A friend and I have an ongoing conversation about the importance of affinity groups. He suggests affinity relationship may take the place of denominational structures in the future. In this particular dialogue, I am the voice of conservatism.
Denominational bodies exist to do what churches cannot do for themselves; thus, the question “And what can’t churches do for themselves in the 21st century?” My short answer is missions, theological education and the articulation of group values.
While churches are making steady progress in taking on larger and larger projects in the mission arena, individual churches cannot provide an overarching strategy or an incarnational skeleton of career missionaries. Volunteer church mission trips do not provide an overarching strategy, nor will they ever replace missionaries on the field. The efforts of individual congregations can come alongside the work of career missionaries but will never replace the need for a well-trained, strategically placed mission force embedded in the culture.
I remember a missionary in Kenya saying to me, “Ron, I enjoy showing your church members around Kenya. But at some point you need to stop sending people and start sending money so I can get something done here that will have a lasting impact.”
There is no substitute for career missionaries embedded in the culture.
While churches dabble in theological education, the foundational work of theological education will remain the work of specialized educational institutions. The financial resources needed to provide theological education at a superior level is beyond the reach of a local church or even a cluster of churches. Quality theological education requires specializations: New Testament, Old Testament, theology, pastoral care, history and so on. The critical mass needed in personnel to provide quality theological education is well beyond the reach of a local church.
Let me add a word about the priority of theological education in denominational life. Theological education is a critical lifeline for denominational bodies and traditions. The old model (Southern Baptist Convention) affirmed theological education by designating 22 percent of the convention’s operating budget (Cooperative Program) for it. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s model greatly reduced support for theological education – less than 10 percent. This casts a foreboding shadow over the future of the CBF.
Churches cannot provide theological education themselves; congregations are dependent on denominational bodies providing training for future ministers, missionaries and administrators.
Articulation of Values
It will be very difficult to cultivate “Baptist identity” in the future if there is no denominational group to articulate Baptist values and help individual churches think through what it means to be Baptist. Denominations have long memories and can help churches resist the overwhelming influence of popular culture.
Ministry finds expression between two poles: eternal truth and the needs of people. We respond positively to culture when we speak a language people can understand, a language that embraces the unique needs of people in a particular age. Yet we also measure culture against eternal biblical truths, values we hold dear.
Many of the adjustments that churches are making to the 21st century are very appropriate; even so, it is not wise to exchange our Baptist birthright for a bowl of homogeneity. Denominational bodies remind us of our heritage and keep us thinking. While a few individual Baptist churches will articulate Baptist values well, most churches need the counsel and guidance of denominational bodies to help them resist the overwhelming influence of popular culture.
In the 21st century, churches and denominational bodies must focus on essential tasks. Churches can resource one another. Churches will figure out how to do missions in their local settings. Congregations will find financial institutions to help with annuity programs and endowment fund needs. Local congregations will prove themselves to be very resourceful.
Even so, there are things churches cannot do for themselves. Congregations need specific help with missions, theological education and articulating Baptist values.