This is a way too long response/reflection on Susan's request for a history lesson. It is a paper I wrote (primarily for myself) about 4 years ago when I was engaged in some of the (failed) reorganization work of ABCUSA.
What does it mean for ABC/USA and its constituent regions to constitute a “minimalist denomination?”
It does not mean irrelevant or ineffective; it does not necessarily mean small. It does mean recognizing the limits of denominationalism. Some of those limits are rooted in our Baptist heritage and distinctives.
The earliest history of Baptist associations in England reveals an uncomfortable relationship to military organization during the Civil War (1642-1649). I have seen no evidence for such a connection in the United States. Here we developed a more theological basis for association, which reveals a concern for some sort of cooperation around the issues of (1) fellowship in the larger Body of Christ, (2) doctrinal faithfulness and public witness, and (3) clergy selection and ordination. It was only during the 1800’s that “missions” became a rallying point for unity and fundraising.
The present denominational organization of American Baptists is fundamentally a product of concepts from the 50’s and 60’s, with strong roots going back into the 19th Century. This is proving to be a liability for both national and regional organizations as we move into the 21st Century.
The very idea of denominations is suspect in some quarters. It is argued that the days of denominations are limited, and that they will be replaced an explosion of “independent” churches reflecting all kinds of traditions and creating new ones. Some of the reasons for this include:
· Widespread weariness of the very idea of denominations
· The inability of denominations to deal with divisive issues
· Growing “generic” forms of Christianity (fundamental, evangelical, liberal, neo-evangelical, post-modern, etc.) which challenge existing denominations and forge new kinds of ecumenism
· Suspicions about raising money and “giving it to some board somewhere else” to do mission and ministry which does not seem linked to a local congregation’s ministry and competes for limited resources
· A sense that denominations are somehow controlling and inhibiting faithful response to the Gospel, especially by individuals, by rigidly packaging and presenting Christianity
While the symptoms described are real, denominations are not fading from the scene. In fact, if we use a functional definition of “denomination,” there are more denominations today than there were 30 years ago. It seems to be part of our religious nature to create community networks that function as denominations—regardless of the name we give them. However, the critique does show how the historic denominational structures are out-of-sync with current attitudes toward and expectations of larger organizations. And it is clear that denominations are changing—those that refuse to change will fade into the ecclesiastical woodwork.
Many of the necessary changes are “Baptist-friendly.” They are already in our genes. Some have gone dormant, and they need to be reactivated. Some are no longer serving us well, and need to be shut down. Others need to adapt, mutate into something new.
Baptists started out with minimal denominational structures, because we had minimal expectations of our denomination. In fact, because of our emphasis on congregationalism, we might be best described as an “ecumenical federation.”
Most importantly, the denomination was never seen as synonymous with “the Church” for Baptists. In a very real sense, denominational organizations and institutions are para-church. “Para” meaning that they stand alongside of and depend on churches. The denomination was never supra-church. Even in the case of missions, the early debates among Baptists often exposed a fear that mission organizations were usurping the rights and responsibilities of churches.
Certainly the description of American Baptist denominational structures and institutions as “parachurch” will raise some hackles. There are at least two reasons for this. First, there is a knee-jerk reaction against those organizations that have been popularly understood as parachurch organization. Second, it reveals the widespread presumption that denomination is church. Therefore, organizations and institutions within the denominational umbrella cannot, by definition, be parachurch. We would be more correct to describe such institutions not as parachurch, but intradenominational.
We followed the lead of most American denominations in the 50’s and 60’s, becoming an activist, “full-service” denomination. This denominational structure was expected not only to meet every conceivable need of every one of its churches (i.e. “full-service”), but also to lead the way into exciting new ministries. To meet this need, and consistent with Post-WW II organizational philosophy, denominational structure became large, complex, bureaucratic, and totalizing.
Expansionist denominationalism requires finances and commands uniform vision/values. The greater the expansionism, the more finances are required, and the greater conformity to vision/values is required. It does not matter if the vision/values are predominately fundamental, liberal, Calvinist, orthodox, evangelical, Pentecostal, neo-evangelical, charismatic, neo-orthodox, or post-modern. An expansionist, totalitarian denomination can be rooted in any one of these.
