The challenge of anti-institutional thinking

I first noticed the declaration that denominations were dying in the 1990s, oftentimes in stories published by Associated Baptist Press, the moderate news service supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). I scoffed at their notion that it was happening to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), dismissing it as wishful thinking on the part of people who were bitter over the triumph of the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC. I was, however, aware that American mainline Protestantism, awash in the same liberal theology that SBC moderates too often tolerated and sometimes championed, had been in decline for decades. Their demise was documented by Thomas Reeves’ book, The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity, published in 1996 and hailed by Christianity Today as one of the best books of that year.

Now I am having second thoughts about this matter and the SBC. It is clear a new generation (predominantly Generation Xers, those aged 25-44) are in rebellion against all real – and perceived – vestiges of modernity. Whether that is good or bad is a complex subject for another time. They have brought an anti-institutional attitude to our culture and it seems to me we are being shortsighted if we think this is not leaking into the SBC. We see it everywhere else. One only has to look at the deconstruction of America’s healthcare system by our nation’s first Generation X president and the complete dismantling of the college football landscape (the epicenter of which the University of Missouri finds itself) by a new generation of university presidents as two examples. Is the SBC next?

For months the blogosphere has been inundated with people sharing their views about the SBC’s future. One particular blogger caught my eye recently, declaring he had never attended an annual meeting of the SBC, but that he would be attending this one. He said a new generation of “neo-Baptists” had arisen and no longer placed the same value on aligning themselves with a denomination (Sound familiar?). Then he wrote this: “Denominations are shrinking. They are relics of modernism and we are in a postmodern culture … where we are anti-institutional.”

I am not suggesting that an anti-institutional attitude is wrong in every case. For example, slavery, once called America’s “peculiar institution,” is an example of where an anti-institutional attitude was necessary. But what about institutions that are appropriate, even needed – some established by God? The traditional family comes to mind. Government, ordained by God, is another. More specifically, in America’s case, the Constitution and our court system are indispensable institutions. Are they the next target of anti-institutionalists? Some may say they already are, manifested in the “evolving Constitution” philosophy exercised by liberal judges. This, in part, is why many Americans feel their freedom is in jeopardy.

I am also not suggesting that Generation Xers are all anti-institutional. Baby Boomers (ages 45-64) and The Millennials (ages 5-24) can be as well. It is just that so much focus is on the “Xers” at the moment because in another decade or so, as the Baby Boomers retire and die, the baton of leadership will be passed on to them.

I do not want to over react here, but it seems to me there is a danger of taking this anti-institutional stuff too far. I am all for change – provided you can prove to me it is for the best (does not contradict God’s Word). My suspicion of change is rooted in what the Bible says about man’s sinful nature, which infects us all. Glory be to God because of His grace and perfect provision that our sinful nature is covered by the blood of Christ when we place our trust in Him. But our free will can still get us in “a pickle.”

We need to be much in prayer these days. We also must guard against pessimism taking root in our spirits. We must – above all – love God and our neighbors. We belong to a great King. He is returning and one day He will make everything right.

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