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 ….