Monday, March 13, 2006

The Spirit of "Emerging Baptists."

Three years ago in the midst of my church planting experience, I had the opportunity to meet, lead to Christ, and baptize a young couple who had no previous church background. These two had been coming to our church for several months, and being recent converts, they were excited about their new life in Jesus Christ, and wanted to continue to grow and serve the Kingdom of God in cooperation with our church. Subsequent to their baptism, they expressed a desire to join our church.

During the membership class they discovered that although our denominational label was not indicated on our signage, we were a church that was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The husband's questions were not only honest and heartfelt, but direct, and closely alligned with the predominant attitudes of his own generation: "Why can't we just be committed to the Bible and the message of Jesus? Why do we have to be affiliated with a label like 'Baptist' and be more divisive?"

Committed Baptists are such because we believe that those principles historically referred to as "Baptistic" are the closest one can find to those principles found in the New Testament. This is not a statement of hubris, but rather, of conviction. Just as we would expect conviced Presbyterians to say the same thing about their own tradition, we claim that we are what we are because our understanding of Biblical teaching leads us to call ourselves "Baptists."

But such confidence and conviction can easily degenerate into sinful pride, and recent discussions surrounding the doctrine of the church seem to suggest that committed Baptists who do not agree with exclusivist, isolationist policies that only legitimize those things that come from Baptist life and thought are promoting a weak and ecumenical ecclesiology. Still, those of us who pastor churches, start churches, and serve literally "in the trenches" believe that the heart of Baptist life is not a reclusive ecclesiology shaped more by modernity than by Scripture. Rather, we believe that if the heart of Baptist thought is made known first in the Scriptures, and second in our history, that there is an entire generation emerging that would be proud to call themselves "Baptist."

Observers both inside and outside the church have for years called attention to the waning effect of denominational labels and programs on emerging generations of young people. Richard Cimino and Don Lattin have recently published this assumption, stating along with others that in the near future "religious denominations will lose influence to local congregations and new coalitions of believers like Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Two words describe the future of religious denominations--downsized and de-centralized."

While this trend began with the "Baby Boomers," it seems to be reaching its zenith with that group affectionately known as the "Busters" or "Generation X." As George Barna well notes, the primary motivator has been the shift from "religion" to "spirituality." Quite unlike their parents and grandparents, the Busters "see faith as a framework for discovering important insights and developing lasting relationships. The institutions are irrelevant to them since their personal interest is in people, not trappings."

As is the case with previous generations, the attitude and outlook of Busters, as well as that of their millennial siblings, is largely affected by the world in which they grew up. This generation experienced the longest stage of adolescence (from 11 to 27 years of age on average). As a result, they possess an outlook on life that is very much "sit and wait" by nature. Due to cultural influences and attitudes such as these, Busters and Millenials are hesitant to commit themselves to any idea, concept, religious belief, political party, or special interest group very quickly. In fact, emerging generations are prone to multi-faceted commitments that transcend political parties, institutions, and even religious denominations. Tod Hahn and David Verhaagen accurately observe that "GenXers almost inveriably see no other option to subjective reality . . .This view of relative truth invariably translates to an emphasis on subjective, mystical experiences, or what we would call 'cut and paste' faith."

Hahn and Verhaagen go on to observe that even those in this generation "who grew up in the church and have received good teaching tend to cut and paste their faith, dismissing with ease bothersome doctrines and troubling tenets."

This "cafeteria method" of theological construction is but one facet of this generation's tendency to "pick and choose," and on a larger level translates into a worldview that is extremely non-institutional. While their Boomer parents werel largely "anti-institutional" (Vietman war protests and the reaction to Watergate are but two historical examples of this tendency among Baby Boomers), GenXers and Millenials are more "non-institutional." In other words, while they do not oppose institutions with the same voracity that their parents did, neither do they see much relevancy or usefulness in current institutions. This of course includes religious denominations, and the results have been obvious to observers of our culture. Cimino and Lattin assert that in North America "the loosening of denominational ties creates a free-market environment in which an entire Presbyterian church goes Pentecostal, or an Episcopal parish turns Eastern Orthodox."

With these cultural realities comes the responsibility of denominations to define themselves clearly and demonstrate their relevance to emerging generations. It is my contention that Southern Baptists are in the best position to do this very thing. The historical commitments and vision of Southern Baptists are, I believe, fundamentally Biblical, but they are also closely alligned with the values which are sought after by the very generational groups who see denominational commitment as irrelevant. But for such vision to be seen, the heart of Baptist life must be communicated clearly, and must overshadow the latest back-and-forth that has been taking place over issues secondary to the essence of our identity.

While questions like those coming from my church's new members may be a bit unsettling to denominational leaders, it nonetheless expresses the driving issue for this generation with respect to denominationalism: "What's the point?" Southern Baptists are not exempt from these lines of inquiry, and should welcome these types of questions as an opportunity to demonstrate the relevancy of denominational identity. But as our values are discussed, the precedent for those values must be expressly Biblical. If the proper hermaneutic is applied to each Baptist distinctive, the application of these distinctives to church culture will not only be easier, but also clearly supported by divine authority.

Distinctive #1: Local Church Autonomy. While the grandparents of the present generation were lifetime loyalists to political parties, workers unions, and denominations, GenXers and Millennials possess the capacity to switch denominations with the same degree of swiftness that many of them continue to switch programs of study while in college. This is a context in which this first Baptist distinctive will be welcomed with open arms. As the etymology of the term suggests, Baptist churches are "self-governing," meaning that no outside governing body, denominational or otherwise, has the right to impose its will on the local church.

This distinctive automatically makes null and void any attempt to impose a Presbyterian or Episcopalian hierarchy on Baptist churches. While this principle does not mean that Baptist churches must be exclusive, it does suggest that at its base, each Baptist church is an independent congregation, which exercises its independence through voluntary cooperation. For a generation that detests hierarchical power and influence, these key principles of congregational autonomy and voluntary cooperation are appealing principles that Baptists have always believed to be clearly taught in Scripture.

Distinctive #2: The Priesthood of Believers. Within Baptist life and thought, the proper understanding of this principle has been a recent source of contention. Timothy George states that the source of this debate is not whether the principle is valid, but rather "how it is to be understood, and how it is related to other, equally valid doctrinal concerns" In introducing this principle to emerging generations, Baptists must be careful not to be understood as promoting hermaneutical anarchy and the "right of private interpretation." However, the best way of displaying the merits of this principle is to emphasize the Biblical teaching of liberty in coming to Christ on one's own, without the neccesity of any human mediator. The appeal of such a doctrine to the personal exploration of faith and the participative nature of belief that is present in Busters and Millenials will be great.

Distinctive #3: Confessionalism. Historically, Baptists have been particularly skilled at striking an appropriate balance between doctrinal anarchy and doctrinal uniformity. The former happens no doctrinal parameters are set according to a consensus of belief delineated by the churches. The latter takes place when the common confessions of our churches are lifted to a level equal in authority to the Scriptures. Barna well notes that emerging generations likewise "want neither a predetermined plan nor a set of imposed facts. They want to inhabit the discovery process, so questions and dialogue are keys for them."

At the same time, Barna's observation must be balanced with what is known about the uneasiness of the Millenials concerning their own moral compass. Thom Rainer correctly states that this generation has "an inability to distinguish right from wrong. And many of the [Millenials] know that they do not know."

These juxtaposed realities can be met with confidence by Southern Baptists. As I continue to talk with those of emerging generations, I find that they do not want to be "indoctrinated" or in any way forced to believe something merely on the basis of its inclusion in a creed. They do however, desire guidance in interpreting the Scriptures, and a common confession upon which the essentials of the faith can be placed. As Baptists, our confessional approach to faith balances well accountability in interpretation of the essentials, freedom of interpretation in non-essentials, and charity in both areas.

Distinctive #4: Congregationalism. Camino and Lattin give a prognosis for the future of the church that includes "the decentralization of power away from clergy and into the hands of laypeople," and state that this shift of power "will have an impact both inside and outside congregations well into the new millenium." Much of this coming shift will be attributed to Buster and Millenial animosity toward autocratic approaches to leadership. As Barna states, emerging generations "want a life that is authentic and genuine--and they want leaders whose style and objectives reflect those same qualities."

This observation demonstrates the need for Baptists to strongly emphasize our belief in the congregational form of government. Whether a church follows a totally democratic paradigm of leadership, or employs elders of some sort, the understanding that all church leaders derive their authority ultimately from the entire congregation will certainly have appeal for emerging generations.

Distinctive #5: Cooperation in Missions. While there is no denominational hierarchy, the denominational structures that do exist, when they function properly, have one purpose: to unite Southern Baptist churches in a common effort to reach the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a purpose should be coupled with the emphasis that GenXers and Millenials place upon holistic mission.

While at first glance, emerging generations appear to merely be "slackers," over time one observes that these generations of young people are wholly committed to missional causes. As a result, the relevancy of Southern Baptist missions can be clearly communicated as the synergistic approach to world evangelization that combines the collective efforts of our churches. Such a vision will be attractive to those seeking to have a maximum impact on their world for the sake of God's Kingdom.

I believe that what motivates Busters and Millenials to service in God's Kingdom are those same things which are the heart and soul of Southern Baptist identity. As such, I believe it is possible for future generations of young people to see the relevancy of our denominational structure, and consequently commit themselves to our identity and purpose.