My premise is simple: Our 19th Century Baptist forebears had it right with modest expectations from their denomination. If we are to affirm the fundamental place of the local congregation in the scheme of things (and maximize the freedom of those congregations), then there must be limits to denominationalism (and, in Baptist ecclesiology, denominational organization must be accountable to the churches). Those limits must be reflected in our expectations from the denomination.REACTIVATE OUR GENES OF DENONOMINATIONAL MINIMALISM
This is not only Baptist, it is consistent with the growing attitude of localism and regionalism in America. We expect more from those closest to us. We are more deeply invested in those closest to us. We trust most, those who are closest to us.
The dark side of localism/regionalism is isolationism and arrogant individualism. One of the most important roles of a 21st Century denomination will be to counter these with a sound theological base and practice of Christ-centered community. Isolationism and individualism (under the sacred guise of “autonomy”) is a glaring weakness in Baptist thought.
While advocating the reactivation of 19th Century Baptist denominational philosophy, this does not imply a return to 19th Century organizations. A number of organizational arrangements are capable of incarnating a minimalist denomination. We cannot return to the 19th Century structures because the 19th Century no longer exists. Transportation is different, communication is different, work styles are different, information technology is different, and the world is different. Any organization form is transient. Some are more timely than others.SHUT DOWN OUR GENES OF FULL-SERVICE DENOMINATIONALISM
While finances have made the full-service denomination (a denomination that attempts to do everything) a thing of the past, we must not forget that the demand for full-service tends toward expansionist totalitarianism and is contrary to Baptist ecclesiology. In addition to limited finances, several other things conspire against full-service denominations. One of the most important is the explosion of alternative resources available.
Churches are no longer at the mercy of their denomination for otherwise unavailable curriculum resources, training conferences, or mission opportunities. It is especially true that American Baptists have never enjoyed the kind of denominational “brand loyalty” that characterizes certain other denominations (even though we coveted it and aspired to it). But it is even less so today. If the sole (or most important) reason for the existence of a denomination is the production of a full-range of resources and opportunities with the denominational label on them, the ABC probably has no reason for being.
Granted, denominations are all different. A small handful of denominations still strive to provide full-service to their congregations. They have the resources to do it (it takes a large denomination to provide a full range of services and resources, just like it takes a large congregation to provide a full range of services), or they have an ecclesiology that demands it, or they are homogeneous enough to make it work. In all cases, these denominations are swimming upstream.
Full-service denominationalism also has the unfortunate effect of creating an environment of hierarchical parentalism. Churches can come to expect the denomination to “take care of” all their problems. They can become passive and disempowered. The relationship between church and denomination becomes dysfunctional.
If the denomination of the future will not be full-service, what are the implications for us? (I claim no originality in any of these.)
We are well into the Information Age. I believe that the primary role of denominations will be service to churches, not to produce programs or manufacture “stuff.” Service is rooted in relationship. Denominations must cultivate relationships in order to better understand and service churches and their leaders—not in order to tap into finances. Denominational service in the 21st Century will include:
· Mending nets – We must assemble and care for the network of churches, pastors, leaders, and missionaries that comprise the frontline of Christian ministry and mission. This may be our most important work, and may be the hardest to “sell.”
· Discerning resources – Churches today are overwhelmed with resources (curriculum choices, training conferences, video productions, etc.) and opportunities. Churches and their leaders need help in identifying, evaluating, and applying them. That service can only be provided by denominational staff persons who bother to learn the church, its leaders, its context, and what is appropriate in that place and time. Churches will not welcome denominational workers perceived as “sales agents” or exclusive advocates for denominational opportunities.
· Shedding weight – The duplication of curriculum resources and training conferences is arrogant, wasteful, and unnecessary. Why not direct a church to a good curriculum (regardless of who produces it) rather than insisting that we must produce something with our brand on it? Why not help a Pastor go to a good conference rather than insist on designing one of our own? If there is not something both valuable and distinctive about an opportunity, why offer it? Limited finances make it impossible for us to do everything—even every good thing. Shedding weight will mean eliminating some cherished things and even some good things. It must be done with discernment. But it must be done.
