The future is a major topic of discussion in most churches these days. Most of the discussion centers on what it will look like, or if, in their current form of existence, individual churches and denominations will even have much of one. That we are on the cusp of some kind of paradigm shift in Christian expression and practice in our culture goes without saying. What it will eventually look like, and how it will affect the institutions, churches, and denominational groupings of today, who can say? There are as many opinions about that as there are people who are talking about it.
The natural tendency is to “do something.” Baptists, especially those who have organized themselves into denominational layers and groupings, still push for the program approach. The recent edition of Texas Baptist Committed’s newsletter contains an article by Bill Jones, the communications editor, regarding a joint effort with the BGCT, holding meetings around the state to inform people about the services offered by the BGCT and show people how they can get personally involved in supporting them. That’s a reflection of the typical Baptist approach to such things for quite some time. Perhaps, at some point in the past, it worked, which is why we keep doing it.
The problem in the BGCT, which has led to the steady decline in Cooperative Program support, isn’t lack of information regarding its ministries, programs and entities. The problem is that churches are leaving at a fairly steady rate, and have stopped contributing to the Cooperative Program through the BGCT when they departed. The original strategy, organizing to protect the convention and its institutions from creeping “fundamentalism,” succeeded in preventing the trustee boards and convention committees from being “taken over” by those individuals from churches which were involved in the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence. In the long run, however, the organization put in place to prevent those takeovers turned to using some of the same tactics they once criticized the fundamentalists for using, and became as entrenched a bureaucracy as they accused the fundamentalists of being.
Failing to recognize that this really was a conflict involving different perspectives with regard to basic doctrinal beliefs, including the debate over the nature of scripture, BGCT leadership moved too far to the left of the doctrinal spectrum too soon, taking refuge among those who were the most vocal opponents of the Conservative Resurgence, but among those who were much further to the left than the vast majority of the rank and file of Texas Baptists. Hence, even though “moderates” were able to hang on to control of the BGCT’s leadership, they have also presided over a steady stream of churches leaving the BGCT for the “rival” state convention, the SBTC, more than 2,000 to date, at a rate of about 50 per quarter including both dually and uniquely aligned churches.
It’s not too hard to see what the future will look like at that rate. Nor is it difficult to figure out that a series of statewide meetings will most likely not produce the desired results.
In another article in the same publication, Texas Baptists: A Network, Not a Denomination, the author alludes to a post-denominational age, pointing out that “mainline denominations are losing people faster than they can count.” That is true, though for American mainliners, it has been happening since the early 1960’s. The main reason for it, in just about any honest evaluation, has been the liberal, leftward drift of denominational leadership. Most mainline apologists and church researchers have provided some documentation of this, though most Baptists were made aware of it through the numbers of people from mainline churches who joined their ranks in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and even into the 90’s from mainline churches. In the singles group in the megachurch to which I once belonged, the transfers accounted for perhaps as many as half of the baptisms, since the church’s policy required immersion upon joining if the prospective member had been sprinkled.
Though our Baptist ancestors in America were most definitely non-credal, the fact of the matter is that they would not ever have imagined that any Baptist preacher would ever question the authority and veracity of the Bible, nor that any Baptist church would ever tolerate such questioning. Nor is it hard to imagine their reaction if such teaching had emerged in their day. The historical record is pretty clear on how Baptists responded to teachings that they viewed as “heresy.”
I don’t think any of the well-thought-out, well reasoned, academically sound, emotionally pure solutions that we can come up with are going to help us resolve the problems that have brought us to the place where we now find ourselves. No solution of human origin, from a series of state wide meetings to increase awareness, to taking the name Baptist off the church sign, to throwing out the organ and piano and adding drums, electric guitars and keyboards, will resolve the future for us.
If we are going to honestly look at the future, we need to give serious thought to some serious questions. By and large, the young people who are being raised in our churches, and those of virtually every other denomination and faith tradition, including non-denominational, non-connectional churches, are not being shuffled around as they look for some place to fit. They are simply leaving the church altogether. In droves. And so far, in spite of a few spots in a few places where a few churches have attracted some of the exiting droves, they are not coming back. So the question that we need to be asking, which bears on the future is “Why?”
The second question, perhaps the hardest one to ask, is not “What do we do about it?” It is “Lord, what changes need to be made in my heart, in my life, in my church, in order for your Spirit to return?”