Monday, September 24, 2007

Stumbling Past and Present

I’ve read a report on the Southern Baptist Convention. Apparently, baptisms are down. The downward trend seems to echo the dismal performance of mainline churches in new professions of faith. Sadly, some mainliners will welcome the news in what would be the very definition of shadenfreude. Instead, Christians of all flavors should not take satisfaction in the difficulties of our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters.

For about a generation now, the numerical success of Southern Baptist churches has been held up as a model to ailing mainline denominations. Many have imitated those Southern Baptist churches to varying degrees of success. Why are they now faltering? There are several possibilities--none are very satisfying. The Southern Baptist church is the new mainline. Like the mainline Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans before them, perhaps their success is causing them to stumble. As an organization grows bureaucracy develop. At the same time populations are shifting. An established organization will find it more difficult to change to meet new realities. Also, in very crude terms, the market becomes saturated. If every community already has a Baptist Church, then there is very little need to start new congregations. Finally, as a Christian group becomes more mainstream, there is always the temptation to accommodate to the greater culture. Meanwhile, the culture is becoming less and less welcoming to a Christian worldview.

I find it interesting that among Southern Baptists the only age level in which baptisms are increasing is pre-schoolers. One member of the North American Mission board stated, “…it’s hard to see the march toward infant baptisms as good news.” Laying aside my theological position as a Presbyterian that infant baptism is scripturally sound, the development suggests something about the Southern Baptists. The denomination is moving from perpetuating itself by conversion to perpetuating itself by procreation. Preschoolers don’t usually profess faith in Jesus Christ unless they are growing up in Christian homes. We mainliners have been dependent on procreation for a couple of generations. It hasn’t worked well.

I will not attempt to give advice to the Baptists. My own denomination keeps me busy enough. Nonetheless, there seems to be a simple solution to faltering denominations or congregations: a clear sense of our identity in Jesus Christ, an active witness in the community, and discipleship.

The solution is simple, but living it out is hard.

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