· Tailoring products – Even with the cornucopia of resources and opportunities available, some things that distinctively address the needs of American Baptists will not be developed by others. These materials must be produced in forms and distributed in ways that are consistent with the 21st Century, not the 19th Century. Some of these resources will be easily identifiable: American Baptist history and polity, or ethnic diversity, for example. But others may be more subtle. The bulk of ABC churches are modestly-sized Pastoral or Program churches. The resource needs of these churches are very different from both Mega-churches and Multi-Program churches. These churches are contrary to a culture that values the niche marketing of the tiny specialty shop, and the comprehensive marketing of a Super Wal-Mart, but seems to have no place for anything in-between. (I note that some church gurus have vocally given up on these churches). Market production seems geared toward larger churches, or those wishing to become larger. We must spend more time and energy custom-tailoring high impact resources for modest Pastoral and Program churches.
Another important way to move away from denominational totalitarianism is to recognize that ABCUSA is a many-layered cake. Must everything really be determined on the layer of the General Board? Our history and our structure answers clearly, NO! No region board can prescribe action for the General Board. And there are legal, covenantal, and ecclesiological limits to what the General Board can prescribe for regional boards. Both are subject to the churches which elect their representatives.MUTATE OUR GENES OF FIERCE INDIVIDUALISM TO CHRIST-CENTERED COMMUNITY
American emphasis on the Enlightenment ideal of individual freedom has proven to be inimical to community. Both society and church have been affected. Baptist distinctives of soul competency, priesthood of the believer, and religious freedom (which are not the same thing), have become distorted in this environment.
The loss of community is evidenced in the “pew rage” which is present in so many of our churches and in our denominational meetings. We are not civil to one another; churches abuse pastors; and pastors, in turn, abuse churches; etc, etc.
Denominations are not only a utilitarian way of getting things done together. Denominations are also a way of being. In particular, they are a way of being together in Christ. Denominations need to be less about what we do, and more about who we are (and are becoming) in Christ.
Who we are (self-definition) requires healthy boundaries. We need to get over the juvenile suspicion that the mere presence of limits is proof of sinister totalitarian oppression. Boundaries are a sign of maturity—psychologically, socially, and theologically. The real questions are: “What are the boundaries? Who sets them? And How?” In particular, we need to be clear about the boundaries between congregation and denomination.
Denominational minimalism becomes a strategy here. The more we demand of our denomination, the more comprehensive and homogeneous the “rules” of community become. We can live together with less comprehensive “rules,” and with more diversity if we “bracket out” some areas and say to our denomination: “Don’t go there!” That will result in a denomination that refrains from saying and doing some things that are valued by one contingent or another.
Trust is also an essential ingredient for community. Unfortunately, it is not something that can be demanded or legislated. Trust takes root in shared values, and is cultivated by doing what we say we will do, and doing it in a way that is acceptable. While trust can only be built over time, I do believe we can put our default setting on “trust” in most cases.
Structure and processes built on the American political idea of “balance of power” presume that others cannot be trusted. That same attitude is reflected in most congregational organizations. I also wonder if it is implicit in our denominational culture that demands that every one, be at every table, every time. Is this motivated by the desire to include, an obsession to appear fashionably inclusive, or a fear rooted in lack of trust?
Clear denominational responsibilities (and limits), using spiritually-based discernment processes for decision-making can build healthy community.
The denomination models and fosters community. That will not be easy for us. Life together does not attract the passion of Baptists like soul competency. But it is an urgent task before us. It is urgent because life together is a recurrent, high-priority theological theme in Scripture. It is urgent because our unrivaled ethnic diversity will collapse if we do not learn how to live together. It is urgent because neither our culture nor our churches have taught us how to live together with differences. It is urgent because our preoccupation with rights and political means is a greater offense to Christ than the division represented by denominationalism itself.