Union event examines denominational, SBC future
    December 30 2009 by Keith Hinson, Baptist Press

    No one had a crystal ball but speakers at the October conference at Union University on “Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and the Future of Denominationalism” drew from historical facts and from current trends to posit a future for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and evangelicalism.

    Denominations will always be around because “like-minded people will always find a way to associate with one another,” said  Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. “Denominations are inevitable in mission-focused churches, and the best denominations may be understood as networked cooperative relationships for mission.”

    Stetzer, a frequent contributor to books, articles and conference platforms, said, “For now I find strength in my denomination. It is not a prison, but a home. God has allowed for the cooperation of churches in networks and denominations so that the greatest number of people in our darkened world can be most effectively reached with the one thing that brings true unity: the gospel.”

    Nathan Finn, assistant professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, acknowledged a decades-old debate as to whether Southern Baptists are evangelicals. A current identity crisis for “evangelicals” is that as many groups and individuals claim that identity for themselves the definition has grown so broad as to be without value.


    Photo by Abby Ott

    Nathan Finn, assistant professor of church history and Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, delivers an address entitled “Southern Baptists and Evangelicals: Passing on the Faith to the Next Generation” at the Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and the Future of Denominationalism conference. Several speaker from North Carolina took part in the event.

    “Though there is surely a sense in which Southern Baptists are evangelicals, there are times that Southern Baptists must be against evangelicals,” he said.

    “As long as evangelicalism remains a parachurch-driven coalition, Southern Baptists will remain nervous about certain types of cooperation with the broader evangelical movement,” Finn said.

    “While we can and should cooperate with other evangelicals in a variety of worthy endeavors, such cooperation must not come at the expense of an ecclesiological downgrade that would transform us into something other than Baptists.”


    Finn commended concern among younger Christian leaders for such problems as poverty, racism, sexism, the spread of AIDS, worldwide human sex trafficking and religious persecution. He cautioned, however, against allowing cultural engagement to trump passion for evangelism and missions.

    “When I attend the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, I sometimes hear louder shouting and endure longer ovations for Religious Right victories than gospel advances reported by our two mission boards,” Finn said.

    “I wonder if Lottie Moon herself would be greeted with the same adulations that some Republican politicians have received at recent convention meetings.”  

    ‘Well positioned’ to deal with decline
    Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, suggested that even as denominations are seen as largely in decline, the Southern Baptist polity of local church autonomy is “well positioned” to deal with the problem.

    “It seems to me that there are ways the SBC might be able to hold on to benefits of denominational life and denominational structure without some of the drawbacks of denominationalism,” Litfin said.

    He cited some local churches’ decisions to “play down” Baptist identity or SBC affiliation “without severing the connection or leaving it behind. Nor is it being waved in people’s faces.”

    Litfin predicted the decline of denominations may “force the SBC to become less insular.”

    While some Southern Baptists leaders may still prefer “insularity” from evangelicalism, many in the SBC have chosen to network with the “broader evangelical world,” Litfin observed.

    Harry Poe, Charles Colson professor of faith and culture at Union University, offered a critique of evangelism materials developed during the 20th century. He said denominations and parachurch groups produced programs designed to produce converts.

    But he felt creation and publication of evangelism programs is a sign of failure, suggesting “that Christians and churches no longer talk about their faith in Christ as a normal part of everyday life.”

    ‘Missional’ and ‘attractional’ churches

    Mark DeVine, associate professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., urged patience and appreciation for the innovations of young church planters who labor in challenging contexts, often in urban areas.

    “Perhaps the most misinformed comments I hear about the emerging church are those that apply a quick and dirty analysis that ends by reducing and dismissing the phenomenon as the convulsions of typical youth rebellion against Grandma and Grandpa’s religion,” DeVine observed.

    For various reasons, church planters are often dissatisfied with the “models of church that nurtured them” or that they have otherwise encountered, DeVine said.

    “When young men, dissatisfied with the models of church that nurtured them, strike out on their own and actually plant churches, how typical is that?” DeVine asked.

    “Church planting ... is a fairly impressive way to rebel, I think.”

