Monday, January 25, 2010

Changing the Denominational Map

How can we extend the gospel more effectively beyond the South? How can Southern Baptists best see the robust growth of evangelism and church planting in major non-Southern cities and pioneer areas? Does history offer us any clues about this question?

I'll be uncharacteristically brief. It is very, very difficult to change denominational maps like the ones that I discussed in my previous post. France is still Catholic, as are Spain and Italy. In Russia, you'll find that the Russian Orthodox Church is still the big kid on the block. Germany is Lutheran (even if only nominally so). Texas is Baptist. Once these geographic patterns are set, they are very difficult to change.

But change they sometimes do. Historically God has employed two major factors to effect these changes:

  1. Population Migration

    The Diaspora of Jewish Christians from Judea contributed to the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world. Likewise, the westward migration of American citizens during the nineteenth century dramatically altered the religious landscape of the United States of America. The Great Depression enlarged the Southern Baptist Convention, forcing people out of the South and into places like California and New Mexico (two non-Southern states that traditionally are stronger in SBC life than many other non-Southern states). Even Alaska has a stronger Southern Baptist presence because of economic and military factors that relocated many Southerners into that portion of the country.

    Maybe the best way to do missions would be to relocate entire churches of Southern Baptists into the areas that we wish to reach? Maybe we need to pray for some sort of an economic disaster in the South?

  2. Spiritual Awakening or Reformation

    The most dramatic alterations of the religious landscape of this continent took place in the First and Second Great Awakenings. As a result of these movements, a theretofore predominantly Presbyterian and Anglican nation was transformed into a predominantly Baptist, Methodist, and Restorationist nation.

    Previously in Europe, the spiritual awakening known as the Protestant Reformation had entirely rewritten the spiritual map of the Old World. Spiritual constants that had been on place for centuries suddenly and dramatically changed, then to remain virtually unchanged from that epoch until today.

    Rather than disaster in the South, perhaps we should be praying for reformation and revival.

Certainly, whatever is the dominant Christian denomination of choice in a region, it steadily grows weaker between times of spiritual awakening or reformation. We see that trend at work in each one of the places mentioned above subsequent to their last encounter with population migration or spiritual awakening.

I can't think of anything else in the entire history of Christianity that has worked. Can you?


Dave Miller said...

One of the things we are finding here is that we have to identify and reproduce (and I know this is going to sound kind like psycho-babble) a specifically Iowa version of a Southern baptist church. We don't want to change doctrine or polity or those kinds of things, but want to adapt Baptist practice to Iowa culture.

Some churches have done that well. My church is unashamed of our denominational ties and yet less than 10% of our people have ever had any experience in SBC churches prior to being a part of ours.

We promote Lottie and Annie and the CP/missions, but beyond that you almost never hear anything about being denominational. Few of the people in my church even have an idea what the conservative resurgence is or have ever heard of the GCR task force.

Its a tricky thing that we have to do outside the Deep South/SBC-dominated areas.

Dave Miller said...

I think that has motivated a lot of my thinking in some of these discussions we've had in blogdom - trying to distinguish the essential from the cultural. I guess everyone has to do that, but being "Southern" Baptist outside the south kind of forces that on us a little more.

Bart Barber said...

Granted, Dave, and I'm thankful for what you are doing there. One of the strengths of Baptist polity, IMHO, is that the denomination is (ought to be) decidedly SECONDARY to the local church. What you're doing is a good thing.

But to see the map differently will require something an order of magnitude more than what you guys are able to accomplish alone. I'm not just talking about the effectiveness of your individual church, I'm talking about the actual landscape of the place—the fabric of Iowan society—being altered permanently.

What I'm trying to say (because the last post just got me thinking and praying in that direction) is that as I look back through century after century of the Lord's work, the only things that I see having ever made that kind of a difference are the two factors that I listed in the post.

I spent the last post looking at demographics and opining as to what WOULDN'T make Southern Baptists more effective outside the South. But in looking at denominational map after denominational map, it just struck me that the layout of the denominations is pretty much the same as the way things were after the end of the Second Great Awakening, altered somewhat by migratory patterns that have intervened since then.

Even the differences between SBC and ABC are not so much things wrought by the war as they are internal tensions that were already present among ante-bellum Baptists arising out of different experiences in the Great Awakenings.

The best way to change that is through a Third Great Awakening.

Bart Barber said...

What's more—to dare to utter what might be absolute SBC HERESY—I can't see that 220 years of Baptist missionary activity has made much of a dent on the world map, either.

We've been sending missionaries to China since the beginning. Christianity is still a footnote in China. We've been sending missionaries to Brazil since the beginning. Brazil is still 74% Catholic. We sent missionaries to Japan and Italy early on. Have those nations seen dramatic change?

