Baptists planting roots in Balmer?

baltimorecityI'll admit right up front that my eyebrows arched way up when I saw that my local newspaper -- that would be the Baltimore Sun -- had published an A1 news feature on efforts by the Southern Baptist Convention to plant a circle of new churches in and around this unique urban environment that some call Charm City. I mean, the Sun has often struggled to get its religion-news act together on stories about Catholic events and trends, here in the heart of a heavily Catholic state called Maryland (yes, I know the origins of the state's name).

So I was very skeptical about this story and, thus, more than pleased when I finished reading it and had few complaints about the fairness and accuracy of the report. This is, in fact, the rare case in which I think the newspaper went too far out of its way to avoid critical language. The story could have used some constructive, fair voices from the religious left.

The heart of the story, however, is that these congregations are not -- in terms of style -- the Southern Baptist churches of old. The setting for the lede is a church-plant that is meeting in a coffee house, complete with free-trade French roast. It's called the Garden Community Church and the pastor is 28-year-old Joel Kurz.

That's interesting. I was left wondering, for example, if the word "Baptist" appears in the names of any of these congregations. In fact, was I wrong to assume that the word "church" is in the legal name? This generic-branding trend is a somewhat old, but still important, story on the religion-news beat.

Anyway, here's the heart of the report, in the transition out of the lede:

One of more than a dozen such startups in the area, the Garden Community is at the vanguard of a push by the Southern Baptist Convention into Baltimore, targeted as a "strategic focus city" by its North American Mission Board. Eleven churches have begun to hold worship services here in the last two years, two others are set to open in September, and organizers see as many as half a dozen more forming by the end of the year.

The new congregations are as varied as the neighborhoods in which they've settled. New Hope Community Church, which meets in a Curtis Bay recreation center flanked by bars on all four corners, serves breakfast before Sunday services and sends worshipers home with sandwiches afterward. The Light Church in Mount Vernon boasts a coffeehouse and art gallery. The Gallery Church in Charles Village holds a Saturday discussion group in an Irish bar.

The effort comes as the nation's largest Protestant body struggles to reverse a historic decline in membership. ... For the last decade, leaders of the traditionally rural denomination have been trying to reach beyond its Bible Belt stronghold and into the urban areas of the Northeast, Midwest and West -- regions where it may be better known for its socially conservative positions on abortion and homosexuality than for its spiritual beliefs, worship practices or good works.

It's been a long time since I was a Southern Baptist (I still speak the language), but I can assure you that "home mission" efforts in the mega-denomination have been focusing on big cities for a long, long time. I doubt that anyone in the SBC thinks they are going to get big numbers is urban areas. Unless ... Unless what? Unless these urban plants are part of the SBC's growing emphasis on ethnic and multiracial churches, an area in which the denomination is having modest success -- but more success than other American church bodies other than the Roman Catholic Church and the Assemblies of God.

Now, the Sun makes it sound like the SBC missions in the Baltimore area are all rather trendy and, to use an old term, Yuppie. Is that true? It would be nice to know what's happening -- or not happening -- with multiracial churches and ethnic churches, African-American, Hispanic, Korean and what not. Either way, it's an important piece of an urban-ministry story.

My other questions were more subtle, such as, "Where did these pastors go to seminary?" That often tells you quite a bit about the content of a denominational program. And how many of these church-plant converts are new Christians, as opposed to people who are former Catholics, former mainline Protestants, etc.? Just asking.

The piece does a much better job in dealing with the project's attempts to stress traditional Baptist efforts to do social ministry and missions, as well as to openly support traditional causes in terms of morality and culture. These Baptists want to be known as people who are for things, not just against things.

In May, members of the Garden Community walked what they called the Trail of Tears, visiting the sites of the five most recent murders in the neighborhood and stopping at each to lay a rose and pray for peace in the city. The church, which bills itself as a "creative community of Jesus followers," is gearing up to paint a local elementary school, mentor students and help their parents complete high school diplomas.

At the meeting in the brownstone, Kurz opened the New Testament to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans and spoke of the sacrifices made by the early Christians living in a hostile empire.

"We live in an empire as well," he said. "It's an empire of consumerism and I would say it's an empire of individualism. And the thing is that we end up giving in to the lie of the empire without even realizing it. Money, cash, becomes our god. Climbing the corporate ladder becomes our ministry. Wal-Mart is our worship center. It's OK to try to get all that we can for ourselves and walk over those who don't have anything and not reach out to help."

It's an interesting report, with holes that suggest news hooks for future reports. Baptists in Balmer. That's an interesting concept in and of itself. More info, please.

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