    DeVine said theologically conservative and doctrine-friendly church planters want to plant “missional” churches, as contrasted with “attractional” churches.

    “An attractional church focuses disproportionate energy as to what takes place within the walls of its church buildings: worship services, religious education, various clubs, recreation and other programs,” DeVine said. “All of these are advertised and promoted in various ways and are meant to attract unchurched believers and unbelievers into the churches’ facilities where enjoyment of the various programmatic offerings keep them there. Once someone crosses the threshold of that church facility, much of the work of church growth is done.”

    Younger church planters may “recognize the effectiveness of attractional models for some,” DeVine said. “But they also are convinced that growing proportions of the unbelieving population will not be reached by such an approach. Some unbelievers must be reached outside the walls of the church building. They must be reached where people live, work, study and play.”  

    ‘Nimble networks, not stolid bureaucracies’
    Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston and an associate director of the school’s Center on Race, Religion, and Urban Life, pointed out that more than 12,000 churches affiliate with the Willow Creek Association, which is more churches than in all but five Protestant bodies.

    The association’s success, Lindsay said, has come from its provision of things many denominations used to provide, such as “excellent continuing education programs ... (and) a platform through which ideas can be shared and professional connections can be made.”

    As far as denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention does a better job than most at continuing to provide these things, but “a lot more work needs to be done thinking about how our institutions can really be like nimble networks, not stolid bureaucracies,” Lindsay said.

    Lindsay affirmed the importance of institutions which “provide buffers against our worst instincts. Churches need denominations because they provide institutional ballast when the storms of an organization hit.”

    Lindsay also affirmed the capacity of denominations to exercise what he called “convening power ... the ability to bring together disparate groups of people to get something done. ... Convening power is the resource that flows through networks. It allows leaders to marshal resources, to share information and to deflect criticism.”


    (EDITOR’S NOTE — Hinson is an associate in communications services for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.)  

    Union University conference asks: ‘Do denominations have a future?’
    Academics, some preachers and a few Baptist editors converged in Jackson, Tenn., in October to discuss “Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and the Future of Denominationalism,” at a conference by that name held at Union University.

    It was a timely topic given the forlorn language many use when discussing the future viability of denominations. Although scheduled previously, the conference followed a recent revelation that — given trends of the past 50 years — the Southern Baptist Convention could lose one-half of its membership by 2050. These stories (see links below) give a sense of the opinions of conference speakers. — The Editor
    Photos: www.uu.edu/photos/PhotoAlbum.cfm?PhotoID=0&EventID=2515
    Audio: www.uu.edu/events/baptistfuture/schedule.cfm 

    Related stories

    Danny Akin says SBC future dependent on change

    Unite around gospel essentials, Dockery urges

    Al Mohler urges young Baptists to save Convention

    Editorial: Are Southern Baptists evangelical?

    12/30/2009 12:58:00 AM by Keith Hinson, Baptist Press | with 4 comments

I see a lot of good intentions in the SBC. However, I also think the first Christian denomination (the believing Pharisees of Acts 15:5) also had good intentions. I see the current SBC as somewhat similar to that first denomination. The Pharisees were conservative for their time, wishing to do things the way their fathers in their faith had done them (Luke 11:48). They also were very evangelical (Matthew 23:15). They placed rules on God's children that did not come from Scripture (Mark 7:9). I don't have the space here to go into how the SBC does this, but you can read more about it on my website.

Most importantly, the Pharisees also preached a distorted version of the gospel that came dangerously close to closing the kingdom to people instead of achieving good result intended (Matthew 23:13). The SBC does this with the gospel of "faith alone." The gospel of faith alone, without mentioning the realities of salvation and justification by works, poses the same danger (see James 2). "Faith alone" is a distortion of Paul's teaching, which was that we are justified apart from the law of Moses (Acts 13:39). We are not justified by works of the law, but we are justified by works of love. James makes that clear.

These two types of works are different because, although the command to love is in the law (Lev. 19:18, Deut. 6:5), love also exists outside of the law. Unlike any other command in the law, love is what the law "hangs on" (Matthew 22:40). Love exists outside of the law. Christ came and ended the law (Romans 10:4). He didn't end love though! We *must* love as Christ did in order to live with Him.

