Changing culture leads to decline in Baptist revivalism, historians say

December 14, 2010

ATLANTA (ABP) -- The real culprit behind declining baptisms in the
Southern Baptist Convention might be youth soccer, says historian Bill
Leonard.

Because of nightly requirements for church-going families -- including
children's sports -- week-long and two-week revivals that were once a
mainstay of Baptist life are becoming a thing of the past, Leonard says
in the summer/fall 2010 issue of the journal Baptist History and Heritage.

Leonard, professor
of church history at Wake Forest University Divinity School, says
revival movements of the 19th and 20th centuries not only propelled
Baptists from a small sectarian community to America's second-largest
denomination but also had an impact on Sunday mornings.

Concepts like walking the aisle, surrendering to preach and rededicating
one's life to Christ, Leonard says, were all born in the revivalist
movements. That "liturgy of conversion" served generations of Baptists
as a mechanism for determining church membership.

As revivalistic techniques have waned in recent decades, Leonard says
Baptists, particularly in the South, have struggled to make their
evangelistic case and articulate a process of conversion that holds the
attention of the larger population.

Leonard cites several factors in the decline of the revival system.

One is the understanding of conversion itself. Leonard says as early as
the 1930s H. Richard Niebuhr criticized a "mechanical conception of
conversion" used more often "for enforcing prevailing standards" than
producing followers of Christ.

Another factor, Leonard says, is that more Baptist congregations have
turned to the nurture of persons in faith in ways that produce
alternative entry points to the Christian life. As the church and its
ministers assumed the role of spiritual mentors, the need for celebrity
evangelists diminished.

Leonard says that shift is behind a concern expressed in a 2008 article
in Baptist Press that blamed a "Bill Hybels-style of seeker-friendly
evangelism" for fewer evangelistic opportunities in local churches.

A third factor, Leonard says, is simply that the culture has changed.
"While revivals remain forceful in other cultures and some American
religious subcultures, the revival system has increasingly become the
exception, rather than the norm, in much evangelical life," he writes.

Leonard says many Baptists took a long time to realize that revivals
were not accomplishing what they once did. The practice of re-baptizing
church members, for example, spawned a class of evangelists known for
leading large numbers of congregants to doubt the validity of their
first profession of faith. Leonard surmises the phenomenon is either "a
terrible indictment" of earlier revival methods or "one way of propping
up the tradition."

Leonard predicts that Baptist congregations will continue to utilize
"event evangelism" in ways that mirror traditional revivals. Some
congregations continue to use traditional revival practices without
acknowledging their declining impact, he says, but that seems to be a
"dwindling constituency."

A larger question, Leonard says, is how Baptists will make their
evangelistic case amid the diversity of spiritualities and church models
in the larger culture. He says that might require "niche evangelism"
where clergy and laity actually listen to an increasingly secularized
and pluralistic culture rather than simply pointing the way.

In another article in the same issue, Loyd Allen, professor
of church history and spiritual formation at Mercer University's McAfee
School of Theology, argues that "revivalism is dead, or at least on
life support" among Baptists in North America. 

Allen blames a shift away from a "revivalist motif" that relied on a
high level of emotion in encouraging professions of faith to an
"intellectual conversion" that invites an individual to agree with a set
of certain beliefs.

While useful for restraining emotional excesses and aberrant beliefs in a
community of faith, Allen says, intellect alone "is woefully inadequate
to the task of preparing candidates for personal encounter with
Christ."

Baptist History and Heritage
is published three times a year by the Baptist History and Heritage
Society in Atlanta. The cost to subscribe is $40 per year for
individuals and $50 for institutions like libraries and churches in the
United States.