Monday, September 21, 2009

Bill Leonard: Baptists must find new ways to express ideals

This is good---thanks Vick:
Leonard: Baptists must find new ways to express ideals
By Robert Dilday & Ken Camp
Published: July 07, 2009

HOUSTON (ABP)—Baptist denominational systems across the United States are in transition and being redefined, spawning a number of issues that are complicating and clouding the Baptist landscape, Bill Leonard told a group of Associated Baptist Press supporters.

And those issues have implications for communicators who “write, blog and broadcast for and about Baptists in the years ahead,” said Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Leonard spoke at the annual “Friends of ABP” dinner, held in conjunction with the general assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

“The once-formidable Baptist presence in the United States retains its significant numerical dominance in American Protestantism, but the demographics ... reflect a denomination in a considerable decline, torn by internal controversies on one side and megachurch competition on the other, held together by an aging constituency, faltering finances and turbulent identity crises,” said Leonard.

Shaken by the changing nature of religious life in 21st century American culture, Baptist systems are “coming apart, being re-defined, in dynamic transition, disconnecting, in disarray, being reclaimed, collapsing or experience unending schism,” he added.

Among the indicators:

• Transitions in American—and Southern—culture are now “normative” in Baptist communities. “A new generation of Baptist clergy and laity find themselves working and worshiping together in new and creative ways in changing neighborhoods, interracial marriage, community organizing and of course the election of President Obama,” said Leonard.

• Denominations—including Baptist ones—matter less and less to religious Americans. “Both the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Churches this very year were given new proposals for reorganizing cumbersome denominational structures that inhibit rather than enable ministry possibilities and funding realities,” said Leonard. Baptist churches and their associated networks have settled into a “de facto society method not unlike that of earlier Baptist organizations.”

• Most moderate Baptist organizations—including the Alliance of Baptists, the CBF and Texas Baptists Committed—have “reached a plateau numerically and financially.”

• Many Baptist churches are “renegotiating their ‘Baptistness’ and their connections with old denominational identities.” Technological changes increasingly allow local congregations to function effectively without relying on denominational resources. “Some Baptists, left and right of center, observe that ‘brand-name’ religion no longer attracts.”

• Because Baptists under the age of 45 are unfamiliar with intact denominational systems, they increasingly reject sectarian divisions for a generic Christianity that is “part denominational, part contemporary church, part emerging church, part postmodern church,” he said. “If Baptist identity is to be carried beyond mid-century, it must be reasserted and reinterpreted and reformed immediately.”

• Years of controversy about the Bible and control have left other theological problems unexamined, said Leonard. “Obsession with theories of biblical authority ... have often obscured serious questions of ... how the text is interpreted,” he said. And developments in evangelistic theology have left “many Baptists uncertain as to what conversion means, how it is experienced and what is the most effective means for declaring the gospel.”

Those indicators of Baptist transition could evoke several responses from the denomination’s adherents, noted Leonard. Baptists might:

• Choose between their heritage of dissent or their more recent role as upholders of the establishment. “Many conservative Baptists cannot seem to decide if they are dissenters, standing against the secularism that they believe to be the unofficial religious establishment of an increasingly anti-religious nation, or establishmentarians, demanding a certain kind of religious privilege for their way of believing in a historically ‘Christian’ nation,” said Leonard. “Moderate/liberal Baptists are so uncertain about their past and future that they can’t seem to decide what, when or if to protest anything at all.”

• Find in their history keys to responding to a postmodern world. “In a sense, our (Baptist) forebears invented pluralism; they helped invent congregational localism; they understood conversion as linking God’s story with each individual’s story and linking it to a community of stories, made public in a healing, cleansing ritual. Can you be more postmodern than that?” asked Leonard.

• Recast their idea of religious pluralism and how to engage it. “Pluralism does not mean ... a blending of religious traditions in some nebulous attempt at tolerance,” said Leonard. “Yet pluralism may force us to ask what we mean by the nature of our witness and the tone of our voice.”

• Respond to the “connectionalism of media—a communications network that reconnects old communities and facilitates new ones,” said Leonard. “Efforts by ABP to anticipate these changes and move toward a multimedia approach are to be complimented and must move ahead with haste.”

• Learn to live out a “responsibility of the minority”—something Baptists worldwide have known for four centuries, said Leonard. “We have an opportunity to recover a lost witness in a society where our voice may not be privileged but it must be heard, where we rediscover the power of witness in a society ... that pays less and less attention.”

Earlier in the day, Leonard had touched on some of the same themes in a workshop on 400 years of Baptist history he led in tandem with James Dunn, resident professor of Christianity and public policy at Wake Forest School of Divinity.

(Read more: Here).

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