In 15 years as a Southern Baptist, I never once heard Romans 2:7-11 explained in any sermon, much less in any gospel presentation. This leads many continually sinful believers to think they are going to heaven, effectively shutting the real door to heaven on them. To live with Christ we *must* walk as Christ walked (1 John 2:6). The SBC desperately needs to wake up to this reality and start preaching the whole truth. May God do this.
1/10/2010 5:01:01 PM

Dr. James Willingham
The one problem with denominations and their organization: They are like an army which is controlled by one set of officers with the same mind set. What defeats them is the inability to think outside the box. Southern Baptists had that wherewithal in the 1700s, say from 1730-1820. Our understanding of biblical evangelicalism at that time enabled us to win 255 congregational churches over to the Baptist way, secure religious liberty, enable educated and uneducated ministers to work together, enable our leading ministers to work with some of the lading political thinkers of the ages and, indeed, to have those same thinkers heed their views (for the establishment of religious liberty), united Separate and Regular Baptists, persuaded General Baptists who were not very evangelistic or missionary to become particular redemptionists who were both (amazing thought!), evangelize in quantity and quality, help to establish a new nation (the greatest in history until this time), treat other protestants as our pedobaptist brethren (Gano went to communion with Whitefield!!!), help to launch the educational institutions, and the Great Century of Missions. Why were our ministers more balanced, flexible, creative and magnetic then? Could it be that they grasped the synthetical, two-sided nature of biblical truths as productive of a tension in their minds whch enabled them to be both/and servants rather than either/or, when the occasion called for such, and there are times also when one must be either/or as well as times for the both/and. People were so afraid of the Baptists in the 1700s they use to persecute them. Why? Well, when you are losing multitudes of members to them, you naturally feel rather inclined to let them have it. It would surely be preferable today for people to feel rather apprehensive that we are going to infect them than the other way around. Original biblical orthodoxy is like that. Leave a person with the truth that enables him or her to be balanced, flexible, creative, magnetic, winsome, attractive, compelling, charming, committed, devout and devoted to the highest cause, and you will shortly fill whole world with the same kind of people. That was our Lord's way. Add to the information supplied by our history, the reality of the First and Second Great Awakenings and you have the possibility of a Third Great Awakening, the one designed to win the whole earth and every soul upon it in one generation and then for a 1000 more generations after that in order to see a literal fulfilment of the prophecies concerning the seed as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand by the seashore as well as the redeemed in heaven which no man can number. Here is the challenge our forbearers left to us. Let us pray and go out to win all the elect in the world, expecting a generation in which all of the earth will be the elect and that the doctrines of election and predestination will be invitations, paradoxical interventions, that will restore to man the power to respond and enable people to close with Christ in the joy of salvation. Wonder who is interested in looking at the history where our ancestors and predecessors spelled that out for us in he First and Second Great Awakenings and in the origins of the Great Century of Missions? Wonder why we could not teach how Sovereign Grace Evangelism really works? How it is more winsome, more attractive, more fascinating??? Read Mr. Spurgeon's Evening Devotions for August 6 and Dec. 24, where he prays for the whle world and every sol on i to be saved, expectin hat every one would be the elect of God. Strange, Wonderfully different. As the lady said, "O, it was so wonderful that I could not resist it." That is what we want now. That is what we must pray for now.
1/6/2010 1:04:24 PM

Brent, thank you for that link. What an outstanding column.
12/30/2009 5:34:50 PM

Brent Hobbs
Finn said:

[i]“When I attend the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, I sometimes hear louder shouting and endure longer ovations for Religious Right victories than gospel advances reported by our two mission boards,” Finn said.

“I wonder if Lottie Moon herself would be greeted with the same adulations that some Republican politicians have received at recent convention meetings.” [/i]

That's a prophetic word we need to hear well. I wish the same thing would be said repeatedly from the platform over the next few conventions. It makes me think of iMonk's article "Why the Culture War Makes Sense to Empty Evangelicals." http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/the-tactics-of-failure-why-the-culture-war-makes-sense-to-spiritually-empty-evangelicals
12/30/2009 4:27:57 PM

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