By Jenny Lee
DALLAS – In response to recent studies revealing a decrease in Christians among the United States population, Baptist historian Bill Leonard reports that there is “more good news than bad” in his Friday at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly.
Leonard is the Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and Church History at the Wake Forest School of Divinity. The workshop was entitled “Beyond Protestant Privilege: A Renewed Gospel in Secular America.”
After discussing statistics released in May 2015 from Pew Research Center, Leonard outlined the decline of the privileged position long held by Protestants in the U.S. He attributed this shift to the loss of denominational identity, the “Changing Sociology of Sunday,” pluralism, secularism, and the “Conversion Crisis” of Protestants.
Leonard explained that Sunday “has become an occasion for multiple responsibilities and actions.” “One word,” he said, “soccer.” As culture shifts away from protecting the hours traditionally given to Sunday morning worship, church attendance becomes a lower priority.
Moreover, as church attendance declines, the life-long discipleship of those growing up in the church is no longer occurring, he said. “Children,” Leonard explained, “are not being brought in the rhythms of Christianity.” Furthermore, the revivals of past decades are “no longer viable entry points” into Christianity.
When asked by a workshop participant about flashy, multi-media worship experiences, Leonard explained that these function as modern-day revivals. He remarked that many may outgrow those modes of worship, saying, “If religious experience is ongoing, then they may get an entry point they may not end up with.”
He also explained that in a post-Protestant era, messages may be misinterpreted. “What sounds like conviction in your pulpit can sound like bigotry on CNN,” Leonard warned. “We’re really on the edge of a new phase in the culture war.”
“Denominations are not the only game in town for organizing around religion,” Leonard noted. In response to the cultural shifts at hand, Leonard recommended that churches become “lean, loose, fluid and [have] conviction enough to let their identity take shape.”
Despite the seemingly grim outlook for American Christianity, Leonard offered a way forward for Christians. “The Kingdom of God has come near you,” Leonard quoted from Luke 10:9, suggesting churches use the passage as a model for moving forward.
Leonard encouraged churches to embrace new means of determining and shaping identity. “Let’s not begin with Nicodemus and being born again. Let’s begin with calling,” he suggested. He directed churches to reconsider and expand conversion, using scripture as the model.
Ministers and lay leaders ought to create “multiple possibilities of encounters with grace, not salvific transactions,” Leonard recommended.
One way of creating encounters with grace, he explained, would be to develop new sacramental moments in the life of the church. These acts “develop identity,” Leonard said.
He also referred to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Walter Rauschenbusch as guides moving forward.
Leonard closed his presentation by directing workshop participants to read aloud a Walter Rauschenbusch quote, “The essential thing in [the Kingdom of God] is the projection into the future of the demand for a just social order.”
To keep up with news, photos and videos from the 2015 CBF General Assembly in Dallas, Texas, please visit www.cbf.net/Dallas2015.