Martin Marty notes trends for Baptists

Noted historian and scholar Martin Marty offered his views on where Baptists might be 400 years from now. His remarks come on the heels of a 400th anniversary celebration of the Baptist presence and witness in 2009, so I found them pretty interesting.

Of course, no one knows where Baptists will be at the time. Hopefully many of them will be heaven at that time but based upon what I’ve seen you can’t be certain. I’ve sometimes commented that we may be surprised not only by who is heaven but also by who is not in heaven, so claiming a denominational brand doesn’t get us there. I am grateful for someone like Marty who can draw upon his own experience, knowledge of our history, and look ahead to see where the Baptist bus might be heading.

There’s no need to react to all of his bullet points, but I will mention local church autonomy. One of my favorite phrases has become “all politics is local” and these words have particular significance for the Baptist church. What this means is that the days of hierarchical supremacy for a denominational headquarters are coming to an end. Local Baptist congregations are becoming more independent in their thinking if not in their theology. Churches are sponsoring their own missionaries, mission trips, and shopping around for the best literature for their people and not merely taking what the denomination offers them. The exception to this might be rural Baptist churches who haven’t changed anything in the past 100 years and either don’t know or don’t care what has happened denominationally. Their pastors don’t tend to stay too long and don’t have the interest or involvement in what is going on beyond the county.

The rise of the local church is a good thing. I am learning that more persons in the pew are desiring a “hands on” experience of missions rather than merely sending money out so that “real missionaries” can carry out the Great Commission for them. I am not diminishing the importance of vocational missionaries, as I believe God still places a call upon individuals in that way and denominations can serve a function in placing them and supporting them. It is important that we open our pocketbooks for this worthwhile cause. However, church members are discovering they can get involved in missions right where they are with the people and communities that are nearby as well. It is rewarding to see this taking place, and a church who has a passion for doing missions is creating a legacy of service for its people.

One other thought I had related to Baptist identity. Our church in particular truly values the Baptist heritage and its distinctives, but I’m discovering that those who possess a knowledge and commitment to them are from an older generation. I’ll be 45 this year, and find that those my age and older have more appreciation for being “Baptist” than those who are younger. This makes me wonder what the Baptist label will look like in 25 years let alone 400. Those persons I talk to are more ecclectic in their theology and practice rather than buying into a particular denominational belief system. Politics, theology, social concerns, and family issues are dealt with in more of a cafeteria style than “one size fits all.” Spiritual formation remains very important, and the most central concern is “what works for me” and what the church has to offer in terms of significant worship and service opportunities.

This is a tough pill to swallow for older congregations, leaving many to wonder why all those young people don’t come to church and do the things they did for years. The “if you build it, they will come” days are over and have beenfor some time. Commitment to the church for its institutional sake doesn’t work as much, so we need to find a balance between maintaining our identity and finding out what being a missional church means. We can do both. The church is still the body of Christ, and we only lose our relevance when we stop being relevant in what we are doing. Measuring the impact of the church only by how many show up on Sunday is a temptation, and leaves many pastors and staff discouraged. May we learn to see the importance of what we do by not only our attendance but also our actions.

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