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Future of denominations,
SBC in focus at Oct. 6-9 gathering

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JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–The future of denominationalism and Southern Baptists, the effectiveness of evangelism and church planting strategies were among the topics addressed during an Oct. 6-9 conference on “Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and the Future of Denominationalism” at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

The conference’s opening address, entitled “Denominationalism: Is There a Future?,” was delivered by Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research.

Answering the question positively, Stetzer noted that “like-minded people will always find a way to associate with one another. … Denominations are inevitable in mission-focused churches, and the best denominations may be understood as networked cooperative relationships for mission.”

While he acknowledged he is “by no means starry-eyed about denominationalism,” Stetzer said he believes wholeheartedly in partnership.

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“If one day my denomination loses its focus, that may change. … But for now I find strength in my denomination. It is not a prison, but a home,” Stetzer said. “And it is a home that has matured me and sent me out on mission. … 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.

Noting the broader evangelical movement’s focus on parachurch ministries, Finn said, “Though there is surely a sense in which Southern Baptists are evangelicals, there are times that Southern Baptists must be against evangelicals.”

“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.”

During his address, which was titled “Southern Baptists and Evangelicals: Passing on the Faith to the Next Generation,” 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.”

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‘WELL POSITIONED’ TO DEAL WITH DECLINE

Duane Liftin, president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., suggested that even as denominations today 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,” Liftin said during an address titled “The Future of American Evangelicalism.”

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.”

Liftin 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,” Liftin observed.

The decision to engage with evangelicals and become less insular is a positive thing, Liftin said, “as long as you can do it without compromising the truth. … You can have a good influence if you’re part of the conversation.”

Yet Liftin cautioned against leaning on the movement, advising: “Keep yourselves anchored biblically. Stay Christ-centered, Gospel-centered, Word-centered. This is what will keep you useful to the Lord. … The Lord may well use the SBC to keep evangelicalism relevant deep into the 21st century.”

PRESENTING THE GOSPEL IN THE 21ST CENTURY

Harry Poe, Charles Colson professor of faith and culture at Union University, offered a critique of evangelism materials developed during the 20th century.

“Denominations and parachurch groups produced programs designed to produce converts,” said Poe during an address titled “The Gospel and Its Meaning: Implications for Southern Baptists and Evangelicals.”

“American Protestants managed to reduce the Gospel to a simple presentation, a plan of salvation that was easily recited and easily understood,” Poe noted. “If this presentation addressed a person’s spiritual issues, then they very well may have come to faith.”

The creation and publication of evangelism programs, however, 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,” Poe explained.

In the mid-20th century, the Gospel presentation was standardized in a variety of mass-produced tracts that were developed and popularized mostly by leaders from “the reformed wing of Christianity,” Poe said. He identified a variety of leaders and organizations, not all advocates of reformed theology, that helped proliferate evangelistic materials based on paradigms such as four spiritual laws and the Roman Road: John Stott, Bill Bright, James Kennedy, Campus Crusade for Christ and the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board).

Poe countered, for example, that the Roman Road approach focuses on how God deals with the issue of guilt.

“But what might the ‘Galatian Road’ or the ‘Ephesian Road’ or the ‘Philippian Road’ look like?” Poe asked. He said those three epistles deal with “different issues all addressed by the Gospel.”

As culture changes and people’s concerns and questions change, the manner of presenting the Gospel needs to change as well, Poe asserted.

“This situation creates no particular problem unless Christians have confused a particular way of presenting the Gospel with the Gospel itself,” he said. “Such a confusion would correspond to confusing a sermon with the Bible.”

In fact, Poe said, the Apostle Paul’s Gospel includes eight basic points: God as creator, the Scriptures have been fulfilled by Jesus, Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, Jesus died for our sins, Jesus rose from the dead, He is exalted to the right hand of the Father, He has given us the gifts of Himself through the Holy Spirit and Jesus will return to judge the world and institute the new creation.

“The examination of Paul’s other letters, along with other apostolic literature, will reveal that these basic affirmations of faith form the common message of all the apostles,” Poe said.

‘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.”

The attractional church approach has been “spectacularly effective” in many ways and 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 the Willow Creek Association has more than 12,000 churches, “more than every single Protestant body, except five.”

The association’s success, Lindsay said, has come from its provision of things many denominations use 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 as providers of accountability, “which increases levels of trust. … Institutions provide buffers against our worst instincts. Churches need denominations because they provide institutional ballasts 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.”

The most powerful people today exercise convening power to “bring together groups of people to work together [and] use their skills of persuasion to get things done,” Lindsay said, adding that convening power “does not reside in an individual. It’s more in the hands of a group or a position. It’s how groups on the move get things done.”

Lindsay cautioned that while convening power is necessary for getting things done, it is not sufficient unless a leader also has the power to make decisions.
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Keith Hinson is an associate in communications services for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.