Northern exposure for Southern Baptists

The Northern Baptist Convention? As the Southern Baptist Convention faces declining membership and baptism numbers, a task force has drafted a resurgence plan.

Godbeat pro Bob Smietana of The Tennessean reported more than a month ago on the controversial proposal for revitalizing the nation's largest Protestant denomination. The basic idea: take millions of dollars now spent in Baptist strongholds in the South and divert the funds to domestic mission efforts in places such as the Northeast. (I should note that Southern Baptists have talked off and on about a name change that would better reflect the group as "a nationwide and worldwide body of believers.")

I hadn't seen any other mainstream media coverage of the ongoing Baptist funding debate until I came across a Wall Street Journal feature headlined "The Gospel Heads North." I've included a Google News link rather than a direct link to the story to avoid sending you to a subscriber-only version. Here's the top of the story, published last week:

WOODSTOCK, Ga. -- Some 2,000 people witnessed the weekend ordainment of four Southern Baptist ministers at a church here, including one man poised to voyage to the religious frontier of upstate New York.

"Jesus, I thank you...We sure need to win in that area of the country," boomed Johnny Hunt, the silver-haired pastor of the First Baptist Church of Woodstock, 30 miles north of Atlanta, during a rousing Sunday evening sermon here.

This region is the historical stronghold of the 165-year-old Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, with 16.3 million people.

But alarmed at declining baptisms and membership, the Nashville-based convention is gearing up to send waves of ministers such as Dean Mabry, the New York-bound minister, money and "church planters" -- who start churches from scratch -- west and northeast to convert the "lost."

Now, I've got to give the writer credit for a nice turn of phrase with "the religious frontier of upstate New York." Then again, I'd give extra credit if the story included actual reporting on the religious makeup of upstate New York. Unfortunately, it doesn't.

Hunt, the pastor quoted in the second paragraph, is not just silver-haired, by the way. He's also the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention. But the story never mentions him again. And never mentions his key role among 16.3 million Baptists. That strikes me as a strange omission, particularly since you'd have to think that's what drew the Journal to that particular church.

Given the quote marks around "church planting" and "lost," I was a bit surprised that "rousing Sunday evening sermon" didn't get the same treatment (although I would like to know what made the sermon "rousing"). In all seriousness, it seems to me that flagging such terms simply slows down the story and doesn't do anything to help the reader. If the writer is concerned the reader won't understand the term, then explain it -- or use a different, less churchy word.

Overall, the story does a nice job of framing the debate over diverting funds to new areas vs. funding programs in the South where Baptists already are strong:

The Kentucky Baptist Convention stands to lose $1.6 million it now receives from the cooperative program each year for ministries aimed at literacy work and meal programs, says Mr. Mackey. He says the Kentucky convention would still fund the programs, but it would be a struggle.

"It would devastate us," Sammy Gilbreath, evangelism director for the Alabama Baptist Convention, said in the convention-owned newspaper, mailed to 100,000 Baptists, last month. At stake is $644,000 for Hispanic ministries, hospital chaplains and more, he wrote in the newspaper.

Some Midwest rural pastors fear they'll be left out, too. Bob Mills, executive director of the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists, says he could lose funding for food pantries at a time when the charities are struggling to keep pace with demand.

But while it grasps the numerical challenges facing Southern Baptists, the piece fails to demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of evangelical culture. For instance, is it really noteworthy that a large Baptist church has baptismal attire ready in case it's needed?:

The church holds t-shirts, shorts, jogging bras and hair dryers, should anyone spontaneously decide during a service to be baptized in a three-foot deep tank.

One thing that I wish the Journal had done -- and The Tennessean too -- was to examine the Baptist numbers in the context of a post-denominational society. How much of the Baptist decline is a result of failures on the denomination's part? And how much relates to a cultural shift that has touched a number of other Christian groups as well?

Also, the church planting trend could be put into a larger context that might be relevant to more readers. The Associated Press, for example, reported late last year on evangelical efforts targeting New England:

Several groups trying to re-ignite New England's faith are theologically conservative, such as the Southern Baptists, Presbyterian Church in America and the Conservative Baptists' Mission Northeast. They say a reason for the region's hollowed-out faith is a pervasive theology that departs from traditional Biblical interpretation on issues such as the divinity of Jesus, the exclusivity of Christianity as a path to salvation and homosexuality.

The Rev. Wes Pastor, head of the NETS Institute for Church Planting in Williston, Vt., said New England's liberal mainline denominations, such as the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church, have been practicing a "different religion."

"I'm not saying it to be snooty, but they have a different belief system and that belief system ... is a profound departure from historic Christianity," said Pastor, whose group trained Bass and supports his Baptist church.

As other reporters tackle the Southern Baptists' debate in advance of the denomination's annual meeting in June, I'd love to see the bigger questions with wider implications explored.

Please respect our Commenting Policy