The Future of Baptist Association
Dr. Kevin Shrum
With the advent of the new Shelby County Baptist Association (Memphis, TN) in expanding its borders to include NE Arkansas, NW Mississippi, NW Alabama, Western Kentucky, SE Missouri, West Tennessee and Southern Illinois and in changing its name to the Mid-South Baptist Association of Churches (MSBAC) the question of how a Baptist church associates with other Baptist churches has been moved to the front burner once again.
To those who are unaware of what has been happening in Southern Baptist life over the past 25 years such a proposal may come as a surprise; to those who have observed the shifting alliances and affiliations of local Southern Baptist churches over that same period this proposal is a natural outcome of the redefining of what it means to be a local, Southern Baptist church.
How can we sift through what is happening in these realignments? Let’s begin with an assumption – Southern Baptist life will never again be what it was from its inception through the 70’s. This is both bad and good.
The down side of this equation is that a clear definition of what a Southern Baptist church is – “a Southern Baptist brand recognition, so to speak” – is difficult to ascertain. In general, the ‘monolithic sameness’ that once generally existed in Southern Baptist churches has broken down to reflect a regionalism/localism defined by style and homogenous demographic categories.
And while each Southern Baptist church has always been unique in its own right, the differences in how churches constitute themselves has evolved to encompass differences heretofore unrecognized.
The positive dimension of this realigning is that churches are developing innovative ways to reach the lost and to minister to their members that better fit the social, economic and cultural setting of the church. The challenge will be for churches to keep the best of Southern Baptist belief and ministry, while augmenting innovation.
We can also get at understanding these realignments by looking at some of the dividing lines that may define the future of Southern Baptist church associations.
Theological – Doctrinal fidelity is key to understanding church association. Since the vast majority of Southern Baptist churches define themselves with terms like conservative, orthodox, biblical, it should come as no surprise that most Baptist churches will align with other churches that are of ‘like mind and faith.’ These alignments may cross state borders as in the case of MSBAC. Could it be that the ‘Baptist Reformation’ of the 80’s, 90’s and beyond simply exposed the already engrained belief systems of Southern Baptist churches? Could it be that the moderate churches were already moderate and the conservative churches were already conservative, etc.? The struggle of the conservative movement didn’t ‘cause’ a church to believe a certain way; rather, it simply exposed what was already believed. Statements of faith will continue to define what it means to be a Southern Baptist church. Pressure will be placed on state conventions to better define doctrinal positions before churches align or continue to align themselves with that convention. Generic belief statements will not get it.
Denominational – By ‘denominational’ I am referring to our national and state convention entities. Denominational loyalty has crumbled in recent years. While the majority of SBC churches still look to the Southern Baptist Convention and their state conventions for leadership in the areas of missions, evangelism and education, many Southern Baptist churches now readily consider using non-Southern Baptist study materials, mission opportunities, camps, retreats and ministry resources to accomplish their purpose as a local church. The outcome of this development could be that a Southern Baptist church will maintain as primary its association with the SBC, while developing alliances with other church groupings and/or para-church movements that address a particular ministry need that may not be addressed by the larger national/state convention. The convention - state or national - that denies this development, choosing to operate with an antiquated model of denominational loyalty, will be left out in the cold.
Structural – This leads to the next issue – structure - in how a Baptist church associates with other Baptist churches. By structure I am referring to the posture of a convention toward its member churches. For too long both national and state conventions operated with a ‘hand it down’ attitude toward churches, i.e. we develop it in Nashville or in the state convention office and hand it down to the churches expecting the church to implement said program whether or not it worked or met a need. In turn, many local churches abdicated their role as an incubator for effective ministry ideas and leadership. This condescending attitude is being rejected as local, Southern Baptist churches return to the concept of what it means to be a local, autonomous church. Further, for denominations/conventions to survive in the future the structure and the posture of the organization toward the local church must humble itself in developing a ‘helping hand’ attitude in place of the ‘hand it down’ attitude. A structural change already under way in many state conventions shapes the structure of the organization as a ‘ministry clearing house’ for resources, ideas, personnel and ministry assistance.
What is the future of how Baptist churches associate with churches of ‘like mind and faith?’ Only God knows the answer to this question, but I suspect that we will see local, Southern Baptist churches continue to align themselves with already existing associational and convention entities, while at the same time developing new and dynamic ways of interaction with other ‘like-minded’ Southern Baptist and non-Southern Baptist churches/ministries for the accomplishing of specific purposes that cannot be addressed otherwise. These alignments will cross state and organizational borders.
Which leads me back to the proposal of the MSBAC. When I first read the proposal my heart was filled with excitement and then questions. As a native of Southeast Missouri, I remember many churches feeling isolated from the central office of the Missouri Baptist Convention in Jefferson City due mainly to time and distance. I can readily see the attraction to align with a new association more accessible.
Further, the churches in the region under consideration in the MSBAC share many common economic, cultural and regional similarities. A church in west Tennessee may have more in common with a church in northeast Arkansas than it does a church in middle or east Tennessee. In addition, the sentiment may be that the state office has not been responsive enough the theological and ministry concerns of this region.
Finally, what does the MSBAC have in its region that can help resource churches for ministry? Think about it – there already exists medical entities, retreat centers, at least two Baptist colleges and a myriad of ministry mechanisms unique to churches in the region.
MSBAC will not be unique. Such alliances and associational configurations will be the wave of the future. This means that the number of states with two conventions may increase and multiply as churches find ways to minister to a growing, divergent American populace.