Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Looking for a Fresh Start?

The Southern Baptist Convention met in Orlando last week and adopted sweeping changes in the way that cooperative mission endeavors will be funded in the future. Once committed to clarifying theological identity, the SBC is now trying to halt its decline in baptisms and church membership.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship meets in Charlotte, NC, this week to begin celebrating its 20th anniversary as a movement/organization/quasi-denomination (choose your preferred term). CBF will be considering ways to sharpen its focus while dealing with declining revenues.

Such is the challenge for large national denominational organizations at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Membership, finances, cooperation, and mission priorities are concerns. A reporter interviewed Bill Leonard, retiring dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University, after the SBC meeting. Leonard said the decline that all denominations are facing is part of the changing nature of American religious life.

"For people 40 and under, there tends to be less and less interest in denominational names and identity. It's not about theology. It's about the changing nature of religion in the country," he said. He went on to comment that, to the extent there is interest in participating in churches, the trend among the younger generation is toward independent congregations. Neither the Southern Baptists nor the mainline denominations are going to disappear anytime soon, but barring some major cultural shift, it seems they are past their peak.

Sobering words from a long-time observer of the American religious scene, but they certainly reflect the observations of anyone interested in the way that church is being done today.

What new thing will God do in the coming days? The writer of 2 Corinthians expresses this word of hope for individuals: “Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons!” (2 Corinthian 5:17, The Message). Certainly the same opportunities are available to God’s people as they work together.

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