Lessons from the Baptists

The past couple of days I’ve been listening to a series of presentations from a conference put on at Union University. The conference, Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and the Future of Denominationalism, looked at the future of Protestantism in America. While focused on the Southern Baptist Convention, I think the presentations have a lot to say to the broader Christian community. Dr. Ed Stetzer‘s opening talk at the conference, entitled “Denominationalism: Is There a Future?”, offered some particularly salient points. After defending his evidence for why denominations will continue to have a future, he went on to talk about how denominations should proceed. In particular he lays out three principles for denominational action in the near future. Dr. Stetzer says that denominations will need to

  1. continue to emphasize their mission in the world as opposed to focusing on their work as an institution;
  2. hold fast to their core beliefs against theological fads;
  3. and they will need to embrace methodological diversity among their members.

While I may disagree with some of the particulars of Dr. Stetzer’s analysis (in particular his comments on diversity in church services don’t translate well to Catholic liturgical theology) I do believe that these three basic principles have something to say to Catholics.

Regarding his first point, Dr. Stetzer sees most church activities as falling along a continuum between a missional and institutional mindset. Put simply, a missional church is one which sees it work as outward-focused and is exemplified by the preaching of the Gospel. From a Catholic standpoint we would include charitable acts, the RCIA and support of the missions. An institutional church, on the other hand, is concerned with maintaining its internal structures. It is the finance councils, personnel boards and pension committees.

Obviously all churches maintain some balance between these two extremes. No church can survive for long without thinking about how to pay the bills (even St. Paul had to hit up his churches for cash!); at the same time, a church concerned only with preserving itself will soon become ossified and without life (see, for instance, the many mainline churches that boast huge endowments but a dwindling, aging membership). Dr. Stetzer points out that, in the balance, we must favor the missional role of the church over the institutional, for it is through this evangelizing effort that we fulfill the Great Commission.

Dr. Stetzer also exhorted churches to maintain some sort of confessional discipline. Within our Catholic tradition, this means holding fast to the Creed and the teachings of the Church passed down throughout the centuries. In order to do that we must “always be prepared to make a defense” for our beliefs (1Pet 3:15) and to do so in a way that refuses to fall into a simple denunciation of what we are not. As Pope Benedict XVI   reminds us,

Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer.

Finally, Dr. Stetzer invited us to embrace methodological diversity within our denominations as a way to respect individual Christian communities and as a way to continue our missional work. From a Catholic standpoint, we might take this to mean rejecting a “one size fits all” approach to parish life. While there are a variety of ministries that parishes can be involved in, it does not follow that every parish should be involved in them all. Pastors and parish staffs need to look closely at their surrounding communities and determine the authentic needs of their parishioners and the wider community.

For instance, in the city I live in we have a parish that, after looking at their neighborhood, discerned that they were being called to offer more services to the aging population that made up the bulk of the residences in their area. They do not offer a children’s religious education program or vacation bible school, but partner with another parish to offer these ministries. My son’s parish school, located in an urban part of town, uses as its tagline “The Beauty of God’s Creation in All Its Diversity,” reflecting not only the school’s ethnic diversity but the variety of special education services they provide. Another parish in town does not have a full-time DRE but has a wide range of small faith communities led by parishioners for particular groups with particular interests.

All of these groups are carrying out the Church’s ministry but in very different and particular ways. None of them is “more right” than the other, but are best suited for them. This is not to say that they disagree on the doctrines of the faith, merely that they find various ways to live it out in the life of their parish and reach out to the particular people in their range of influence.

The pressure on churches to compromise and accommodate will only increase in the coming years. While far from a comprehensive program, Dr. Stetzer’s address offers a good start for thinking about how the Church will be called to answer questions from the wider culture.