Chapter 24 of Matthew's gospel begins with Jesus responding to his disciples' comments about the grandiose nature of the Temple with these words: "Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down." His comments remind us of the transitory nature of all man-made institutions, even those built to attest to the Holy.
November is a good time to think about the evanescence of institutional relationships in Baptist life. State Baptist conventions have been meeting and many continue the process of renegotiating their relationships with institutions such as colleges, hospitals, and charitable entities.
When the interim president of Carson-Newman College was asked if he could foresee a time when the college might want to sever its relation to the Tennessee Baptist Convention, he responded, "No, but a time may come when the convention will want to leave the college." Although he did not spell out the circumstances, we can assume that he understands that this is a two way street. Right now, some conventions are fighting to hold on to the institutions that they helped to create, but the realities of a post-denominational age may cause judicatories to want to distance themselves from their children!
I believe that the day is near when all of the institutions founded by Baptists will want to be free of the conventions and the conventions will want to let them go. Institutionalism was an effort to put into bricks, mortar, and programming the mission of the church(es) to lift up the downtrodden, educate the illiterate, and heal the sick. Churches were at the forefront in establishing colleges, hospitals, orphanages, and nursing homes. Eventually, the missions of these creations became intertwined with the modern agenda and secular society bought into their work. This meant that some of these even became money-making endeavors (or at least became recipients of government funding that strengthened them in their work) and became attractive from an economic perspective. When economic competition entered the picture, everything changed. The playing field has been altered,and the institutions must adapt in order to survive.
In a postmodern era, churches will think twice about putting all of their marbles in the institutional bag. Ministry will happen closer to home and will be held lightly in hopes that those outside of the community of faith will not only join in ministering to the needs of society, but in so doing may find themselves part of the Kingdom.
Baptists, you did well and created some wonderful institutions that "stood in the breach" to meet the needs of society! Now it is time to move on and work in areas that others are neglecting, pioneering new approaches to mission and ministry.