Reflecting on a Movement

In his classic work, The Lively Experience: The Shaping of Christianity in America, the renowned historian Sidney Mead defined a denomination as “a voluntary association of like-hearted and like-minded individuals, who are united on the basis of common beliefs for the purpose of accomplishing tangible and defined objectives.”

When Mead wrote those words in 1963, Protestant denominations in the U.S. were at the height of their influence and intactness. But by the late 1960s, the so-called “Mainline” denominations — among them the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ — began a steady decline that continues to this day, with “Mainlines” now estimated at some 13 percent of the American population.

A few years later (1972) in another classic text titled Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, author Dean Kelly wrote: “Amid the current neglect and hostility toward organized religion in general, the conservative churches, holding to seemingly outmoded theology and making strict demands on their members, have equaled or surpassed in growth the early percentage increases of the nation’s population.”


That was then; this is now. In American Grace (2010), sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell published statistics suggesting that American Evangelicals peaked in the 1990s at some 29 percent. More recent estimates from the Pew Research Center indicate that Evangelicals number around 23 percent, a figure indicating that while some conservative churches are still growing, others are less so.

The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant body, is a case in point, reporting precipitous declines in baptisms and church memberships for at least the last seven years.

A 2014 Christianity Today article by Kate Tracy noted: “In last year’s Annual Church Profile [2013], 60 percent of the more than 46,000 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) reported no youth baptisms (ages 12 to 17) in 2012, and 80 percent reported only one or zero baptisms among young adults (ages 18 to 29). One in four Southern Baptist churches reported zero baptisms overall in 2012, while the ‘only consistently growing’ baptism group was children under five years old.”

With declining worship attendance, aging constituency and diminishing baptismal statistics, the SBC often appears to share a demographic profile with Protestant Mainlines that many never dreamed possible. Recent downsizing by various SBC agencies reflects similar fiscal realities and actions across the American denominational spectrum.


These transitions did not begin overnight. Indeed, in American Mainline Religion (1987), Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney observed that even then fewer and fewer Americans perceived their primary religious identity in terms of a denomination. That trend continues unabated.

Not only has the non-denominationalizing of American religion become increasingly normative for independent or unaffiliated “fellowships” and community churches, but a growing number of denominationally aligned congregations now minimize or distance themselves from those traditional connections.

Denominational systems of every theological and historical stripe are restructuring, downsizing and reassessing identity, even as they continue to promote and encourage collective ministries among “like-minded and like-hearted individuals.”

Denominations are not vanishing, but they are clearly in a state of permanent transition, compelled to come to terms with ecclesiastical and demographic realities that can no longer be ignored. Once the primary way of organizing Protestant communions in the U.S., denominations are now only one of multiple options for shaping congregational distinctiveness, mission and ministry.


Enter the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). Founded 25 years ago (1991), the CBF began amid such transitions and their resulting tensions, commitments, uncertainties and possibilities.

Clearly, the CBF commenced as a result of a decade-long confrontation between so-called “Moderates” and “Conservatives” divided over Southern Baptist denominational theology, leadership, organization, and perhaps most importantly, identity.

The ultimate success of Conservatives in gaining majorities on SBC boards and agencies moved the Convention’s governance toward an assertively “confessional” identity — actions labeled a “takeover” by Moderates, and a “course correction” by Conservatives.

After the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans in 1990, a growing number of Moderates realized that the SBC was firmly under Conservative control, and that it was time to redirect their energies toward other spiritual, organizational and ministry-related endeavors.

A 1990 gathering in Atlanta set in motion preparations for the founding of the CBF in 1991. The beginning of the CBF was both organizational and pastoral.

Organizers shaped a movement that in many ways reflected two classic Baptist institutional options: the convention and the society methods.

Conventions (the traditional SBC model) were highly connectional systems for linking congregations in support of shared programs and ministries, while societies incorporated individuals and churches into common endeavors focused on specific types of ministry.

The society method permits CBF to develop relationships with, even fund, new ventures focusing on mission, publication, ethics, race, women in ministry and theological education. Convention-like focus offered a national framework, with links to state CBF organizations in a variety of states, largely in the American South, and connections with well-established entities such as the Baptist World Alliance, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the American Baptist Churches USA, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

At the same time, CBF began with an unabashed pastoral responsibility: to assist a group of people worn out from fighting what Nancy Ammerman called “Baptist Battles.” Having lost the “battle for the soul of the SBC,” many Baptists were trying to decide if and how to leave the faith community in which they had been nurtured, baptized, educated and motivated toward Christian living.


Twenty-five years later it is easy to forget the spiritual and emotional exhaustion experienced by a generation of persons impacted by the controversy. Like the Alliance of Baptists before it, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship became “a shelter for persons distressed of conscience,” as Roger Williams called the Rhode Island colony almost four centuries earlier.

Its pastoral response to those seeking a new and needed “shelter” should not be underestimated.

