Fifteen Factors That Have Changed the SBC Since 1979, Part 3

This is the third article in a four-part series on fifteen factors that have changed the SBC since 1979. As I noted in my previous article, this list is not exhaustive, overlap exists between some factors, and I list them in no particular order of importance. You can read the previous articles in this series here and here.

10. The Americanization of the South

OK, I admit that this one began long before 1979, though it reached its culmination in the last generation. The South is a funny place. It also remains the heart of Southern Baptist life, as any demographic map will attest. The South has often had a tenuous relationship with the rest of America, especially when it has been assumed (as has often happened) that New England is the heart of America. There were many reasons for this, including those cultural (slavery in the South), religious (the legacy of strong state religion in the North), and economic (the North was wealthier). At times in American history the South has distanced herself from the rest of the country (again, especially New England) because of either perceived wrongs at the hands of others or the perceived superiority of the Southern way of life.

Examples abound. There was the Nullification Crisis of 1833, when South Carolina claimed that protective tariffs approved by Congress could be nullified (declared “null and void”) by states. There was of course the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, when the South argued it was literally not part of America. Reconstruction followed until the late 1870s, exacerbating sectional tensions and cementing sectional identities. Some areas in the South refused to celebrate Independence Day for decades. The racial tensions in the South continued for a century after the Civil War, further putting distance between the South and other parts of America.

But numerous sociologists and historians note that over the course of the 20th century, the South slowly became part of America again. The two world wars began this process as Americans from every region (and ethnicity!) served alongside each other in defense of our nation. But it took the Civil Rights era of to complete the process. White southerners either voluntarily changed their mind about race relations, were shamed into changing their mind, or at least begrudgingly submitted to the new status quo (it depended upon the person). The South became the Sunbelt and southerners became Americans-in many cases the most patriotic of Americans. A southerner-and a Southern Baptist-was even elected President of the United States in 1976, symbolizing quite nicely the Americanization of the South.

This mattered for Southern Baptists because we were perhaps the most sectional of all mainline denominations in America. Baptists in the South were always closely connected with the culture of the South, sometimes as influencers and sometimes as the influenced. With a few notable exceptions, Southern Baptists have defended every Southern status quo for the entire history of the region. All that to say, while the South in general has become more American, so the Southern Baptist Convention has become more of a national denomination. It began with initial expansion during the first half of the 20th century and by 1972-the same time the South became the Sunbelt-Southern Baptists had churches in all fifty states and had passed the Methodists as the largest Protestant denomination in America.

11. The Urbanization of the South

Closely tied to the above is the urbanization of the South. Until the mid-20th century the South remained mostly rural, mostly agrarian, and substantially less educated than the rest of America. But that began to rapidly change after World War II. (To be fair, “New South” prophets, including Southern Baptist statesmen like I. T. Tichenor and John Broadus, had been trying to nudge the South into greater urbanization and industrialization since Reconstruction.) Atlanta and Houston in particular became megacities much like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Other regionally influential urban centers included Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, Birmingham, New Orleans, Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Greenville-Spartanburg, Northern Virginia and about half of Florida (though Northern Virginia and much of Florida were “Southern” more in geography than identity). As these urban centers blossomed into centers for finance, technology, and higher education, two generations left the farms and moved to the cities. By the 1970s a majority of southerners lived in cities and medium-sized towns rather than farms and rural hamlets.

This trend also affected Southern Baptists. Our denomination became less rural in its “ambience,” though a majority of Southern Baptists remained members of small churches in non-urban areas. Several Southern Baptist and state convention parachurch ministries are located in the great urban centers and grew accordingly. Baptist Student Unions became the largest campus ministry in America as growing numbers of SBC young people attended state colleges and universities, even in regions beyond the South and Southwest. Perhaps most important, the leading churches in the denomination are no longer “county seat” First Baptist churches but urban and suburban megachurches that grew as their cities grew. Smaller rural churches remain mostly static in their baptism and membership statistics, in part because their communities remain mostly static in population.

12. A Renewed Emphasis on North American Church Planting

Southern Baptists have always cared about domestic church planting. Some of our earliest work was among Native Americans and African Americans, in part because these were the two significant ethnic minorities in the South and Southwest. Because of territorial agreements with our Northern brethren, we did not pursue much church planting outside the South until the mid-20th century. And even then much of it was not church planting so much as it was “South planting”-Southerners were relocating to the North and West for economic reasons and started churches that were decidedly Southern because they didn’t care for non-Southern culture or Northern (now American) Baptist’s progressive tendencies. These churches were “Dixie Outposts,” though some of them gradually became large and influential Southern Baptist churches in their respective regions.

Several new church planting trends have emerged over the past couple of generations. First, because of a growing recognition that parts of the South remain substantially unevangelized, there has been renewed emphasis on planting new congregations in traditional Southern Baptist territory. Second, because many of these unevangelized regions are located in urban centers, there has been greater emphasis on urban church planting in the South. Third, because the Americanization and urbanization of the South has led to growing numbers of foreign immigrants (and collegians) in the South, great emphasis has been given to planting non-white churches among ethnic minorities. Fourth, because the SBC has become a national denomination, attention has been given to areas outside the South, particularly New England, the Pacific Northwest, and the Midwest. Finally, because the great urban centers of the North are substantially unchurched, our North American Mission Board, seminaries, and key local churches have focused church planting efforts on non-Southern “megacities” that in so many ways lie at the center of American culture. Should the Lord tarry, I predict that in the coming years some of our fastest growing churches will be outside the South, less Caucasian, and even non-English-speaking.