Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why It's Good to Be a Baptist These Days (Part 1 of 4)

“The times they are a changin’.” Maybe you recognize those prophetic words from folk music legend Bob Dylan. He first sang them years ago in the midst of social upheaval, but they are no less true today than they were back in 1964. The times are indeed a changin’.
Now I don’t like that very much. I like things to be stable and secure; I need something to hold onto that will not shift around with every puff of sociological wind. But, as one anonymous wit has quipped, “Other things may come and go, but change is here to stay.”

Change is especially true in the ecclesiastical world. Every time I turn around, some blogger or church life pundit is reminding me that I can’t do church the way we used to. We can’t sing hymns anymore; we have to sing “praise and worship” songs, which is what I thought we were doing when we used to sing Holy, Holy, Holy and To God Be the Glory, Great Things He Hath Done. We can’t have Sunday School; instead, we have to have “Cell Groups.” I am old enough to remember Training Union, but that went out of style a long time ago.

I remember when I was proud to be a Southern Baptist. Now that was something you could count on! I was a regular at Glorieta and Ridgecrest, and I was absolutely convinced that Bold Mission Thrust would indeed bring in the millennium by sharing the Gospel with every person in every country by the year 2000. As far as I knew, there were no Christians other than Southern Baptists and, if the Kingdom was going to prosper, it was up to us.

But alas, as they always do, things changed. Looking back on it now, I see that perhaps there is a silver lining to all of that change. For many of us, the SBC had become something of an idol. Now that we are in exile, it occurs to me that God may have raised up new Babylonians for the purpose of saving some of us from our idolatry.

Things are changing in other communities of faith as well. They say we are now entering into a post-denominational age. It may well be, for all I know. The mainline denominations are losing people faster than they can count, while at the same time pollsters are telling us that people are more spiritual now than ever before. New kinds of Christians are emerging, who have little or no desire to be labeled as a Presbyterian or a Methodist or a Lutheran. They just want to be Christians who meet at the coffee shop or in someone’s home, but they have no interest in participating in a larger body like a denomination.

Denominations have a tendency to stifle individual expression. They are held together by creeds that impose a set of doctrines on members; they are governed by a hierarchy – whether it is a presbytery, a conference, or a synod. For some, decisions that are made by the authorities are perceived as too conservative, as we saw a couple of years ago in the Roman Catholic Church, with the uproar about a papal pronouncement concerning birth control and the spread of AIDS. For others, decisions made by ecclesiastical councils are perceived as too liberal; a case in point is the recent split of Episcopalians over the issue of homosexuality.

But such is the nature of denominations. In a denomination, someone has to have authority to tell the laity what to do and how to think. But we don’t live in that kind of world anymore. In a post-modern culture, people will not let a creed or council tell them what it means to be a Christian. So it may well be that we are entering a post-denominational age.

In my next post I will posit why living in a post-denominational age should be a good thing for Baptists.

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