JACKSON, Tenn. – Oct. 12, 2009 – A university president and a leading sociologist offered their insights into religious denominations generally and the Southern Baptist Convention specifically during a conference at Union University Oct. 6-9.
The conference, “Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism,” marked the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement. On Oct. 7, Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, stressed the importance of the SBC to the broader evangelical world during a luncheon address. The next day, Michael Lindsay, professor of sociology at Rice University, argued that denominations have value even though they are in decline.
Litfin believes the Southern Baptist Convention is wrestling with its identity, its calling and its future and said this is not the first time this question of destination has surfaced. In the past, the SBC asked the hard questions, gave some difficult answers and made some painful decisions.
“The problem is those sorts of questions don’t stay answered,” Litfin said. “[The environment] is constantly throwing a new question to us, questions we can’t avoid... It does not pose the same questions but new ones of what it means to live out that previous answer in the kaleidoscopic environment of the 21st century.”
To answer questions regarding the SBC, Litfin first addressed the history of evangelicalism and the direction in which it is heading. He said that the term “evangelical” used to have a tighter, more formal definition. Since the 1970s, however, this term has grown and now represents a “whole lot of breadth.”
While Litfin does not agree with everything that the term encompasses today, he believes the SBC should partner with evangelicals and embrace this fellow community of believers. Litfin counseled Southern Baptists against insularity.
As an outsider to the Southern Baptist denomination, Litfin admonished, “I do not think you in the SBC should distance yourself from evangelicalism. You are an evangelical group. I would say don’t fight it. Plunge in, participate; we need you there. Just don’t put too much weight on it.”
Denominations may come and go, Litfin said, but Baptists are in a good place because of their emphasis on the local church instead of hierarchical institutions.
“Keep yourselves anchored biblically, stay Christ-centered, gospel-centered, word-centered,” Litfin said. “This is what will keep you useful to the Lord. If you do this and you do it as a part of the evangelical movement, the Lord may well use the SBC to keep evangelicalism relevant even into the 21st century.”
How is this possible when Lindsay said polls are showing that Americans are turning against institutions like the SBC?
“While Americans don’t have a lot of confidence in institutions, we rely upon them a tremendous amount,” Lindsay said. “They make life easier for all of us.”
Even in a nation where statistics have proven that fewer people are claiming to be religious and giving less money to denominations, Lindsay still believes that institutions, specifically denominations, are important for three reasons.
“Institutions provide stability, which increases levels of trust,” Lindsay said.
He argued that they provide buffers against people’s worst instincts.
“The SBC does provide useful forms of accountability, transparency,” Lindsay said. “This is what elicits people’s trust.”
Lindsay said the second reason denominations are important is that they offer convening power. He defined convening power as “the ability to bring together different groups of people to get something done.” It is also “the resource that flows through networks.”
The third reason lies with the fact that Christians live in a “diversified, differentiated, complex, global society.” He emphasized, “If you want to have long-term, systemic, cultural influence, you better have an institution at your back.”
Lindsay is adamant that churches must use the institution of a denomination.
“The issues that our church is going to face in the coming years and frankly, the demographic shifts that are already underway, are too significant for us to fall back into a simplistic individualism,” he said. “We will not survive unless we think institutionally.”
Lindsay concluded: “We have to figure out how to pool our resources and talents we have at our disposal to advance not just the aim of our individual organization but instead to advance the Lord’s work in redeeming the very structures of our society by creating contexts in which human flourishings can occur and in which we can work together for the common good.”
Both addresses are available in audio form at www.uu.edu/audio/event.cfm?ID=2515.
By Kimberlee Hauss (’11)