Baptist identity and Millennials: Re-imagining church

The good news is that early Baptists were, in a manner of speaking, the original Millennials.

By Bruce Gourley

Within recent months David Gushee, ethicist at McAfee School of Theology, has argued that it is time for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to grow up and adopt organizational doctrinal parameters. Not doing so, he argues, alienates young people and imperils the future of CBF.

In his own words: “I fear our reticence to be clear and concrete in our theology and ethics is leaving churches, ministers and families speechless before the most important perennial and contemporary questions.”

Alan Bean, echoing Gushee, contends that CBF’s theological silence is “driving Millennials out of the church.” Millennials are young people aged 18-34. Gushee and Bean are seemingly concerned about CBF attracting young people to church pews, a concern no doubt shared by more than a few CBF pastors.

Responding to Gushee’s call for a formal denominational doctrinal statement, church historian Bill Leonard of Wake Forest School of Divinity contends that not only has CBF already grown up and established an identity, but that traditional, freedom-centric Baptist faith (past or present) is too diverse and dynamic to be nailed down in any given confession or creed, or contained within a church sanctuary.

Millennial snapshot

To be certain, Millennials pose a challenge to CBF congregations, as they do to all other churches in America. The basic statistical snapshot of the Millennial generation is well known by now. Compared to earlier generations of late-20th century young Americans, Millennials are poorer (carrying more student debt while having less financial assets), more likely to be unemployed, less likely to own a home or a car, more immersed in technology, and more liberal in their social and political views.

To top it all off, Millennials are far less likely to attend church than their parents or grandparents.

Of the latter, roughly one in three Millennials claim no religious affiliation. The rapidly growing propensity of this younger generation to mark “none” on questions of religious affiliation has led demographers to commonly refer to them as “nones” in terms of religiosity. Beneath this general assessment, however, is religious diversity and nuance befitting the complexity of our 21st century world.

A large and growing segment of Millennials pointedly identify conservative/fundamentalist theology as that which steered them away from organized religion. Even so, a dwindling, small minority can sometimes be found inside a church sanctuary. The few attending conservative to fundamentalist churches are an aberration, while the few gracing the sanctuaries of moderate to liberal congregations, including in CBF life, tend to be restless. Nevertheless, spirituality is not at all unusual among Millennials, although not always easily definable.

Marketers struggle to win the loyalty of Millennials, while many churches, emulating the methodology of the marketplace, expend considerable effort courting this 18-34 year-old age group. The generational disconnect worries many Christian parents, grandparents and ministers. In most CBF congregations, a significant percentage of older church members have children or grandchildren who are no longer involved in church. Ask these parents and grandparents about their religiously wayward children, and more often than not their responses will elicit feelings ranging from despair to resignation.

While parents and grandparents often feel powerless in terms of helping their offspring recover faith, many pastors, witnessing the plateauing or steady decline of church attendance and finances, cannot help but feel under siege. After all, institutional growth is the commonly accepted corporate goal of congregations, a goal to which ministerial salaries are ultimately tied.

Yet few churches in America are growing (20 percent or less by some estimates), while up to 10,000 shutter their doors each year. With the number of churches in America declining by some 30 percent since 1950 — a decline that is rapidly accelerating by many accounts — empty buildings and shrinking ministerial staffs are far too common.

Sharper focus

Within this context the debate over Baptist identity comes into sharper focus: some engaged in the conversation are contending for the future of institutional faith that is guarded by clear theology, ensconced in familiar sanctuaries, administered by salaried ministers and financed by generous pew sitters. Indifferent, financially strapped and largely absent young adults pose a serious problem for this traditional religious paradigm.

Institutional concerns are nothing new. As is often the case when organizations (whether commercial or nonprofit entities) gaze nervously into a problematic future, stakeholders zero in on numbers — namely, customers (church members) and revenue (church finances).

Attempts to address organizational stagnation or decline typically involve an analysis of the past, present and future, a task that, absent quantifiable certainty, inevitably delves into individual and institutional biases and prejudices. Should the past be mined for helpful models or transferred to the dust bin of irrelevancy? What of the present data is important and, conversely, what should be ignored? Which possible future trajectories are most suitable for the survival of the organization and, conversely which potential paths should be left untrod?

The manner in which this crucible of past, present and future takes shape is often surprising, as is the case with the present debate over Baptist identity in CBF life.

