On one level, there's much to like about a recent Washington Post takeout on a white Southern Baptist church that gave way to an Arabic congregation.
To its credit, the 3,000-plus-word piece out of Murfreesboro, Tenn., south of Nashville, is filled with nice color and detail:
Attendance at the Southern Baptist church on Scenic Drive had dwindled to about 15 most Sundays. The potted plant by the pulpit was from yet another member’s funeral. There was $5,000 in the church bank account and $6,000 in bills when Larry Montgomery, a deacon, reached a conclusion once unthinkable in the heart of the Bible Belt.
“We’re just not going to make it,” he announced to the members of Scenic Drive Baptist, and then he told them he might have found a solution.
There was another congregation, he said, a small one that had been meeting in living rooms and whose pastor carried business cards that quoted from John 4:35: “Look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” Maybe they wanted to buy the church.
And so phone calls were placed, and a few days later, the prospective buyers held a prayer meeting about what to do.
“Abuna Semawi, nashkurak,” the pastor began in Arabic. “Heavenly Father, we thank you.”
Even Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., tweeted a link to the piece and complimented it:
With apologies to the Post and Mohler, however, I thought this "really sweet story" fell short of the mark journalism-wise.
This story, it seems to me, succeeds as a case study of one specific situation.
But when the Post attempts to place this scenario into the bigger picture of the Southern Baptist Convention, it makes a lot of assumptions, generalizations and unattributed "factual" statements that I wish an editor had questioned.
Let's break down the background provided by the Post — one paragraph at a time:
Not long ago, none of this would be happening. There would be no dying traditional Southern Baptist church and no Arab Southern Baptist congregation to buy it. There would be none of that, because old-line Southern Baptist churches anchored practically every big city and little country town in the South, their oak pews filled with believers in eternal salvation through the blood of Jesus and the rest of what it meant to be good Christian Southerners: missionary training, handbells, casseroles for the homebound.
A Southern Baptist leader who read the story told me in an email: "There have been dying Southern Baptist churches for as long as there have been Southern Baptists. Congregations have life cycles."
That same leader said: "The rest is a bit stereotypical, but not terribly inaccurate. I don't know what 'old-line' means." The 'old-line' description threw me, too.
In particular, they have been the church of the conservative white South, the people the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to persuade in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the people whom GOP operatives knew they must mobilize at election time. If a poll referred to “white evangelical Christians,” that largely meant Southern Baptists.
The Southern Baptist leader: "Southern Baptists make up a fraction of 'white evangelical Christians,' less than 20 percent."
According to the Pew Research Center, evangelical Protestants comprise 25.3 percent of the nation's population — roughly one in five of them identifying as Southern Baptist. Some place the total number of evangelicals nationally at 90 million to 100 million. As the Post points out in the next paragraph, the Southern Baptist Convention has an estimated 15 million members:
Except that for the past decade, the denomination has been in what its leaders describe as a “discouraging” retreat. Although Southern Baptists remain by far the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with an estimated 15 million members, a steady decline in overall numbers — of members, baptisms and churches — has led to much soul-searching and the realization that survival depends on becoming less insular and more diverse.
The Southern Baptist leader: "That seems pretty true. The decline has been steady and pretty small."
Unfortunately, the Post neglects to provide concrete data to help readers understand the significance — or not — of the decline. The number of Southern Baptist churches actually increased the last two years (data for 2014 and 2013).
To that end, the Southern Baptists have apologized to African Americans for “racism of which we have been guilty,” expressed support for immigration reform, and in general sought to be less white, if not less conservative. A rising number of congregations are Latino, Asian and now Arab.
The Southern Baptist leader: "Southern Baptists apologized for racism while they were still booming, not because they were declining. And they've been diverse for decades."
In general, that denominational leader complained, the article "links SBC decline as the SBC rationale for reaching out. That's not true. And it implies the decline is much more than it is."
The journalistic issue, of course, is that the Post fails to connect the dots between the specific situation described and the bigger trend assumed but not proven.