By Rick McClatchy
My father is an eighty-four year old rancher who is always looking for better ways to do things. He is the first generation of ranchers to take conservation of the land very seriously. Prior generations simply took from the land all they could with out trying to put anything back into the long-term care of the land.
Often after getting all they could from the land, they would simply move on to areas that people had not settled yet. My father realized a new way had to be found to manage the land, which kept it at its highest productivity year after year.
There was no more unsettled land to move to. My father realized this, and my grandfather should have realized this too and changed, but he didn’t. My grandfather was part of a generational mentality that always thought you could keep moving west, like previous generations had practiced. Of course my grandfather knew there was no more moving west, like his father had done, but he could not imagine another way of farming and ranching.
My father did imagine another way of ranching and farming, and much of the credit for keeping the ranch financially viable is due to the conservation practices he followed. He knew that the practice of stripping everything from the land, as my grandfather had done, was at an end.
Now this insight that change was essential for progress was deeply implanted into my thinking. Unfortunately, by placing a high value upon change as essential for progress, I could not have selected a worse calling to follow than working as a Baptist minister to white southern churches.
The general mentality of a conservative church in the South is that change is bad and that faithful Christians must fight to keep themselves pure and un-defiled by the changes in society. An attitude formed not so much from a desire for purity, but a reaction to outsiders who made them change by first freeing their slaves and later by desegregating their society. They would never admit this now of course, but study the history of the South and one will soon find a deep and pervasive racism.
All who failed to espouse the traditional conservative theology or religious practices were considered suspect and threat to the established social and church order.
This mentality of no change in Southern religion of course, means that these churches are going to be ill-equipped to face the new post-modern, global culture that is emerging in North America. Even the researchers for the Southern Baptists have acknowledged that among young millennials, those born between 1980-2000, that only 6% would be considered conservative evangelicals.
Perhaps, the most significant challenge for southern churches will be to formulate a postmodern theology. In addition, the immigration to the United States of people who do not fit the white conservative profile will pose real problems for southern white churches. The southern church will need to learn how to engage in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue with these new immigrants.
All major traditions of Christianity in the U.S. will have to make these radical changes too, but I think that the conservative southern church with its aversion to deep substantive change will have major problems making these changes. If churches refuse to make radical changes, then by the end of this century it is very possible that less than a quarter of the American population will be Christian. This is not a future for American Christianity that I’m willing to passively accept.
Change is essential. It is a truth that I learned at my father’s feet, and I will always be an advocate for progressive change.
Rick McClatchy serves as the field coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas.