Friday, October 03, 2014

The Future of Baptist Fundamentalism

Recently a panel discussion on the The Future of Baptist Fundamentalism was organized by my friend Greg Linscott and hosted at the Fourth Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN. You can read a summary of it here, or listen to it at … well, nowhere. Apparently, technology hasn’t reached all the way to Minnesota yet.

Just kidding.

I heard they actually had the technology but the hamsters got tired of running fast enough to power the generator. But that may be just a rumor as well. Perhaps the participants all decided it would be better to have no audio in order to maintain some plausible deniability. You can always claim you were misquoted, unless the pesky audio exists somewhere.

Of course I digress. Some of these people are my friends. At least they were. But I find the topic interesting and, if the write-up is indicative, the panel discussion seemed interesting as well.

So what do I think of the future of Baptist fundamentalism? Thanks for asking.

I have a few thoughts, which you may have suspected if you have made it this far.

First, I wonder how the lack of agreed upon history affects this. As of now, there is no wide agreement (or perhaps even narrow agreement) on what fundamentalism has been. There are a variety of people making their own case for a history. Virtually all seem to agree that over the last fifty or so years, Baptist fundamentalism has become more and more fragmented. I am among those who don’t think there is a fundamentalist movement, per se. There are a bunch of fundamentalists and a bunch of fundamentalisms. More and more, people are hesitating to use the term fundamentalist anywhere outside of a very narrow and controlled context. Perhaps all of that is indicative of the future that I see in my crystal ball. If no one knows what fundamentalism is, how will we recognize it in its future iterations?

Now, looking into my crystal ball, my suspicion is that Baptist fundamentalism is in the process of becoming (1) more confessional, (2) more regional, and (3) more age-segregated, and (4) less denominational.

More confessional? Yes, I think there are a lot of fundamentalists who are tired of being lumped together with people who don’t agree with them on basic fundamentals of the faith, such as Scripture, salvation, or Jesus. Put aside for the moment who is right or wrong and fundamentalism has a mixed history on that. Twenty years ago many were lamenting the fact that we tolerate all kinds of aberrant doctrine and practice because the holders of said doctrine and practice separate from the right people. It was a serious problem then, and still is. I think the future of fundamentalism will see groups or participation centered more on people who agree on these matters. It may not be a formal confessionalism, but I think many fundamentalists will return to a doctrinal basis for fundamentalism. Some will include practice in that. I predict that doctrine will become more important than how separation is parsed in future Baptist fundamentalism. Separating from some other person will be less important than what one teaches about the gospel itself.

More regional? Yes, I think the days of “national” gatherings are probably over for fundamentalists. I think the only national gatherings will be either denominational (SBC, PCA, etc.) or involve big names (such as T4G, TGC, or the Shepherd’s Conference). In the interest of full disclosure, I have never been to any of those. I think fundamentalism does not have the kind of big names to draw national conferences of much size any more. Some are trying, such as West Coast or Hammond, but I think they will fall victim of a more confessional fundamentalism. Their constituency will show up, but that’s about it.

There are some who are suggesting a “Baptist Congress.” I am sure some will attend, but I suspect it will support my assertions that the future of fundamentalism will be more (confessional) and third (age divided). I think Baptist fundamentalists will likely spend their associational capital with people they can gather frequently with because they are close, and people with whom “ministry cooperation” or “partnership” has some real meaning such as church planting rather than gathering to listen to a few messages and pass a few resolutions.

More age-segregated? Yes, I think that the future of fundamentalism will be increasingly characterized by a younger group and an older group. Of course, there will be some crossover, and eventually perhaps this becomes less pronounced as the younger of today become the older of tomorrow. Younger fundamentalists are much less enthralled by the fundamentalists personalities of the past (though ironically enough, they might be very enthralled with present personalities).

I predict that the younger guys will charge the older with being out-of-touch traditionalists who just don’t understand reality and the gospel and the older guys will charge the younger guys with being compromised and not being fundamentalists at all. Some will even cite 1 John 2:19. Of course, that didn’t take a crystal ball to predict. It’s already happening. It’s probably misguided to some extent on both sides, and it’s doubtful that such charges or division will produce any substantive exchange of ideas. Look for the traditional fundamentalist hangouts to be more and more hoary-headed and suit-and-tied, and the younger ones to be more and more goatee’ed and jeans-with-untucked-shirts.

Lastly, less denominational? Yes, I think that the future of Baptist fundamentalism will have a higher regard for the work of God in other denominations, and even willing to enter into limited partnerships with them. This will, ironically perhaps, mean that the future will look more like the past where fundamentalism was not interdenominational. In the future, people will gather for fellowship and even partnership to some degree with people with whom they could not share church membership.

So what of it? I have no idea if I am right, or even close. I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet. And I work for a non-profit organization (to borrow an old line that Dr. Kaiser has worn out for decades). In fact, being a cessationist, I work for a non-prophet organization (as we all do).

Each individual will have to work these issues out for themselves. Each person or church will have to determine the amount of latitude they are willing to offer in various contexts of ministry partnership. And they will have to determine how they will interact with those who allow more or less latitude.

