Baptists Denominationally Disillusioned, Move Toward Future

There are a lot of "angry young men" out there in the Southern Baptist blogosphere, one university dean pointed out.

Some Baptist bloggers, mainly pastors and seminarians, voice traditional views, some talk about culture and theology, and others indicate that they are revivalists. But drawing more attention are the comments posted more than the hosts of the blog pages.

"Are there angry people out there on the blogosphere?" posed Gregory A. Thornbury, founding dean of the School of Christian Studies at Union University, at a Baptist Identity conference over the weekend. "You bet."

"You guys are mules. You make much noise but cannot reproduce," Thornbury quoted one comment on a blog.

Some Baptist leaders point out a lack of evangelism in the Southern Baptist denomination. Before committing to others in outreach, however, Baptists were called to first recommit to the gospel and go back to the basics, one of which include regenerate church membership.

The SBC is the largest U.S. Protestant denomination, claiming over 16 million members. And seminarians and Baptist leaders are calling the denomination to clearly affirm the born again membership and the importance of such members. Challenging the high membership number, Thomas Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Coral Gables, Fla., had announced his plans to introduce a resolution this year to ensure integrity in church membership, meaning "those who really have been born of God's spirit," he said.

Thornbury also offered clarification of what regenerate church membership is. "There should not be people on our membership rolls who never come to church, show no discernable evidence of conversion or holiness, and who are not currently participating in a local body of believers," he told conference attendants on Friday at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

As Southern Baptists face the 21st century amid controversy and efforts to reaffirm their identity, the traditional ways of running the denomination have become "expired." Thornbury labeled Baptist programs as expired - things that were once popular but are now decidedly out. But what is definitely in now, or what Thornbury called "wired," is Baptist basics – going back to the Bible, to theology, and to local church ministry.

David S. Dockery, president of Union University, told Baptist leaders that without conservative resurgence, particularly driven by the belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, Southern Baptists would have become "untethered to Holy Scripture."

"We would have lost the Gospel," stated the university president as he brought up the current controversy within the Episcopal Church where theological views, including the identity of Jesus Christ, are being heavily debated.

In a new commitment to Baptist cooperation, Dockery highlighted the "exclusivity of the Gospel" as a key component.

"It is now time for us to move from controversy and confusion to a new consensus, to a new commitment to cooperation," he said.

The Baptist Identity II conference comes amid decades of debates around such issues as worship style, speaking in tongues, control, and the place of women in leadership roles among others. Some believe Southern Baptists are increasingly being viewed as narrow-minded fundamentalists, with some congregations even removing the term "Baptist" from their church names to draw more people.

"I think there's a feeling of malaise and disillusionment towards denominational life in general," said Thornbury. "They're decidedly upbeat about their local ministries ... but they seem increasingly less and less certain that they are meaningfully connected to something that can be described as 'Baptist identity.'"

Theologically, Thornbury added, many feel they are Baptist but denominationally, "not so much."

Thus, in a post-denominational era, Mike Day, director of Missions for the Mid-South Baptist Association, introduced a new paradigm for Southern Baptist associations and state conventions. Although dismissed by many, and not yet fully developed, the paradigm is emerging in the SBC, Day said.

The new paradigm is church-driven, where the Great Commission is given to the church and not the denomination; priority-based, meaning behaving like Jesus if the church priority; institution free where there is no ownership of institutions, just ministering and supporting; and regionally located but not geographically bound.

"This new association will be denominationally connected but not in traditional ways," said Day. "It will not necessarily rely on a state convention to be its primary source for training ... input or perhaps even income.

"If this paradigm plays itself out to the fullest, then the association as we know it today will likely no longer exist."

The new Baptist paradigm follows a similar change that Presbyterians are proposing. Presbyterians discontent with their denomination, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have proposed a model that would be based on a grassroots polity, recognizing the local congregation as the primary decision-making group. It's a "radical change" for the Presbyterians and so is the new model for the Baptists.

"People would say 'He doesn't know what he's talking about,'" said Day about the paradigm he presented. But he stated, "It's time for us to apply the pressure and stop the bleeding in the Southern Baptist Convention."

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