After 25 years, questions remain: Is CBF a “connected” denomination or an “adaptable” society? Is it simply a non-geographic Baptist association, or merely denomination-like?

Or, given the permanent transition sweeping American religion and culture, are those the most pressing questions?

Perhaps CBF has evolved into a movement that is fluid enough to reshape itself across decades of change in response to the institutional, ecclesiastical, fiscal, societal, creative and messy realities of Protestant church life in the U.S.

What new or continuing questions are worth considering in the movement’s 25th year? My list of questions and commentary is representative, not comprehensive:

Amid intensifying localism, can the CBF continue to encourage coalition building?

Seventeenth-century Baptists began with an emphasis on the “autonomy of the local congregation,” writing in one of their earliest confessions of faith (1611): “As one congregation hath Christ, so hath all.”

Yet they quickly formed “associational” coalitions for fellowship, dialogue and collective ministry. These days, church members (Baptists and others) tend to identify and engage with their local church long before (perhaps never) looking beyond it.

Likewise, as funding and/or constituents decline, churches are increasingly forced to channel their energy and their money toward the needs of their own congregation or local community. These realities intensify the need for CBF to persistently make its case as a viable coalition of Christians, linking churches and individuals in ministries alongside and beyond their own localism.

Truth be told, congregations need those coalitions to provide some of the same spiritual and communal opportunities that drew the earliest Baptists together: fellowship, community, identity and vision beyond themselves. Those coalitions are essential. If CBF should close down tomorrow, Progressive Baptists in the South and Southwest would need to start a new coalition the next day.

Can CBF continue, perhaps even expand, responses to the challenge of Baptist identity?

Across the last 25 years, one of the growing issues for many churches involved retaining or relinquishing the Baptist name, if not the Baptist identity. What “marks” of Baptist heritage are worth keeping, and what elements should be jettisoned?

What kind of Baptist identity (or identities) does CBF and its related churches represent? How does a “Believers’ Church” tradition continue to articulate a theology of religious experience, Christian community, and caring service to persons inside and outside the church?

How might CBF assist churches in rethinking and perhaps even reasserting Baptist ways of understanding scripture, faith, church, gospel, and mission within and among participating congregations?

As interest in Baptist identity wanes or creates uncertainty, CBF might well expand its long commitment to Baptist progressivism, a hospitable traditionalism that offers individuals and congregations a sense of identity, a place to stand — not to turn inward on themselves but outward on the world.

What ministry networks, old and new, might CBF assist its partner institutions in cultivating and engaging?

In an earlier era the SBC provided opportunities for particular forms of ecclesiastical, regional, and international networking among churches and agencies, clergy and laity, schools and service organizations. Ministers often attended state Baptist colleges and universities, then went to SBC-related seminaries, and developed personal and communal connections that served them throughout their lives.

Those networks, often with limited benefit to females or racial minorities, have essentially disappeared for those with CBF links. One of the Fellowship’s significant and continuing contributions remains its efforts to forge formal and informal relationships with other Baptist groups, ecumenical bodies and partner institutions.

If financial and organizational limitations continue, CBF and its partners will surely need to extend connections and shared ministries with groups such as the Progressive National Baptists, the American Baptist Churches, the Alliance of Baptists, and the New Baptist Covenant among others. Expanding these relationships also offers opportunity for increased national and international ministry, inter-racial cooperation and dialogue, and creative response to human need.

What new options will CBF explore for nurturing new generations, engaging them in a gospel for the future?

In both national and state organizations, CBF leadership has shown great intentionality in responding to new generations of Baptist clergy and laity through leadership programs, publications and student scholarships.

The increasing presence of younger constituents at CBF gatherings evidences the success of those efforts. These individuals are choosing to be Baptist at a time when they have multiple choices for expressing Christian commitments.

Their energies and their consciences reflect a wide spectrum of theological, spiritual, social and ethical concerns. Listening, and responding to their voices provides challenges and opportunities for the present and the future of the organization.

How might CBF assist its partners in responding to the growing number of “nones” in American society — those who claim no discernible religious affiliation?

Perhaps no more sobering reality has impacted overall church life in the last decade, with statistics suggesting that one in five Americans identifying as “nones,” a figure that drops to one in three Millennials, ages 18-35.

Indeed, some studies suggest that there are about as many “nones” (21 percent) as Evangelicals (23 percent) in contemporary America.

If traditional ways of communicating the Christian message are being ignored or undermined, how does the church make its case to those on the inside looking out and on the outside no longer looking in? When the church’s “witness” in the world is lost, forgotten, ignored or undermined, where will we go for help?

God grant that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will extend its efforts to provoke us toward that gospel, not only as “a shelter for persons distressed of conscience,” but as witnesses for justice, reconciliation and compassion at the heart of the Jesus story. NFJ

leonard_bill_optBy Bill J. Leonard

Bill J. Leonard holds the James and Marilyn Dunn Chair of Baptist Studies at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity where he was the founding dean.