Some, no doubt, will have a scorched-earth policy, lambasting all who differ with them. Some will take the approach suggested by Mark Dever of keeping low fences and shaking hands often across them. Others will just go on about their business, almost oblivious to things around them.

In all of it, the most important thing will still be the local church. Partnerships and conferences will never surpass that.

So wherever you fall in the above categories, be a faithful serving part of your local church. Be less worried about others and more worried about your own heart. Be firm on the Scriptures and live them out with character and integrity, even with, or especially with those with whom you might disagree. Take care of your own house first.

Let us call sin sin, but do it with caution and brokenness. Let us realize that all differences are not gospel differences. That doesn’t make them unimportant, though some are certainly less important.

In all, let us remember Christ his the head of his church and we serve Him at his pleasure and for his glory. Let us build more local churches and fewer personal kingdoms. And let us realize that we will probably be in heaven with some people we didn’t like on this earth.

So live humbly and serve well for the sake of the Jesus and his church.


Jon Gleason said...

Hi, Larry.

"Others will just go on about their business, almost oblivious to things around them."

If that means more time doing the work of the local church and less time on conferences and a bunch of other stuff you really don't see in the Bible, isn't that better?

Jim Peet said...

Re: "the hamsters got tired". LOL

Larry said...

Jon, Good to hear from you. I trust all is well. I am inclined to agree with you that more local focus is typically better. I am thinking of writing a part 2 to this article next week about what I think about it.

Jim, the hamsters apparently got shut out of the potluck and ran out of energy.

Jon Gleason said...

Hi, Larry. Ministry is going really well, church has grown some this year, work is fine, busy as always, never enough time or energy, but our Lord is enough.

I'll be watching for a follow-up. Well, Feedly will be watching for it and let me know. :) I'm becoming more and more convinced that we'd make a lot of problems and questions go away if we'd mind our own business and put our energy into serving in the place God put us rather than trying to build or join ministry empires.

Greg Linscott said...

"Others will just go on about their business, almost oblivious to things around them."


Of course, those kind of people won't read your blogging...:)

One minor clarification: the MBA did not sponsor the meeting. Basically, I organized it, and Fourth/Central graciously hosted it at their place.

One other matter- a congress does not involve delegates and voting and that kind of thing. To quote from correspondence with a mutual friend, "A congress is simply a gathering, usually on a fairly large scale. It is a one-time, self-standing event, usually planned and promoted by a self-appointed committee. Anybody can call a congress, but widespread participation is usually ensured by including representatives of various constituencies on the planning committee."

I do think that your observations have merit, especially if no one takes any incentive to change the status quo. At the same time, I do see value in having more awareness and interaction with one another. Baptists started getting together here in the US to help fund the missionary efforts of Adoniram Judson, prompted by the efforts of Luther Rice. While I am not suggesting a Fundamentalist Cooperative Program or anything like that, I do think there are benefits to knowing each other better, even if it won't be quite the same as knowing local guys. I personally can vouch for the fact that wider interaction has changed the way I pastor, and the influence I have had from different personalities not geographically nearby (not to mention the way I have been able to help and influence others) has been a blessing and an asset.

At the same time, not everyone is a forum/blogging geek like you or I can be. A congress or something similar can be a networking opportunity- let people know they are not alone. I don't underestimate the value of such things, especially having ministered in an environment far away from any kind of institutional center.

Greg Linscott said...

Jon said:
I'm becoming more and more convinced that we'd make a lot of problems and questions go away if we'd mind our own business and put our energy into serving in the place God put us rather than trying to build or join ministry empires.

Disparaging "ministry empires" is all well and good until you need to raise support for foreign missionary endeavors, or need a place to send someone for seminary training, or need places for trained people to serve, or need someone to candidate as a pastor in a church that doesn't have a suitable candidate internally... Then, familiarity within a "network" of some sort can be pretty helpful, and might seem much less "empirish," if I might be a little direct.

I will also observe that our specific effort has very little to do, at least in these early stages, with any kind of empire building. Who exactly would the dominant personality be? What would be the predominant institution everyone is expected to be loyal to? The commonalities we are seeking to build on are doctrinal- that is things like Young Earth Creationism, a pre-trib/pre-mil dispensational hermeneutic, cessationism, a commitment to separation... but not really any dominant personality to follow.

Larry said...

Thanks Greg. I updated the post to remove the mention of the MBA and attribute it to you.

You mention changing the status quo. I tend to think it has already changed and these things I mention are the direction the change has and will take.

I agree there is benefit in relationships and if those are formalized in some sort of association it increases the usefulness of them in some ways at least. I just don't know that the national fundamentalist associations of the past are where the future is. I think the cooperative program is a rather helpful organization both for missionaries and church in many ways. It is a sort of pre-vetting in some ways, though the CP had the same kinds of issues as the SBC has had, and has been slower to deal with those problems. I don't know how that all works, and I don't know that there is enough agreement among enough fundamentalists to make something like that workable, even if it were desirable. I think the way we do missions is probably rather tedious and difficult for both sides. But what's better at present?

Regarding the idea of a congress, I will be interested to see what comes out of it.