The fact that state and national religious bodies are undergoing significant changes — or at least need to change — hardly makes headlines anymore.
But the changes already occurring give hints about where the development of religious organizations is headed in the United States, according to Baptists who are witnessing this evolution firsthand.
Declines in church attendance and baptisms, the rise of the unaffiliated “nones,” and the pervasiveness of digital communications and social media are pushing faith-based groups to regroup and reorganize.
But the challenge to change can seem confusing, Christian leaders note — especially when emotions are involved. And emotions almost always are involved.
Some voices call for immediate and radical divestment from historic roles in order to embrace new ones. Others urge allegiance to founding principles and practices.
Either course can seem scary, say those who have navigated those turbulent seas — or who are about to do so.
But those leading and witnessing changes in Baptist life see good news — shifting demographics, disinterest in denominational identity, and a pluralistic and digitally networked culture are inspiring organizations to embrace the creativity and flexibility that will define denominational bodies of the future.
Some changes already occurring include partial or complete rethinking of what its organizations look like and do.
And in many cases, it also means rethinking what they are called.
In June, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter coined a new term to describe CBF—“denominetwork.”
The hybrid word communicated the need to maintain some traditional functions of denominational bodies, such as global missions and pastoral referrals, while also highlighting the transition to a lighter, more flexible governance structure and greater congregational interconnectedness.
“We’re not a denomination,” she told the CBF General Assembly in Atlanta. “We’re interconnected. We’re woven together.”
While CBF is on its way to being a “denominetwork,” it has a ways to go, too, Paynter said during an interview.
CBF already has in place the streamlined organizational structure, she said, achieved through the adoption and implementation of the 2012 Task Force.
Remaining are the global and domestic missions networks, leaders and field personnel CBF needs to faithfully serve churches and those in need around the world.
CBF also retains its ability to connect ministerial candidates with churches in need of staff and leadership. But it most sorely lacks a communication network for that referral system and all other functions in CBF life, Paynter said.
CBF needs its own version of Basecamp, a popular project management tool, to help churches, ministries and individuals discover and communicate with each other about shared callings, interests and needs, Paynter said.
“We have a website, our churches have websites, and we have Twitter and Facebook, but that doesn’t provide us any identified online network,” she said.
A project management system like that would help churches interested in missions in South Africa find each other and then share documents, expertise and even funding to accomplish their tasks.
Arranging such cooperation through email, Facebook Messenger or similar tools often leads to miscommunication due to lost, ignored or misunderstood messages — especially as the number of participating churches grows.
“We have the capacity to work together, we just need the tool (to facilitate) the fellowship,” she said.
Avoid ‘head-in-the-sand approach’
Embracing new technology and a new identity also has been a big push at the Baptist General Convention of Missouri — better known now as Churchnet.
The new convention formed from the contentious theological and political battles among Missouri Baptists in the early part of the century.
Within a few years, the organization solidified its vision as a resource network for churches and individuals, and it shifted to a part-time staff working in homes around the state in a virtual office setting.
A newly identified mission drove the structure, said Churchnet Executive Director Jim Hill.
“The first priority…was the theme of our mission — to give first priority to serving churches,” Hill said. “The idea was to think of denominational life…as a collaboration of congregations and leaders.”
Getting rid of its offices offered not only a good use of financial resources, but also enables staff to be scattered all over the state. They use video conferencing to interact as a staff.
The Baptist General Convention of Missouri also eliminated the messengers as convention voters and made membership more fluid — and not limited to those who contribute financially.
And that shift reflected another move — being open to working with any church or individual.
“That is intentional,” Hill said. “We are going to serve any church that wants our help, even if they are not financially supporting us and even if it’s not Baptist — or even in Missouri.”
That mission and flexibility has come with a web-based approach to some services provided for churches, such as consulting, staff and volunteer training and clergy counseling.
Traditional functions it retains include benefits programs for churches, chaplaincy endorsements and maintaining missions partnerships in Eastern Europe.
What does Churchnet not attempt to provide churches and individuals? Authority and identity, Hill said. “We don’t think it’s our job to tell a church how to affiliate denominationally,” he said.
Congregations “aren’t looking for denominational relationships; they are looking for relationships that help them be the church where they are.”
Hill gets a lot of comments and calls from Christian leaders who describe Churchnet as being on the cutting edge of denominational change. Even if that’s true, that puts the organization way behind the pace of changes in church and society.
Still, state and national groups should be asking questions about what their organizations may look like in the future. “The world has changed, and thinking it hasn’t is the head-in-the-sand approach,” Hill said.
‘Pretty radical’ change
In other states, leaders can sense the need to change — and the resistance to it. Sometimes, that resistance results from a natural desire to hang on to the glory days of an organization and a hope they’ll return.
“The older I get, the more I fear change,” said David Hardage, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Speaking to the organization’s Executive Board, he urged Texas Baptists not to idolize the past or become polarized by fear, which, he said “keeps me from going where I must go. Fear keeps me from doing what I know must be done.”
But doing also requires knowing, and Hardage told the board his mission is to determine how and when the BGCT will change to meet the needs of the state’s changing population and demographics.
“The state into which I was born is not the state I live in today,” Hardage said. Consequently, an upcoming proposal to reconfigure the convention “may be pretty radical.”
In many ways, the denominational model, in the strictly proper sense, already is largely a thing of the past, said Larry Hovis, executive coordinator of CBF of North Carolina.
Technically, Baptists constitute one denomination. Popularly, most Baptists have viewed their own religious organization within the wider Baptist family — Southern Baptist Convention, CBF, American Baptist Churches, the various predominantly African-American National Baptist groups — as its own denomination with related organizations at state or regional levels.
These “denominations” worked together in a system to accomplish shared objectives. They also provided a theological framework for each other and, in many cases, offered little autonomy to their members, he said.
Even before Paynter’s “denominetwork” concept, CBF didn’t exactly fit that model because most state organizations did not function like similar entities did or do in other denominations, including the SBC.
In CBF, “the level of autonomy between the different expressions — national, state and regional bodies and a lot of connected institutions — was greater than it was in the SBC,” Hovis said.
That left each to develop in different ways, and CBF of North Carolina developed a model that provided some of the services often associated with a state convention — international missions, training, collegiate ministry, leadership development and referral work.
But it also strives to serve as a hub to connect congregations with each other around shared needs and interests, Hovis said.
Those kinds of tasks — both the traditional administrative and the cutting-edge missional — still will be needed in the future, Hovis said.
It’s usually why even non-denominational churches cluster together and create centralized organizations they are careful not to call denominations.
“I don’t think denominations are dead. I think they’re changing,” Hovis said, adding denominations are becoming networks instead of centralized hierarchical bureaucracies.
“Whatever we call these things in the future, they are going to have some characteristics of classical denominations, but will be much more networks.”
Hill shared a similar vision of the future: “The ones that thrive and survive are more of a network in nature and more of a collaborative environment than the denominational, top-down entities we had down through the years.”