Ethicist Gushee, reaching into the past for a formula for institutional turnaround, points to doctrinal certainty. While it is true that some Baptist groups of the past successfully utilized “clear and concrete” theology and doctrine as a tool for growth, does such a historically conservative roadmap offer a promising future for today’s moderate to progressive CBF Baptists? Should CBF position itself to meet the expectations of the small, dwindling fraction of Millennials who yet respond positively to theological and doctrinal certainty? For that matter, can the most pressing (and evolving) ethical and theological questions of our 21st-century world ever be answered in the absolute manner that Gushee advocates?

Conversely, historian Leonard, looking at the bigger picture, identifies a valuable lesson in the wide arc of the Baptist past. Among a people for whom voluntary faith is an existential foundation, theological fluidity, rather than certainty, has characterized the diversity inherent in Baptist thought and action. Among the hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of theological formulations woven into a four centuries-plus narrative, none has ever served as a universal vehicle for Baptist theology. Why pluck from this strongly diverse theological soup of the past any one faith statement to plant authoritatively in an inherently dynamic, diverse and pluralistic 21st-century world? And if theological and doctrinal certainty has never before unified Baptists (much less Christendom), how can it do so in the present or future?

Theological certainty

And where are Millennials residing on this spectrum of theological thought? Their voices as revealed in numerous surveys clearly indicate that theological certainty is only on the radar of a tiny, dwindling, conservative to fundamentalist subset of this young generation. For that matter, theology is rarely a topic of discussion, other than in the negative. Far more than previous generations, Millennials are walking away from religious certainty, all too aware of the shortcomings and fallacies of theological doctrine. Of those who retain openness to religious experience, pluralism is the norm while faith is framed as mystery rather than orthodoxy.

Nor are Millennials interested in institutional preservation. Church buildings and salaried ministers are irrelevant to most young people. Indeed, the voluminous data on Millennials that is now available indicates that church itself — or, more specifically institutional church — is that which is turning young people away from church. Theological certainty, doctrinal statements, concrete answers, church buildings and defined worship patterns — all characteristics of institutional Christianity — are viewed as artificial constructs.

Baptist leaders and pastors wishing to herd young people back inside the doors of church miss the point altogether: authentic community and real life have always been found outside the sanctuary, not inside. Today’s young people are a generation who do not pretend otherwise.

For most Millennials who make room for religious faith in their lives, “church” takes place in food banks and community gardens coast to coast, Moral Mondays in North Carolina, campaigns for human rights in Mississippi and Missouri and Montana, rallies for living wages in Maine and Michigan, and in coffee shops and breweries and at dinner tables in small towns and large cities across America. It is in all of these, as well as many more places and expressions, that theology in all its plurality (as emphasized by theologian John Franke) blooms and pollinates redemption throughout creation.

In short, the Millennial church of the future is in the world, not in church buildings; is led by advocates of human rights, wellness and economic empowerment, rather than by pulpiteers; and embodies the timeless, this-world teachings of Christ, rather than the compartmentalized institution that church has long been.

A Christendom-shaking revolution

The unchurching of the church, already well underway, is not a trend to be reversed or a problem to be solved. Rather, the unchurching of the church is a Christendom-shaking revolution. The nearly two-millennia paradigm of sacred edifices operated by salaried clerics is crumbling. While the model of church buildings and full-time clergy will not entirely crash to the ground in the future, it will at best serve in a supporting role to the unchurched church, and at worst take the form of isolated enclaves lacking relevance in the outer world.

The good news, however, is that the early Baptists were, in a manner of speaking, the original Millennials. Like today’s young generations, our Baptist forebears walked away from established religious institutions in a quest for “authentic” community. They emerged from the 16th- and 17th-century institutional, doctrinally certain church and scandalized Christendom by creating local communities of faith based on freedom of individual conscience. Despite two centuries of establishment church effort to marginalize or co-opt Baptists, including the use of violence, the movement survived and attracted persons seeking authentic, voluntary faith.

In envisioning a future playbook, can today’s CBF Baptists borrow from the contrarian convictions of our early faith forebears? Can we once again embrace a Christendom uncentered from the baggage of institutional establishment? Can we unleash theology from the unholy altar of human certainty and release it freely into the world? Can we reclaim the early Baptists’ commitment to living prophetically and counter-culturally as champions of those who are poor, downtrodden and oppressed by domineering powers and ideologies?

In short, can we as a community of faith step back from our self-preservational instincts and re-imagine the living of a faith heritage and theology that is expressed in service and advocacy for others?

And if we dare step away from the safety of our sanctuaries and re-center the mission of the church on the life of Christ, might we even save ourselves while serving the world?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.