One church’s sunset means a new day for another
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.”
Not long ago, none of this would be happening. There would be no dying traditional Southern Baptist church and no Arabic 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.
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.
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.
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.