We have some success stories, yes. But the kind of dramatic change wrought by the great reformations or spiritual awakenings of the past? We haven't seen very much of that.

That's what we need.

Dave Miller said...

Actually, its possible that our missionaries did, in fact, have more of a impact than we sometimes realize.

I lived in Taiwan for several years (dad was an SBC missionary). Many of the older missionaries had been in mainland China before the Communist takeover (1949?). When they were forced to leave China, they followed the government into exile in Taiwan.

At all of our mission meetings and at other times they would pray for the Christians left in China, knowing about the persecution they were under.

Years later, when the doors to China opened and they went back in, they found out that the church had not only survived but that there had been a mighty revival that was unprecedented numerically in church history.

Obviously, our missionaries didn't do that, but it is probable that the work that they did prepared some of the believers who might have been at the heart of that movement.

Anyway, I would agree that a third Great Awakening is about the only thing that will genuinely change the culture.

Bart Barber said...

Agreed, Dave. The kid-on-the-beach-throwing-the-starfish-to-sea story is appropriate here. I'm not saying, "If we don't change the map, then it isn't really worth our effort to do anything."

Rather, as the title of the post indicates, I'm talking about the kind of changes that take place when a nation that was once considered an "Islamic nation" is now considered an "Evangelical Christian nation."

Bart Barber said...

Or, just insert the word "state" in the place of "nation" and it fits our earlier conversation.

What will it take to have the kind of impact outside the South (in this nation and beyond) that we've had inside the South. That's what I'm talking about.

Anonymous said...


We have never met, but your church sounds great. We started a church in a metropolitan area in the mid-south. The IMB is regulary talked about, but not much else in SBC life. Our people have no idea what the CR is for the most part, but they receive really strong Bible teaching and doctrine.

I can identify with what you are saying.


Anonymous said...


Great question.

Planned spiritual awakenings and "changing the map" are things that are not within our grasp.

It's a lot like the communists and socialists continued attempts to "plan" and economy. It doesn't work that way.

We can send where there is a need and be faithful. God does the rest.

We have such a good "product" in the Gospel. And Baptists still have a lot in their ecclesiology that resonates with U.S. culture and human freedom in general.

The extent to which these things change an entire culture is simply beyond our reach.

However, if you want me to advocate what does have a significant impact in today's world, I believe that there are 2 things at opposite ends of the PR spectrum.

First, and most important, it is that individual who is truly sold out to Christ who touches people individuall and models the Christian life and shares the Gospel. I think that Baptists do well on that end.

Second, I believe that strategically influencing the culture shaping areas of society is very important. I believe that Christians should renew our efforts to train for, be present in, and influence all sorts of culture shaping arenas that we often run from. T.V., movies, etc. We do a better job with radio and books.

Also, I believe that intentionally being connected to schools, especially public schools, is important for shaping the future. I realize the problems and tensions there, and I am not down at all on folks who send their kids to private, Christian or home school. But we should flood the public schools with teachers. What a mission field. We already know the language, and you don't have to raise support!

Just my thoughts.



Dave Miller said...

Louis, when are you going to stop being just a commenter and become a blogger?

Anonymous said...



Are you going to be at the Convention this year?

I'll try to look you up.


From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

You asked:
"But the kind of dramatic change wrought by the great reformations or spiritual awakenings of the past?"

Are you referring to those spiritual awakenings which occurred among already culturally "Christian" peoples?

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

Andrew said...


Thanks for honoring me with the quote in the last post. Who would have thought that I could be so inspiring? All kidding aside, I really do appreciate friends here at seminary think it was cool too!

I agree something is going to have to shake us up, either economic or spiritual...I'd pray for both (Matthew 6:24)!

I also agree about the lack of "dent" a degree. As my church plans a trip to West Africa, I am trying to convince people that we still need missionaries there! One exception would be Nigeria (shout-out to my brother down the hall, Kenny Udokporo!). I think you nail the problem on the head in both regards: culture (Islam in Africa, Buddhism in Asia, "Christianity" in America) trumps missions without revival!

"We promote Lottie and Annie and the CP/missions, but beyond that you almost never hear anything about being denominational. Few of the people in my church even have an idea what the conservative resurgence is or have ever heard of the GCR task force."

I have a similar experience at my church here in KCMO. We talk about the mission offerings (regular focus on the missionary sent from our congregation and our own trips, watching the videos each season) but many don't know the ins-and-outs of Convention life.

"...trying to distinguish the essential from the cultural. I guess everyone has to do that, but being "Southern" Baptist outside the south kind of forces that on us a little more."

Again, KCMO means that we don't have weekly Wednesday suppers...but we do still have potlucks!

