pentecostalization of American religion. When Pentecostalism developed across denominational lines, “charismatics” tended to identify themselves more as Spirit-led believers rather than primarily as members of a denomination. Consequently, charismatic faith has influenced Baptists (and other denominations) in various ways. Contemporary Christian music and “charismatic lite” services — the sort of hands-but-no-tongues style of worship — are rooted in the Pentecostal tradition. The question among Southern Baptists regarding the propriety of a private (tongues) prayer language for missionaries remains unsettled.
Charismatic megachurches — often characterized by the “prosperity gospel” of promises of health and wealth — have made some significant inroads into the African-American Baptist community, among others. Given that Pentecostal expressions of faith are the fastest growing ones across the globe, failure to understand their impact on Baptist life is myopic.
Numerous Baptists will find the pentecostalization of faith (or specific aspects of it) to be a revitalization of worship and discipleship. Some won’t. Because of the impact, Baptist identity will have to be intentionally cultivated in a context that often pushes toward generic evangelical non-denominationalism.
There is one issue that is especially challenging: the question of polity. Much of the Pentecostal-charismatic tradition has allowed, even cultivated, the role of the dynamic, authoritarian, Spirit-led pastor or Spirit-led elders who make the decisions for the church. Accustomed to CEO-type organizations, especially in megachurch settings, modern leaders can easily find congregational polity — a historic Baptist identity marker — a roadblock to their vision of success. In congregational polity, the local-church community as a whole attempts to discern what the Spirit is saying in that particular church setting. With the lack of concern for congregational governance, how will Baptists attempt to discern the Spirit?
Whether these challenges are opportunities or problems likely depends upon perspective. Whatever the case, if Baptist identity is worth preserving, it must meet the challenges and not miss the opportunities.