Hahn and Verhagen correctly note that "every generation is different from the ones before it." If the church hopes to reach any particular generation, and impact them with the Gospel in such a way that they in turn impact others, they must seek to understand how that generation most efficiently responds to the message of the church. That said, I firmly believe that if our SBC roots are revisited, and things that matter are promoted as they should be, the things about which emerging generations are passionate will be seen as lying at the very heart of what it means to be a Southern Baptist.

**This post is an abridged version of an article I wrote three years ago entitled "Baptizing Generation X: Bringing Emerging Generations to Denominational Commitment."


Barna, George. 2001. Boiling Point: Monitoring Cultural Shifts in the 21st Century. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.

Cimino, Richard and Don Lattin. 1998. Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millenium. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hahn, Tod and David Verhaagen. 1998. GenXers After God: Helping a Generation Pursue Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.


Kiki Cherry said...

This is a GREAT article!!! Joel, you just described our students to a "t".

And to be totally honest, I feel the exact same way.

nolongerbaptist said...

There is no doctrine of "the priesthood of the believer." Of course, 98% of Baptists might think there is such a doctrine, and postmodern me might then say that such a doctrine does, in fact, exist. But "the priesthood of the believer" is an unfortunate linguistic mistake that has replaced the Biblical "priesthood of all believers" into an uber-individualistic and modern American phenomenon. I'm not sure if you made a mistake in highlighting the "priesthood of the believer", but I wouldn't be surprised to find evidence that most baptists wouldn't recognize this sad twist of Scripture.

Anonymous said...

No longer,

I am one of those who prefers the nomenclature, "priesthood of believers." I think it is more biblical and does not lend itself to what Joel describes as "hermeneutical anarchy". I've often been frustrated when people use the priesthood of the believer (singular) to argue for a sort of personal autonomy or an extreme form of "soul competency." That is not what Joel has done here.

Having taken his statement about believer priesthood in the context of "no human mediator" and in the larger context of the article, alsongide his remarks about confessionalism and congregationalism, I think you're splitting hairs.

nolongerbaptist said...

Not accusing the author of any ill-intent, but neither am I splitting hairs. If you repeat something often enough, people believe it, and baptists are notorious for repeating "priesthood of the believer." You say you "prefer" the plural b/c it is "more biblical." That's good, because the singular not only makes no logical sense, but it is expressly anti-biblical. "Just me and my bible baptists" aren't exactly rare, and for all the talk these days about theological precision, you'd think the baptists would at least try and get this one right to avoid spreading this nasty little trend.

Again, not picking on the author here - at least not his definition of what he means. I am picking on his lazy language that perpetrates bad, bad theology with bad, bad results.

the fundamentalist said...

Priesthood of the beleiver is kind of like the doctrine of the Trinity. You won't find the word "Trinity" anywhere in Scripture, but it is where Scripture forces us to go. Priesthood of the beleiver simply means that every beleiver has direct access to God, the ability to read and learn from scripture, and activities specifically reserved for priest without the need for a priest. True, you aren't going to find that doctrine explicitly in Scripture, but it seems to be the implication of scripture. Our High Priest is Christ, and we are under his priesthood.

nolongerbaptist said...

fundy, You've missed the point. Scripture does teach "the priesthood of all believers". But not that each believer is a community of priests on his/her own.

Joel Rainey said...


Nice little side conversation you have started in here! :)

I half agree with you, and as a result stand corected on my use of language, as you will see from the corrected version of my blog entry. Our confessions do in fact state "Priesthood of Believers," and not "Priesthood of the Believer."

On the other hand, I'm not sure this change makes a great difference, either Biblically or practically.

Biblically, the Scriptures describe the church as a Priesthood (1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:5-6, Rev. 5:9-10, Rev. 20:6). If it is true that "they will be priests of God and of Christ," that language is very similar to saying "you will be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8). Yes, these things happen by the authority of the church as a whole, but I believe you would think it silly to make a distinction between church and individual so as to say that the church is a witness but the individual believer is not. In my view, the same holds true with the whole idea of the priesthood. It is nonsensical to say that the church is a priesthood but the members of that body are not.

And practically, though you and I agree that there have been severe abuses of this doctrine, a "hairsplitting" (yep, I've got to side with anonymous here) change in nomenclature won't solve the problem. It isn't the "label" that is causing the problem, but rather, our misunderstanding of it. This doctrine, regardless of whether it is spoken of in the individual or corporate sense, has nothing to do with a person's interpretation of Scripture, and that is where the source of contention has lain. Our job here, as I see it, is to teach from the Scriptures what this doctrine means: It isn't about the "right of private interpretation," but about direct access to God through Jesus Christ without any human mediator. I think you and I would agree that this is just as true for the individual as it is for the church as a coprorate entity.