Question: How do you ditinguish yourself from the ABC or other Baptists...only theology? And is that the way we should all go, Alabama or not?


Perhaps we all should plan a meet-face-to-face? That is if you all aren't scared about being blacklisted with this young upstart!

Bart Barber said...


"Culturally Christian"?

I'm tempted to reproduce in its entirety a paper that I once authored, but I'll restrain myself. Suffice it to say that, in my estimation, the colonial population of the Piedmont (and even the western extremes of the Tidewater) in 1730 or so was culturally post-Christian, and radically, depravedly so. I've seen no evidence in (for example) Western Europe to indicate that post-Christian populations are one whit easier to reach than are populations that are culturally something other than Christian.

Bart Barber said...


I owe thanks to you, sir. The reason why I continue to blog is because it makes me think. I do it for myself. And you, in asking your question, made me think. You made me think so much that I thought up another post!

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

I'm not asking if they were depraved or Christian in the biblical understanding of the word. Clearly they were not. My question is whether or not they called themselves "Christian" thus the use of the term "culturally Christian." For example, around 75-80% of Americans consider themselves Christian, clearly not that many follow the teachings of Holy Scripture, but they identify themselves with the Christian tradition in some way or another. So, I will rephrase slightly, "Would the people in 1730 have called themselves Christians?"

You said:
"I've seen no evidence in (for example) Western Europe to indicate that post-Christian populations are one whit easier to reach than are populations that are culturally something other than Christian."

I would agree with this statement. In fact, based on underground reports, I would say that while we are seeing significant decline in Western Europe.... underground churches are being planted all over the Islamic world. Both fields have their unique issues. But I would be curious to know whether or not those in Western Europe consider themselves "Christian." Off to look for more statistics....

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

Bart Barber said...


I'm not merely saying that they were depraved. I'm saying that entire generations had grown up with no impact whatsoever of church upon their lives and that they expressly rejected Christianity. Answering your question is a difficult one, because no such thing as a Pew Research Grant existed back then, and people did not hazard a trip out into the wild frontier to ask people for their religious self-identification.

I would refer to the Jamestown settlement of 1607 as "culturally Christian," for example. After a century and a half had transpired, however, the anemic state of Southern Anglicanism coupled with the general absence of any other alternatives produced a generally post-Christian society beyond the narrow band of the coast.

For further information along these lines, I recommend to you the following work:

Edward L. Bond, Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000)

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

That answers my question. And thanks for the recommendation. I am going to add that to my reading list.

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

David R. Brumbelow said...

If the SBC changed its name to the name of your choice. Would you then lead your church to be more denominational; beyond Lottie and Annie?

Frankly, I think most of our churches, north or south, are not super denominational and the pastor just makes occasional comments about the SBC and mission offerings. Maybe they say a little about one of our denominational calendar special emphasis Sundays.

I guess I’m more denominational than most, although I don’t go all that far. Beyond the mission offerings, our members receive the Southern Baptist Texan, our state paper. At times I explain a little about the SBC, but if I do so for more than about five minutes, I see their eyes start to glaze over.

Anyway, I greatly admire the work you do in Iowa and wish God’s continued blessings on your ministry.

Also, Bart, I agree with what you’ve been saying. Let’s keep doing what we can, but in the meantime, praying for God send great revival to every state of our union.
David R. Brumbelow

Anonymous said...

How about heresy -- maybe schism is a better word -- does it change the denominational map?

Formerly Episcopal areas might become more Catholic or evangelical, denominations might dwindle in numbers; do these trends accrue any significant numbers?

Probably not; you have probably identified the major factors.

Anonymous said...

There is a great migration occurring today. Hispanics are moving into all parts of the US. Belief in Mexico is so prevalent that common folk have a hard time imagining doubt. They are bringing those beliefs with them. I don't imagine that non-Catholics would be drawn to Catholicism brought to their communities by an influx of Hispanics. At least for a generation services will be mostly in Spanish in those new churches. Also the lower social status of immigrants might make the newcomers religion less attractive.
The Hispanics themselves may be open to changing denominations however. For example mixed Hispanic and non-Hispanic couples in the south will often need to choose between Catholic and Baptist churches. The belief in the literal truth of the Bible might be a obstacle for many Americans, but I haven't heard that from Hispanics.
The priests in Mexico I've happened to meet have impressed me much more than the priests I've met in the US. I guess that a combination of greater economic opportunity in the US and higher status for the individual priest and his family in Mexico lead to this disparity. Regardless of the reason, I see the 'competition' in Mexico as being much stiffer than the 'competition in Mexico.

- An Interested Outsider

Anonymous said...

Make that :
I see the 'competition' in Mexico as being much stiffer than the 'competition in the US.