One may as well write the hard part on Saturday as on Monday.
If, as I opine, the (relatively) aged religious institutions of sacred life (the larger ones, not the local ones) seem inert, why is it they are dying and what is it that keeps them breathing (if gasping) for the moment?
For the death knell, we previously mentioned generational shifts, the institutional fatigue brought on by appeal to baser instincts and the policy changes adumbrated by deep philosophical changes in the constituent bodies. There is something else robbing the old institutions of air.
Let me be characteristically blunt here. As some local congregations are dying because they are led (and so defined) by their lunatic extremes. so it is that various older large bodies suffer because they are defined by their extremes. In Texas, in particular, if you are a convention baptist (there are many other kinds of baptists) you are defined now by your obeisance to one extreme or the other. If you wish to inhabit the center, you are just out of luck. The office holders and the job seekers want to know your party affiliation; to know Jesus as Savior and read the scripture faithfully is simply not enough.
You would like something other when you bother to think about it but, frankly, it is not worth the exertion to correct and your attention span is better used on your daily sports or reality show fix. When you go to worship you listen only for a few buzz words to indicate you are in a comfortable spot.
This changes only when someone you care about is harmed by one group or the other. Then, you are horrified to find one or the other of the extremes magnificently entrenched in office. The poor lout you confront may be hardly able to read or write but he can swear allegiance to power faster than you can sigh exasperatedly and walk away, checkbook now firmly snapped shut.
The group with which you once identified is now run by one or other of the lunatic fringes. Conform or depart. More and more are departing.
If it is that more and more are departing, what are the elements keeping alive the larger structures?
I have suggested it is because they cannot just die. They can be strangled, slowly, and finally be killed, but they cannot just die. Apparently, they cannot reform, either.
The reform that might give them new life is made impossible by the corporate, chartered nature of the giant groups. They cannot die, not do right, because to do so would violate their corporate charter. From time to time they even do some good in isolated spots and this is given as justification for their existence but it is the very fact that their good is remarkable that makes it damnable. Millions of dollars should not be required for a thimble full of good works but the wrong doing is protected by charter.
No? Then call the office of the nearest large group and ask for a copy of their budget. If you can get it, then figure out how much money was spent on ministry and how much it cost to funnel that meager portion to ministries. You will be appalled.
Then, after the corporate explanation, one can make a good argument the larger groups exist because of the ripple effect. Once, the larger bodies existed in great part to serve as a centralized office for fund distributions. No one recipient got all the money because they could afford a better speaker or make a better deal. The rock (money) bit one spot in the pool (convention) and ripples spread; to colleges, orphanages, associations, et al.
Sadly, over the years, centralized authority became the focus, rather than outer rim of the ripples, where the local bodies expended their energies and resources in ministry. One does not actually get money from a convention of churches because a convention of churches cannot produce money. Conventions can only collect and disburse but when they do it appears the money comes from the authority, rather than from the local bodies.
So, it comes to appear the local bodies would suffer terribly without the presence of the central authority. I suggest the immediate defunding of the central authority would not depreciate the life of the local congregations. We will see the truth of this assertion proved out over the next few years, as more local congregations emulate the funding formula of the mega-congregations, to which the smaller congregations are too often unfavorably compared.
In fact, younger pastors have figured out the game already. They are refusing to be defined as cooperative on the basis of the amount of the money they send to a an anomalous central authority.
So, the greater life support element for the larger bodies starts to vanish. That is, the place where things exist just because they exist is ending. Existence is not enough reason to be any longer.
In our next post, I will try to hold out some hope for actual cooperative ministry. What I propose will require a longer attention span and some exertion. We have no money but we really do not need much to start. In fact, if a central authority works correctly for its local congregations, it will not be a predator.
There is a way to defend cooperative ministry. It is just not the status quo ante.