Baptist takes on the emerging church

ST. LOUIS – For Roger Moran, the most powerful Baptist in Missouri, the past represents victory and personal grace.

He has spent nearly a decade building a political Baptist empire, one based on a conservative foundation that he put in place.

But when talk turns to the future – specifically, the future of the Missouri Baptist Convention – Moran is suddenly an Old Testament prophet of doom.

His target: a young band of moderate Christians that he believes is trying to steal back the convention, undercutting his empire. It’s a growing movement he’d like to see disappear.

“You begin to see this new generation of moderates rising up and giving cover to the more liberal factions of this movement,” Moran says. “And the point I’m trying to make is, `Folks, this thing is coming in under the radar.'”

This “thing,” according to Moran, is the emerging church – a term that has come to define a broad swath of churches that attract younger Christians by tapping into a secular culture. The movement – which promotes alternative ways of attracting young people, including rock music and alcohol – makes traditional Christian leaders nervous.

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What’s at stake, at least in Moran’s mind, is the future of the Baptist church in Missouri. In a recent public speech, he declared the Missouri Baptist Convention “on the brink of a civil war.”

Proponents of the emerging church say such rhetoric will only further alienate young people. Moran and other strict conservatives, they say, are blind to the future of the faith.

This much is clear: Moran is escalating his decade-long battle against what he calls “moderate” Baptists.

The Missouri Baptist Convention is the state arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States with 16.5 million members. In Missouri, the state convention represents 600,000 Baptists.

Moran is one of three Missouri representatives on the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and last month, he took his pleas to Nashville, Tenn., where the denomination is based.

The emerging church is “one of the most dangerous and deceptive movements to infiltrate the ranks of Southern Baptist life,” he told the executive committee.

The Rev. Darrin Patrick, pastor of the emerging church in St. Louis called The Journey, says Moran’s kind of theology is only driving away young Christian leaders.

“When you’re stricter than God about what he commands and permits, younger pastors are not going to play ball,” Patrick said. “They’re not going to take one for the denomination.”

Moran, a boyish-looking 50-year-old father of nine and the owner of a trailer manufacturing company in Winfield, revolutionized the Missouri Baptist Convention from 1998 to 2003.

With an old-fashioned political strategy of knocking on church doors, speaking at church rallies and making phone call after phone call to pastors, Moran orchestrated a conservative takeover of the organization, which has remained in control ever since.

Nearly 2,100 churches across the state are affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention. The churches give money annually to the organization to disperse for various outreach and missionary efforts.

Moran is not a minister, so unlike most church leaders, his power does not come from the pulpit. Instead, Moran’s influence comes from his knowledge of the way the Missouri Baptist Convention is set up. During his revolution, Moran ensured his allies were strategically positioned to appoint other, like-minded Baptists to positions of influence within the convention.

Those cast aside in the takeover say Moran is a destructive force who puts his fundamentalist theology above unity.

The Rev. David Johnson, pastor of Overland Baptist Church, said his board voted last year to cut its ties with the Missouri Baptist Convention after 58 years rather than have to deal with Moran’s politics.

Moran “is definitely the most powerful and influential figure in the Missouri Baptist Convention in the last 15 years,” Johnson said.

Recent evidence of Moran’s power came last fall, when 19 of the convention’s Baptist churches were thrown out for donating money for mission work to Baptist organizations outside the Southern Baptist Convention. In 2005, Missouri church leaders had voted to end the traditional practice of allowing multiple affiliations, leading to the purge of the 19 churches last fall.

Sitting in his office at Moran Welding Inc. recently, Moran held up a document, the words of which guided his five-year campaign.

“Resolution No. 8: On Holiness and Cultural Forces of Influence,” was adopted by the Missouri Baptist Convention in the fall of 2004. It set out Moran’s belief that the secular world was dangerous to Christian souls and was encroaching from more directions than ever before.

Resolution No. 8 is as relevant now as it was a decade ago, Moran said, because of the emerging church.

Moran is especially worried about Acts 29, a network of about 90 emerging churches across the country. One member, The Journey, is a successful, socially moderate, theologically conservative church in St. Louis that has ties to both the Missouri and Southern Baptist conventions.

The Journey doesn’t consider itself Baptist and calls itself “inter-denominational,” but in 2005 it borrowed $200,000 from the Missouri Baptist Convention to help buy and renovate a former Catholic church in south St. Louis. The church holds one of its outreach ministries at the Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood, where theological conversations take place at the bar, sometimes over beers.

In December, Moran began publicly questioning The Journey’s loyalty to Baptist doctrine.

Most Southern Baptists oppose the consumption of alcohol, and Moran has seized on the issue of beer in the emerging church as proof that a younger generation will compromise established doctrine to attract souls.

Moran also is worried that his promise to conservative Baptists during his rise to power is beginning to show some wear. He promised his allies they would enjoy a prolonged era of control.

“So all these churches, all these pastors that I went around saying all this stuff to, it now kind of looks like I reneged,” he said.

But the emerging church has made other Southern Baptist leaders nervous as well, said Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest Divinity School.

“The Southern Baptist Convention is growing increasingly terrified that they’ve spent all this time recreating the denomination in this (conservative) image, and now nobody cares,” he said. “Young seminarians are challenging them on issues and saying, `Your vision of reality is not ours.'”

Patrick, pastor of The Journey, said Moran had never called or approached him to talk about the issues.

“He has no desire to understand,” Patrick said. “He just wants to antagonize. That’s the heart of the problem, and it’s unbiblical.”

Moran acknowledges that what emerging churches offer is attractive to young people.

“What we’ve got now is a church where you can drink beer in the bar, you can talk about rock `n’ roll, you can watch R-rated movies on film night,” he said.

Moran believes that some in the emerging church may be theologically sound but that its leaders are caught up in the culture that is leading most Americans astray.

“They say they have a passion for reaching people for Christ … and I think that they do,” he said. “But I think they cross the line in becoming so much like the world.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
St. Louis Post Dispatch, via the Belleville News-Democrat, USA
Apr. 4, 2007
Tim Townsend

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This post was last updated: Apr. 4, 2007