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It's Time to Change the Conversation


Missions Director James Forlines encourages readers to consider the impact of their speech.

It's time to change the conversation

By James Forlines


USA Today published a startling article on the state of religion in America in the March 9, 2009 issue. In the article, “Redrawing the map of American Religion,” Cathy Lynn Grossman reported on the results of a recent ARIS survey (American Religious Identification Survey).

By almost any measure, the number of Christians is declining in the United States. Despite the fact that 50 million immigrants have entered the US since 1990, almost all religious denominations have lost ground in the last 19 years. The percentage of those who identify themselves as Baptist now stands at 15.8%, down from 19.3% in 1990. Do we doubt the same is true among Free Will Baptists?

No area of the country is immune. The author cites the specific example of South Carolina. Since 1990, Protestants have fallen from 88% to 73% of the state’s population. The new category nones (people who reply none when asked, “What is your religious identity?”) have grown from 3% to 10% in 19 years, in the Bible belt of South Carolina!

Whether these statistics create disquiet in our souls or simply confirm what we already sensed happening around us, how should we respond be to this undeniable trend? Though many responses are warranted, I believe one is a crying need for Free Will Baptists. We must change our conversation!

What does that mean? For the better part of my life, Free Will Baptists have spent an inordinate amount of conversation on what divides us—what makes us different from each another. We settle on a point of difference, gather with others who agree, and then talk “about” the group with whom we do not agree (rather than talking to them). In all of this, we act as though our fellow believers are the enemy.


Consequences of Careless Conversation

Not only does this run contrary to the biblical model of how to treat a brother, it is a self-defeating strategy when facing the real enemy. What are the debilitating effects of these conversations?

  • First, it takes time and energy that would be better spent on evangelism and church planting. This is true both of those who go on the offensive and those who have to defend. We must ask ourselves, “Is this issue worth distracting my attention from my primary duty to win souls?”

  • Second, it unnecessarily labels brother as enemies in a day when groups like the Wiccan cult are growing exponentially, and many view religion itself as irrelevant. In the article, Grossman gets to the heart of the matter as it relates to Evangelicals when she says, “It’s about gay marriage and abortion and stem cells and the family. If a personal God says, ‘Thou shalt not’ or ‘Thou shalt’ see these a certain way, you’d take it very seriously. Meanwhile, three in 10 people aren’t listening to that God.” Is it not time to change our conversation? Are we the enemy? Really?

  • Third, it divides the body at a time we need to be united. We are immersed in a cultural war for the soul of our nation and the souls of its people. Having a common enemy causes us to marshal resources, focus our energy, remove distractions, and, as a result, create a powerful unity. We must realize that our enemy has already done so—to us! When he surveys the enemy territory, guess what he sees? Us—all of us! He does not allow himself to be distracted by the things we have chosen to divide over. We may be fragmented, but he does not see it that way. We are all in his crosshairs.


In the Crosshairs

If you believe the fundamentals of the Faith that have been passed down to us, I do not believe he cares whether you sing hymns, choruses, praise songs, or contemporary Christian music in your church. You are a target! The same goes for the version of the Bible you use, what college you attended, or any number of secondary issues—yes, secondary issues.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not asking you to change anything you do in your church, nor do I have the right to do so. The wonderful thing about congregational church government is that each congregation can adopt their worship and operational policies as they feel the leading of the Holy Spirit. And they should do so with zeal and zest!

The truth is we all need to encourage one another. Gatherings of Free Will Baptists should be one place that, regardless of stylistic or philosophical differences, we are encouraged in our efforts to face the enemy toe to toe, knowing our brother has our back.

This is not only a good idea; it is critical. We can no longer afford to waste the energy we have unwisely spent discrediting other brothers and sisters. We only have a few years on this side of eternity to do something that will matter forever. Souls headed to a Christ less eternity hang in the balance. Our children and grandchildren are counting on us to pass to them something that is alive, vibrant, and powerful.

I am neither utopian nor naïve, just passionately committed. I realize some people who read this will still believe they should concentrate their energies on pointing out philosophic or ministry differences, perhaps even with this article or the writer. They may feel honor and duty bound to do so. I respect their right but ask respectfully if that is good stewardship. As for me, I am going to turn my attention to the enemy who targets both of us.


About the Writer: James Forlines is general director of Free Will Baptist International Missions. Read part two of “It’s Time to Change the Conversation” in the October-November issue of ONE Magazine. Read more about the ministry of the National Association of Free Will Baptists at


©2009 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists