Where Have All the Baptists Gone?

In 2010, Bryant Wright, founding pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Atlanta, was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. His election marks a new season for the SBC as they face declining membership numbers and a steep drop in baptisms. We talked to the new president about this trend away from denominations and what role he believes denominations will play in the future of the Church.

What do you think has led to so many churches going nondenominational?

The builder generation, those that really were born during or before World War II, were very loyal to the company, to the denomination, to the local civic club, to the family. Itʼs just a very loyal generation, and then the [baby] boomers come along and that sense of loyalty hasnʼt been there. You began to see a shifting away from denominational priority. We not only live in a post-Christian culture in America—we live in a post-denominational culture. And we can sit around and lament it and complain about it and plead with people to be loyal, and that is going to fall on deaf ears. Denominations have value when we feel we can do more together than we can do alone. We just have to go about doing ministry in the best possible way that makes it attractive, because calling for loyalty in a post-denominational world is just not going to work. Unless we are really excelling at church planting, unless we are really excelling at how we approach reaching this world for Christ in missions, people are going to go where they feel people are excelling. That’s just the world we live in, and letʼs recognize it and try to make the best of it. We want to be a Kingdom-minded church. Christ didnʼt come to start denominations. He came to start the dawning of the Kingdom of God. That needs to be our priority and that needs to be the denominational priority.

Do you think denominations are in their death throes?

I really donʼt think so. But in saying post-denominational world, I know that probably sounds like Iʼm speaking out of both sides of my mouth. Even though it is a post-denominational world, you have the Willow Creek Association, the churches out of the North Point model. [With those you] really have a mini denomination—itʼs just not the formality of it yet. I think that indicates people still need larger groups they can identify with in both their beliefs and how they do ministry. It could be that some of the present denominations are not going to make it, thatʼs a possibility. Thatʼs why there is such an urgent need for our denomination to really have a vital impact on fulfilling Christʼs great commission, because otherwise we wonʼt make it either. But I think there is always a need for doing more together than we can do as one local church.

Is there a sense of panic among denominational leaders, or are they making the best of it?

I wish there was a greater sense of urgency. And I really commend the previous president, Johnny Hunt, that he at least had the courage to identify we were no longer growing as a denomination. The baptisms and the indicators of really reaching people, they really havenʼt been doing well at all. He set up a study, a task force, to look at some structural things as well as priority focuses we could do that have been very helpful to us. Denominations, like local churches, can come and go. We have to just be constantly seeking the will of God and calling on the spirit of the Lord to empower us to fulfill Christʼs mission. If we do not, then there is a slow death that occurs.

Why is it still worth it for a church to be part of a denomination?

We can do more together than we can independently.* I certainly understand some are still going to desire to go the nondenominational approach because they want to avoid any kind of label they see as restrictive in fulfilling the mission. Of course, every mission church weʼve started—every single one of them—has chosen to leave “Baptist” out of the name, which is fine; we give them the freedom to do that. They feel it helps them in reaching an unchurched culture [without] the denominational barriers there, even though they are Southern Baptist.

How much does public perception outside the denomination affect how people inside the denomination feel?

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I think the fact that we have come across more anti certain issues than focused on Christ, it just makes it a big challenge for us in reaching people outside our churches. But if youʼre going to be biblical, there are going to be certain moral values contrary to culture. Itʼs just a tension we have to live with. I think the one thing we could do better at is to not confuse legalism with biblical morality, and I think a lot of times that has been the case.

Is that in the eye of the beholder?

I think the average lost person doesnʼt know the difference between legalism and biblical morality—they just see what the church is standing for. But I think inside, when we get that confused, itʼs not healthy for the local church. Thatʼs a challenge. The best way to overcome that is when the individual members have a Christ-like spirit and character and mission. Nobody is more devoted to the Fatherʼs will than Jesus, but nobody was more loved by the lost sinners than Jesus. Religious people didnʼt like Him, but sinners loved Him. That says a lot. We need to remember that the longer people are in church, they tend to become like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son. We need to be very cautious—we tend to become more like Pharisees than like Jesus in spirit and character. I think that happens in any denomination or tradition.

What are you hoping your legacy of leadership will be over the denomination?

If anything, I just hope I have been a good influence for people loving Jesus more than anyone and anything. And secondly, to be a good influence on reaching this world for Christ—especially in our global missions area—in a way that really moves the Church forward in that regard.

This interview is excerpted from an article in the February/March 2011 issue of Neue.

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