By Mickey Noah
The North American Mission Board’s new South Region is the old “Bible Belt.” Some 13.7 million Southern Baptists live and worship here. Seemingly, there’s a church—Baptist or some other denomination’s—almost on every corner.
With so many churches and so many Baptists in the South, believers should vastly outnumber non-believers, right? No more SBC churches need to be started in the South, right? Save the new church plants and missionaries for the “unreached” regions of North America, right? Well, not so fast.
The South Region’s old tag as the Bible Belt was perhaps true at one time but today, it’s a myth. It’s a myth because an estimated 64 percent—67 million people—of the more than 104.3 million people who live in the South are considered to be “lost”—without Christ. Yet, there are more Southern Baptists and SBC congregations—38,671—here than anywhere else in North America. But one-fourth of North America’s 259 million non-believers live in the South.
Take Mississippi, for example. USA Today voted the Magnolia State the most “religious state in America.” Mississippi has more churches per capita—one for every 1,300 people—than any other state. So why plant more churches in Mississippi?
“With the number of churches in Mississippi, our state should look dramatically different on issues such as how we live, teen pregnancy, the divorce rate, our success rate in missions and evangelism, etc.,” says George Ross, director of the ONE8 church planting network and lead pastor of Lifepoint Baptist Church in Senatobia, Miss., located in the top northwest corner of the state. “But the state doesn’t look different. Our stats show that 50-54 percent of Mississippians are unchurched.
“People in this state are just doing religion,” Ross says. “We have perpetuated a lot of religion in Mississippi but not a lot of conversions. Just because you have a lot of churches and ‘Baptist’ is in their names, that doesn’t mean most people are attending. And some traditional churches, not all, have drifted away from the gospel message, what it means to be saved, what being born again or regeneration looks like. This is largely true of the entire South.”
Ross, 39, said he’s seen first-hand that planting new “works” is healthy and the most effective way of evangelizing. Third in a chain of new church plants Ross has started in northwest Mississippi, Lifepoint has built a membership of about 700 over just the last six years.
“A new work that is started doesn’t have the baggage. There’s no reputation. All you bring in is who you are and what you believe. This gives you a healthier and freer environment to preach, teach and not be constrained. You don’t have the hindrances of an existing church, especially one in missional drift. We can reach a lot of the people who are de-churched and un-churched. A new church plant can change a community and we can see more conversions faster.”
One of the ONE8 network’s latest success stories is “The Life,” a new church plant in Oxford, Miss., home of the University of Mississippi. Eric Hankins, 39-year-old senior pastor of the traditional First Baptist Church in downtown Oxford for the past six years, admits he didn’t come naturally to the idea of church planting—especially in his own backyard.
“We knew there were people who were never coming to First Baptist, regardless of how many times we invited them or wanted them,” Hankins said. “Our people responded positively and were excited about planting the new church, which had to be theologically correct, doctrinally sound and supportive of the SBC, including the Cooperative Program.”
The Life was launched in January 2011— located less than a mile from First Baptist in a renovated performing arts center in Oxford—and is now running 75-100 each week. The Life reaches young professionals, college students and even Ole Miss faculty, according to Hankins.
“Church planting is important anywhere you have lost people and unreached people groups, and is one of the best opportunities to penetrate lostness,” says Richard Harris, retired NAMB interim president, vice president of church planting and now a NAMB ambassador.
“When people say we have enough churches, the problem is that we have enough of the wrong kinds. We need churches passionate about reaching lost people. The truth about new church plants is that they have to reach lost people or they can’t survive,” said Harris.
Harris said the level of lostness in the South should not be surprising because of the large influx of immigrants and the new generations being reproduced in the South. “Every new generation and people group has to be evangelized and congregationalized if we are to achieve the Great Commission. The numbers are increasing every year.
“Twenty-five percent of our churches baptized no one last year,” Harris said. “Another 63 percent baptized five or less, and 79 percent baptized 10 or less. That tells me that we have a high number of churches who are not Great Commission-centered churches.”
Despite the need for more—not fewer—church plants across the still unreached South, the South Region remains the financial “engine” driving the SBC, as reflected by Cooperative Program, Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon offering receipts. According to the 2009 Annual Church Profile, the 13.7 million Baptists in the South Region generate 86 percent of the $406.7 million for CP; 86 percent of gifts to “Annie” ($44 million) and 88 percent of the gifts to Lottie Moon ($101.2 million).
It’s an ironic paradox: the SBC derives most of its membership, money and missions support from Southern Baptists in the South Region. But the other four regions—the Northeast, Midwest, West and Canada—are North America’s most heavily “unreached” areas, where substantially more financial, ministry and “people” resources must be shifted if Baptists are to truly penetrate the overwhelming lostness—three out of four people—in North America. But even as we shift resources to the other regions, the South Region—as the SBC’s home base of support—must be protected, nurtured and not neglected. Or as NAMB president Kevin Ezell recently said, “It’s important for us to re-seed our base.”
As we continue to reach the lost within the South, churches here have the ability to turn their eyes to other regions.
Ezell also says he knows some SBC churches—maybe in Mississippi or Alabama—may feel no additional churches need to be planted locally. If not, Ezell suggests these churches look to partner with other state conventions to plant churches in distant associations. For instance, why can’t an Oklahoma church plant a new congregation in Las Vegas, or a Texas megachurch plant a new work in New York City?
The same missions heart that propelled us to reach other parts of North America at the outset of our denomination still exists today. In order to engage the most unreached regions of North America, churches in the South are needed to come alongside church planters in the Northeast, Midwest, West and Canada. OM
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC