There’s lots of conversation about Russell Moore’s quitting not only as head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy agency but the convention itself, joining a nondenominational church associated with the Acts 29 “network.” This Calvinist network baptizes babies, a taboo for Baptists! Moore is a lifelong Southern Baptist.
Public response has focused on Moore’s estrangement from some in the SBC’s rightwing. But perhaps more indicative of our times is his leaving a denomination to which he’s belonged for a lifetime, served in senior leadership, including at its flagship seminary, and became its most prominent national spokesman.
Another prominent Southern Baptist, Owen Strachan, recently announced his move from Midwestern [Southern] Baptist Theological Seminary to a nondenominational Bible seminary. Several black Southern Baptist clergy and their congregations recently have quit the Southern Baptist Convention, including prominent writer and preacher Thabiti Anyabwile of DC’s Anacostia River Church, which was planted by a prominent mostly white Southern Baptist congregation. Strachan came from the convention’s conservative side. Departing black pastors have complained they no longer feel welcome amid the convention’s polarization.
The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s second largest church after Roman Catholicism, has been declining in membership for nearly 20 years. It is now losing members at a faster rate than the much more liberal United Methodist Church, which has been declining continuously in the U.S. for nearly 60 years, and which is on the verge of formal schism.
Most of America’s historic denominations, including all of its liberal ones and many conservative ones, are declining. Nondenominational Christianity seems to continue to grow. The age of large denominational agencies, publishing houses, and national leaders who speak to the nation seems to be ending.
The retreat of the great denominations is not per se a retreat for Christianity in America. Overall professed church membership is declining but active regular church attendance not as much. Many nondenominational churches don’t stress formal membership. There are also millions of American Christians who don’t regularly attend formal worship yet practice their spiritually individually, online or sometimes through small devotional groups.
Yet the decline of great denominations is a tremendous loss for American Christianity with national social, cultural and political ramifications. The denominations underpinned much of America’s civil society and informed much of its public discourse. Leaders in their local churches were typically community leaders interwoven with local government, industry, and schools. National leaders of these denominations were until relatively recently also national public voices. Denominations offered national networks including millions of people that compelled a more universal and less parochial outlook.
Now Methodist and Episcopal bishops, once prominently quoted in major newspapers on public topics, are largely ignored. Russell Moore may be the last head of the SBC’s public affairs agency who routinely appears in national media. SBC presidents, who are elected annually, have sometimes been national figures. Albert Mohler, president of what may be America’s largest seminary, might become the SBC’s new president later this month. He already is and will remain a national voice. But will his successors be?
The SBC and United Methodist publishing houses were once among the largest in America, and they directly influenced millions. But with their denominations’ decline, and with Christians no longer very loyal to denominational traditions and seeking their devotional material outside denominational channels, these publishing houses don’t have very bright futures. The future is especially dire for the United Methodist publisher, as post-schism traditional Methodism will likely depend on or develop other publishing outlets. The SBC publishing house at least can market its materials to a much wider universe of evangelicalism.
Many SBC preachers and writers will continue to have cachet beyond their denomination through their books and videos. Popular speaker Beth Moore recently disaffiliated from the SBC, although she did not quit her SBC congregation, and likely her speaking engagements and publications will churn forward unabated. Few of her fans likely care whether she personally identifies with the SBC. California SBC megachurch pastor Rick Warren has been in recent years one of America’s highest profile preachers and authors, although few knew of his SBC affiliation. His Saddleback Church does not advertise its Baptist ties. Increasing numbers of SBC congregations don’t, following a wider trend of churches that disguise denominational affiliations to be more welcoming or from indifference. Almost certainly many post-schism traditional Methodist congregations, and maybe some liberal ones, will avoid confusion or controversy over whether they are liberal or conservative by simply removing “Methodist” from public view.
Meanwhile, greater numbers of Americans who are practicing or at least self-identifying as Christian move freely across denominations and congregations, including many Catholics. Multi-generational loyalties to denominations are ending. Lutherans now marry Catholics and become Southern Baptists before attending nondenominational Bible churches. There’s lots of stress on supposed church and Christian decline in America, but much of the dust is actually a great churning in which denominational ties are replaced by decades of church shopping interspersed by long sabbaticals away from formal church altogether. Some of this church churning is premised on a sense of victimization. Conservatives leave liberal denominations believing the Gospel was withheld from them. Liberals quit conservative denominations thinking themselves brainwashed or ideologically captive.
This unfolding post-denominational American Christianity is a tribute to the entrepreneurship of nondenominational churches and parachurch ministries that are birthed and thrive without denominational resources. In some ways they recall the dynamism of the Early Church or of current often persecuted Chinese Christianity, which is entirely nondenominational and yet seems mostly to thrive. These nondenominationals also recall America’s Tocquevillian spirit of creating new associations to meet contemporary needs.
The sadness about the post denominational world is that it is often ad hoc and individualistic. Great traditions that accrued across centuries are set aside and sometimes forgotten altogether in favor of some purportedly new and improved alternative. Post denominationalism often stresses personal choice. Sometimes although not always it is personality-driven. Its ecclesiology is almost always congregationalist, so there is little accountability if any to a wider community.
Leaders from post denominational Christianity become national figures through their social media, book sales, online broadcasting, or their public controversies, like secular celebrities. Post denominationalism may feed national polarization in that its participants when looking outside their congregations rely on self-chosen and sometimes self-segregating social media and news sources. This post denominationalism tends to create inward subcultures instead of identifying with a national culture, as churches previously long did through their large and historic denominations.
Russell Moore’s quitting the SBC to affiliate with Christianity Today magazine will possibly expand his influence and fan base. His departure may reveal less about Southern Baptist divisions and more about how denominations are becoming irrelevant.