Monday, June 14, 2010

Old Bones, Little Life

Some of the most creative work coming out of the Southern Baptist “shop” these days has been the product of the work of Ed Stetzer, the Director of Lifeway Research and Lifeway's Missiologist in Residence. Because of his creativity, Stetzer has sometimes found himself at odds with some of the “old heads” in the convention.

In a recent article in Christianity Today, however, Stetzer has compromised his objectivity. The article, titled “Life in Those Old Bones” carries the subtitle “If you're interested in doing mission, there could hardly be a better tool than denominations.” He attempts to present the case that denominations have a great future in fulfilling the Great Commission, but his examples are highly qualified and tend to be contradictory. The denominations he values look more like those of the past than those of the future.

For example, he suggests that newer efforts at cooperation between congregations (such as Willow Creek Association and the Acts 29 Network) “can best be understood as proto-denominations.” He goes on to say, “The denomination-like networks will, I believe, become more like denominations than networks in the years to come, just like the networks of the past (e.g., the Methodists) are denominations today.” Then he gives examples of “successful” denominations that are basically controlling hierarchies, something that the examples he cites are not designed to be and would fall apart if they attempted to exercise control over participating congregations.

The real fallacy of Stetzer’s reasoning is that things will evolve the way that they have in the past. In other words, past performance determines future performance. Seasoned investors will assure you that this is not a good argument for buying stocks! The contemporary networks and cooperative structures he identifies are based on collaboration and cooperation. They are characterized by empowerment rather than standardization and control. This is not the 19th or even the 20th century. We need to look forward for our examples and not back.

To show the value of denominational structures, he states

A denominational church in crisis has a relational network, experience, and a support system on which to draw. For example, if a dispute arises in a Presbyterian congregation between the pastor and the session (the governing board), it has an entire denominational structure filled with leaders to help guide a redemptive process. Not so with an independent congregation.

With due respect to my Presbyterian friends, I am not looking for this type of intervention.  I’m sorry, butas a Baptist, this looks more like a controlling hierarchy than congregational autonomy to me. I am not ready for the state Baptist convention or even the local association to come into my church and help us sort things out. I have seen how that works. Other examples given by Stetzer are of a similar nature and highlight the value of “doctrinal consistency” in relationships between congregations.

I hope you will read the article for yourself, but I came away disappointed by the lack of internal consistency and the obvious bias toward centralization and control. This is a polemic for a step backward rather than a step forward for congregational cooperation in the 21st century.

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