Sunday, January 08, 2006

Can the ABCUSA be Saved?

A lenghty conversation I had with an unnamed ABFMS (American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, the legal name of the Board of International Ministries) missionary this week, along with some chats with members of my church got me thinking: is it still possible to save the ABCUSA?

Readers of Durable Data will realize that I have predicted and at times called for the end of the ABCUSA as we know it. Yet I still believe that it is possible to save the ABC. It would require a level of vision and self-sacrifice on the part of the Valley Forge elite which I doubt they are capable of, but it can be done.

How? In two words, radical decentralization. This is much as the ABC of Michigan proposed: go to a pre-1907 configuration of regions, societies (such as ABFMS) and churches. Recall that in the 19th century, most Baptist churches in the north worked through loosely associated societies for missions, church planting and benevolence until the formation of the Northern Baptist Convention in 1907. Prior to 1907, Baptists in the north related to one another via fellowship and mission, with the association being the key unit of contact.

1907 was the beginning of a gradual process of centralization of program. The societies were gradually "tamed" under the Office of the General Secretary. The ABCUSA was established as a respectible mainline denomination--a terrible thing for the rowdy spirit of the people called Baptists.

What could be done now? I have some specific suggestions:

1. Abolish the Office of General Secretary. A good first step would be the resignation of the current occupant of that office and the appointment of a trusted figure to undersee the dismantlement of the Valley Forge apparatus. I suggest John Sundquist.

2. Liberate the program boards. The ABFMS, MMBB, and what we now call National Ministries (the American Baptist Home Mission Society) would become free-standing parachurch missions organizations.

3. Abolish the General Board. It is entirely unnecessary.

4. Abandon the body of useless and foolish policy statements that have been filling up the filing cabinets at the Valley Forge HQ for the last generation.

5. Sell the Valley Forge HQ and use the money for world missions and church planting. Encourage the program board offices to relocate in less expensive areas of the country. For example, we could put ABFMS in suburban Chicago and ABHMS in Colorado Springs. MMBB is already in New York. Maybe a revived educational board could find a home in the west--say, Phoenix or Las Vegas.

Will these things happen? Well, in my dreams. I don't know of anyone in Valley Forge who has the courage to make this happen. But this, I think, is the only way to save the ABC.

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