Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Challenge of Denominational Identity

Next week is the Southern Baptist Convention, which will meet in Greensboro, NC. As you may know, the SBC has been experiencing tremors on a variety of issues since 2000, most centering on the influence of Calvinism, its relationship to evangelism, and the future of the "conservative resurgence," now in leadership for 15 years. The Florida Baptist Witness asked several leaders--both denominational higher-ups and young emerging leaders--what they hoped for in the upcoming SBC. And the answers not only reveal the divergence among SBC leaders, but also the continuing challenge of communicating denominational identity to the next generation.

The denominational leaders all stressed that they hoped the upcoming SBC would unite messengers around a missions and evangelism vision; this, of course, is the Southern Baptist way, forging identity around missions and evangelism, rather than doctrinal particularity. The "outsiders," both younger SBC leaders and those who are slightly out of step with denominational leadership, dissented from the leaders by stressing either other values--the need for repentence, for doctrinal particularity, for a reversal of nominal Christianity. Still others warn that if Southern Baptist ministers don't stop fighting with each other, the younger generation will bolt.

And that really is the problem in the end--throughout the 1990s, as Southern Baptist seminaries experienced the transition from progressive to conservative faculty and administration, "loyal" (i.e. progressive) Southern Baptist stopped sending students to these seminaries and created new ones attached to progressive-controlled colleges and universities. Meanwhile, in order to maintain enrollment at the SBC seminaries, these schools recruited a large number of baptistic and Calvinistic evangelicals as faculty and students. These folks had no deep commitments to SBC identity, to the beliefs, practices, and stories that make Southern Baptists a unique family in American Protestantism (one faculty member was reported to have asked the question, "I hear everyone talking about Nashville. What's in Nashville?").

The upshot of all this has been that as the SBC has sought to be and do what they have always been and done, younger Southern Baptists, who have no loyalties to the denomination and its identity, wonder why in the world they are still in the SBC. Southern Baptist in-fighting might eventually drive them away. This is why Al Mohler perpeptively observed "I think this meeting of the convention may also show us something of the challenge we face in terms of reaching out to younger Southern Baptists and in dealing with some of the crucial issues of this transitional age — a time that should find Southern Baptists at their best." He recognizes that younger Southern Baptists are on the fence and are not genuinely loyal to the SBC, because they haven't truly be shaped by SBC identity.

Now, I am writing all this not to throw rocks at anyone. Rather, it is to make the application to my own denomination and its recent Presbyterians Together document. One of the striking realities of that document was how many students and younger ministers signed on to the ideals of charity and diversity in doctrine and unity in mission. In this regard, younger PCA ministers and candidates are not different from their SBC colleagues--because they came to Presbyterianism in college or through other means, they don't have deep attachements to "being Presbyterian." As a result, they don't understand why the PCA feels the need to wrestle with doctrinal issues. And so, it is entirely conceivable that if we spend too much time arguing with one another, these younger ministers will leave the PCA.

The solution, in my view, is not to avoid doctrinal discussions in order to maintain big-tent Presbyterianism. Rather, the solution is to instruct younger ministers patiently in the joys of being Presbyterian--that, in my view, Presbyterians is the most positive and biblical witness to the world possible; that this is because, at bottom, Presbyterianism means working together in a connectional way for the good of the church and the world; that Presbyterian means (or ought to mean) community and authenticity and accountability and all the things this generation says they want. Sure, being Presbyterian also means doing things decently and in order, within a process, working with others--but that is the hard work of community and it is a good thing. In other words, the task for PCA denominational leaders is to take the time to present a positive vision of Presbyterian identity.

In my experience, I have found that most of our ministerial candidates long for this positive vision. By presenting a vision of something far greater than ourselves--with a glorious identity that stretches back to heroic ages and forward to the final form of God's Kingdom--I believe this coming generation could foster biblical, joyful, and energized Presbyterianism for the good of the world.

6 comments:

Nathan Finn said...

I think there is a tension right now in SBC life as to whether or not we are united by a common confession or by a common purpose. While the ideal is both, most tend toward one or the other. The debate over Calvinism is, I think, a sympton of this identity crisis. If more SBC Calvinists were as evangelistic as they claim to be, and if more non-Calvinists simply took theology seriously, I think the two sides would get along much better. But maybe I'm just naieve like that.

Sean Lucas said...

Hi, Nathan:

The challenge in both denominations is whether we will be united in mission, doctrine, or (ideally) both. What most folks fail to recognize is that mission (what we do) must flow from doctrine (what we believe). If we don't have common beliefs, it is hard to join hands in common practices. Or, to put it differently, the more commonality of belief, the more unity there should be in mission.

Best, sml

Sean Lucas said...

Hi, Nathan:

The challenge in both denominations is whether we will be united in mission, doctrine, or (ideally) both. What most folks fail to recognize is that mission (what we do) must flow from doctrine (what we believe). If we don't have common beliefs, it is hard to join hands in common practices. Or, to put it differently, the more commonality of belief, the more unity there should be in mission.

Best, sml

Mark M. Overstreet said...

SML, are you traveling to greensboro this year? Let's catch up some time... mmo

Patrick said...

Well said Sean. As a younger Presbyterian minister, I agree whole heartedly with your asserstions as to what men like me desire, and the pitfalls that lie ahead if older elders do not present more of what we are "Together For" rather than the constant beating of war drums and grinding of axes for what we are against.

This is the wonderful allure of men like John Piper and C.J. Mahaney and everything (well almost everything) that they put out. This was the singular power of the Together For the Gospel conference. That week was Spiritually intoxicating. I long for that type of unity around Christ and the Gospel in a denominational expression.

Patrick

Sean Lucas said...

MMO: nope, not in Greensboro; I'm going to ATL next week for PCA General Assembly. sml