Church autonomy has also been abused (i.e. Church's adopting policies in violation of Scripture, and claiming congregational autonomy as a doctrine which justifies this), but the answer to issues like this is Scriptural teaching, not a change in nomenclature. Fundamentalist is right: Nowhere in the Bible will you find the phrase "Priesthood of the Believer," nor will you find "Priesthood of Believers." You are correct also: the latter is historically the way Baptists have coined our convictions here, but I still maintain that the difference here is not how the doctrine is labeled, but how it is expressed.

That said, I'd be interested in your take on the rest of the article. Thanks for stopping in.

the fundamentalist said...

Well, I'm not wanting to split hairs, but rather seek understanding. I was clarifying on where the ideas come from. I agree with Joel that it doesn't really mitigate the arguments for individual priesthood, communal priesthood, or some other priesthood.

nolongerbaptist said...

fundy - There can be no such thing as "an individual priesthood." An individual can be a priest. Not a priesthood. I argue that language does in fact matter and that most people are smarter than they get credit for being... sloppy language leads to sloppy theology leads to sloppy praxis. This is one of baptistdoms biggest examples.

Joel - Thanks for your response. I'd love to pop back in later today and give some thougts on the fuller article... running around quite madly right now, so I'd like to give a response the time it deserves...

nolongerbaptist said...

Joel -

I apologize in advance for the length...

First, to respond to your comments:
On the other hand, I'm not sure this change makes a great difference, either Biblically or practically.

I disagree... you say this several times, so I won't quote each intance. Just saying that yes, in fact, what we say and the language we use makes a difference in how doctrinal/biblical teaching is understood.

but I believe you would think it silly to make a distinction between church and individual so as to say that the church is a witness but the individual believer is not. In my view, the same holds true with the whole idea of the priesthood. It is nonsensical to say that the church is a priesthood but the members of that body are not.

The Church is a plural witness - witnesses - and a plural priest - priesthood. The individual is a witness and a priest. What is lost in sloppy language? The rest of the Church. Being a small part of a large priesthood and a single witness among a great cloud means that I alone do not hold all of the answers, all of the authority, or all of the possible perspectives. We agree that there are abuses in understanding this doctrine, and that the main abuse is the hyper-individualistic practice of our Faith. Repeating the faulty language "priesthood of the believer" not only makes one sound ignorant, it also promotes the viewpoint of the "me and my bible baptists" that we both disagree with.

but I still maintain that the difference here is not how the doctrine is labeled, but how it is expressed.

Labeling is an expression. I hope I've been clear in showing this.

Now, on to some broader thoughts...

My first observation was that my eyes started glazing over when reading about generational theory. This was a pretty popular approach in the early 90's or so, but since then, I'd hoped that most of us have learned that this isn't the most useful or accurate direction. At least recognize that you're talking about one subset of one generation - primarily an affluent American subset. Anyway, just an encouragement to go a bit deeper than these easy generalizations.

One useful observation is this: In other words, while they do not oppose institutions with the same voracity that their parents did, neither do they see much relevancy or usefulness in current institutions. Perhaps the sentence I disagree with most follows closely: It is my contention that Southern Baptists are in the best position to do this very thing.

Here's why I am "nolongerbaptist"- I have found much more relevant and useful associations on which to build and partner in ministry. I don't necessarily disagree with any of your five points of distinction, nor do I disagree that they are "baptist." I just find that I can maintain these same five distinctions elsewhere in partnerships that are more relevant and more useful.

#1 Autonomy- Newer ("emerging" if you will) churches without a baptist affiliation can be autonomous as well, keeping relationships with other existing churches, and without the baggage that the SBC brings. (And I think we all know there is baggage, don't we?)

#2 Priesthood of all believers - I find this more in practice in unaffiliated emerging churches than in any Baptist church I've been in. Often, I think we'd all admit, that pastors are seen as experts, paid authorities.... priests, if you will. Not mediators between man and God, mind you, but more godly, more biblically literate, more spiritual. I find emerging churches generally more egalitarian and honest.

#3 Confessionalism - As the SBC and its assorted entities become more and more narrowly creedal, I find myself more confessional and historically baptist outside of baptist life.

#4 Congregationalism - Again, there are lots and lots of non-baptist congregational churches. I can be congregational without the baggage.

#5 Cooperation - As I pointed out on another blog somewhere, only a tiny, tiny percentage of my CP giving ends up in missions. A good 80-85% winds up supporting offices, organ music conferences, state convention meetings, and Republican lobbying. By cooperating with other like-minded churches, my church gives 100% of missions giving to... surprise... missions!

Being nolongerbaptist has made me more relevant and more useful without undermining any biblical principles or distinctives. Your mileage may vary. :)