The Church of Whatever

For years, Nashville has sort of played for Southern Baptists the role that Rome plays for Roman Catholics.

The pastor of Nashville's 175-year-old First Baptist Church doesn't just lead a tall-steeple church -- he fills a symbolic role in America's largest non-Catholic flock. So it raised eyebrows at Nashville's "Baptist Vatican" when the news spread that the Rev. Dan Francis was leaving his 2,400-member church to start a mission.

"The senior pastor of a First Baptist church isn't supposed to go build a new church from scratch," he admitted.

That wasn't all. This suburban mission in booming Brentwood will be "seeker-friendly," using interactive media, pop music, film and drama. And while the mission committee hasn't chosen a name, it has decided that the sign out front will not say "Baptist."

"That was never an issue," said Francis. "We're just not going to put words like `Southern Baptist' in our name. We don't want to set up that kind of denominational barrier. That would only keep us from reaching unchurched people."

Growing numbers of clergy in Baptist, evangelical and even oldline Protestant churches are reaching the same conclusion. It's hard to pin a statistic on the number of new nondenominational or marginally denominational churches, but it's impossible to miss the trend. Rigid structures, such as America's more liberal mainline churches, are in decline. Groups with highly flexible structures, such as the Southern Baptists, are seeing more churches snip away the ties that bind.

"Denominations are imploding, some faster than others," said Baptist historian Bill Leonard, who leads the religion department at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. "We're raising a generation of leaders that simply don't believe that their primary religious identity is tied to words like `Southern Baptist.' "

Generic church names are merely one sign of a post-denominational age, he said. Others include:

  • Parachurch groups, such as Focus on the Family and Promise Keepers, continue to grow. Similar groups seem to form every day, offering ministries that often undercut local-church support for older programs offered by denomination bureaucracies.
  • More people are serving in short-term mission projects, often organized by local churches, across the United States and around the world. Decreasing support for church hierarchies is forcing cuts in many traditional missions programs.
  • Desk-top publishing and the Internet is changing the shape of religious education, giving more power to entrepreneurs and bleeding power from old church corporations. Soon, church leaders of all stripes will use the World Wide Web to find materials they believe will fit the precise needs of their local congregations.
  • Seminaries everywhere are under siege. Critics say they are too expensive and produce men and women who can read academic papers, but can't read the writing on a local-church wall. Also, denominational civil wars have led to the birth of numerous smaller seminaries. Technological changes -- computers, again -- are making it easier to operate branch campuses. Old networks are dying.

Like everyone else in American church life, those who huddle under an "Authenticus Baptistus" banner must realize that they are now an endangered species, said the Rev. Russell Dilday, a veteran Baptist seminary leader, during a speech last summer. The bottom line: baby boomers reject brand names.

"They prefer the Church in the Wildwood or on the Parking Lot, or the Church of Willow Back or Saddle Creek," said Dilday, playing around with the names of several influential megachurches.

Meanwhile, back in Nashville, Francis is wrapping up his work at First Baptist and prepping for March 17 "core group" meetings that will begin the countdown to the mission's fall launch. The 43-year-old pastor has spent many days reflecting on the process that led to this leap. It's all a matter of priorities, he said.

"We're not going to be a nondenominational church. We'll be Southern Baptist in what we teach. Everybody knows that," he said. "But, you know, I cannot fathom the logic of starting a church for denominational reasons. Why would anyone want to do that?"