The system really did work well. The approach used by denominations in the mid-20th century facilitated growth, ministry, attendance, and contributions. The vertically and horizontally integrated model assured that all of the denomination’s far-flung ministries would be promoted in Sunday school and disciple development literature, there would be common standards for all types of church programming, and all cooperating churches would be on the same page when it came to denominational life (at least in theory). Then it fell apart.
Why did it collapse in on itself? A complete answer would require an extensive sociological study, but the truth is that the culture changed on both sides of the coin. Churches were no longer willing to accept a “one size fits all” approach. Judicatories increasingly saw their role as quality control, not only in programming but in doctrinal belief as well. The cooperative effort was always a house of cards, and it began to fall apart. This was not true just for Baptists, but Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others as well.
I think we are now at the point of actually practicing what we as Baptists have always talked about—congregational autonomy. Each congregation must be what God has called it to be, not what the judicatory wants it to be. God has called each congregation in a special way based on its location, people, resources, and perception of the leading of the Holy Spirit. Once they have discerned the call, the church seeks out partners to help accomplish the missio Dei—the mission of God.
This is a “bottom up” or grass roots approach that calls for judicatories to serve rather than be served. Denominations will survive and prosper only as they provide the resources that congregations require and do so in a timely and egalitarian manner. Churches today are not looking for supervisors or quality control specialists but genuine partners in ministry.