Friday, May 09, 2008

Living in a Post-denominational Era - Part 2

I wanted to follow up on the previous post with some further thoughts about the implications of a post-denominational mindset for the future of denominations, state conventions, and even individual churches. The recent Lifeway statistical reports about a decline in total membership of the SBC have been amply discussed and critiqued on other blogs, so I won’t pursue that topic here.

The first serious mention that I had heard of the term post-denominationalism was back in the early 90s from the lips of a seminary colleague at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Buenos Aires. This individual was a well-educated Argentine national who did Ph.D. work at Southwestern Seminary and was a distinguished church historian. I had some philosophical and ideological differences with him—mostly related to certain aspects of a charismatic renewal movement that was sweeping through Baptist churches in Argentina at that time—and those differences prompted me I suppose to dismiss this reading of history and the signs he was detecting of the decline in denominational allegiance and viability. In hindsight, his perceptions of the post-denominational trend were better than mine I believe.

I had studied under some of the great Baptist historians at Southwestern (Baker, McBeth, and Estep) and was teaching Baptist history (among other subjects) at the seminary in Buenos Aires. I simply couldn’t conceive of the denomination that I had been raised in my entire life and which served as a vehicle for me to fulfill a missionary calling as somehow being destined for either complete disappearance or at the least, significant loss of relevance and impact. That just didn’t compute in my internal processing unit. The more I observe current trends and read books like Kimball’s They Like Jesus but not the Church and Kinnaman’s Unchristian, the more convinced I’m becoming of the accuracy of the assessment of my former colleague and these contemporary writers.

There is a serious disconnect taking place today in terms of “brand-name loyalty” that once existed among Baptists (and other denominations as well). While the older generations still maintain and defend (in some cases fiercely so) their ties to the denomination of their childhood and youth, young adults in their 20s and 30s and those who are younger still in their teens do not feel that same sense of indebtedness and commitment to a denomination just because it is labeled Baptist (or Methodist, Presbyerian, Episcopalian, Disciples, Assembly of God, etc.). This is clearly seen if one attends the annual meetings of the national and/or state conventions of these denominational bodies. Unless there is a controversial vote to be taken on a potentially divisive issue (and perhaps even if such is taking place), the large majority of the messengers or delegates to these gatherings will be senior adults—or at least those in their 50s and up. I’ve witnessed this not only at meetings of conservative groups but at gatherings of moderates as well. This phenomenon isn’t restricted to one theological persuasion or another, but is pervasively true of groups across the spectrum of religious beliefs.

What impact will this trend have upon national, state, and local bodies, especially in Baptist life? Stay tuned for further reflections ….

4 comments:

texasinafrica said...

I guess the big question most young adults have is, "So what?" In other words, even if there's a respect/thankfulness for the Free Church tradition and all it represents, why is it a big deal to not be Baptist anymore, especially in an individualistic, consumer-minded society? If Baptist life at the formal level wants to remain relevant, I think it's going to have to come up with some answers to those questions.

You're dead-on with the observation about the prevalance of older members at the conventions, but I'd argue that's more a product of the fact that they're held in the middle of the week (when it's difficult/impossible for young laity to get off work) in order to accomodate clerical schedules. I know lots of very active Baptist young adults; we just can't be there most of the time.

Joel said...

This has as much to do with popular opinion about unpopular (or slightly controversial) Baptist theologies as anything else. I know the younger generation today is constantly seeking some way to identify themselves in a larger societal setting. With the family unit falling to shambles in much of America, young people are desperate to fit in somewhere.

Many of my friends in college preferred more holistic, all-inclusive religious options over denominational ones. Some of the paths they chose were so watered down and inviting that they left many ethical principles at the door.

But on the other end of the spectrum, I believe the Baptist church needs to undertake serious efforts to engage the youth of today with the message of Christ's love. Let's forget about whether or not women can hold positions of leadership in a church (they certainly can) or whether or not homosexuals should be allowed to know Christ (He would certainly want it to be so). The message of love is the key.

Gary Snowden said...

TIA,

Your big question approach of relevance is certainly apropos. One area that shows up most obviously is in that of giving. Clearly young adults want to know where their offerings are going, preferring to designate for specific causes rather than just giving to a general fund. That in the long run certainly spells trouble for the Cooperative Program of the SBC.

The other observation about the middle of the week schedules for convention meetings (at least nationally) is also on target. There was an interesting discussion a couple of days ago on SBC Impact about a proposed resolution for on-line voting for the SBC annual meeting in conjunction with the live-streaming that already occurs. There are lots of logistical hurdles to clear for that to take place, and probably some intransigence on the part of entrenched leaders who would feel threatened by broader participation, but I think it has some strong potential.

Gary Snowden said...

Joel,

I concur with you that the message of God's redeeming love in Christ needs to be our major focus rather than always trumpeting whom we are combatting in the cultural wars. Thanks for stopping by my blog.