Nashville, Tennessee, is the capital of a few things: country music, bachelorette parties, and more recently, new churches. This may seem counterintuitive; the so-called “buckle of the Bible Belt” is already home to hundreds of churches (informal estimates begin at around 700), not to mention the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters. But with a growing metro area and one of the hottest job markets in the country, an influx of newcomers from the coasts and other major American urban centers means that many Christians now eye Nashville as an emerging “mission field.” Even in its own backyard, members of the Southern Baptist Convention are establishing new churches and revitalizing old ones.
Proclamation, a diverse SBC church in South Nashville, is one such example of revitalization, housed in a space formerly known as Glenwood Baptist Church. The multicultural neighborhood in which Proclamation is located has grown by nearly 20% in the last two decades, echoing the growth that has taken place in and around Music City in recent years. It is also young: According to Nashville Chamber of Commerce estimates, the majority of South Nashville is under 50, with a median age of 31. As such, Proclamation is a not a traditional “church plant,” in which a larger church sends founders to build a church from scratch. While Proclamation originated at the Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, it was established to take root and grow in an existing congregation. Led by Pastor Derrick DeLain, the new church merged with Nashville’s aging Glenwood Baptist congregation, infusing it with a new energy, and connecting it with the surrounding community.
The migration boom to Nashville and the surrounding area predates COVID-19 (it showed up in The Wall Street Journal hottest job market rankings in February 2020); in addition to music, industries like tech, finance, higher ed, and health care also attract talent to the area. It is an entrepreneurial hotbed of business incubators and innovation hubs, but that’s just on the secular end of the spectrum. Its suburbs in neighboring Williamson County have been described as “not unlike Silicon Valley“ for evangelical Christianity. The parent company of popular Christian radio station K-LOVE, and the influential Christian publishing company Lifeway, both relocated to Williamson in recent years. However, as is the case elsewhere in the country, declining religious affiliation and changing demographics are diminishing congregations in the city. The SBC and its members recognized these shifting conditions in its churches around a decade ago, and developed a process of church revitalization, also called church “replanting.” In Nashville and elsewhere, these replanters, and a burgeoning industry of church consultants, are working to bring new life and relevance to diminishing, often aging congregations, who may share little in common with the community developing outside their doors. A fair amount of faith is involved in resurrecting these churches, but there is quite a bit of Protestant work ethic and American ingenuity at play, too.
The SBC’s structure gives pastors and congregations room to revitalize.
American Baptists trace their roots back to Congregationalism, the independent Protestant church model championed by the New England Puritans. Differences in the early New England colonies over who should be baptized when (most who identified as Baptists favored the baptism-by-immersion only of consenting adults, not infants or children) led to the creation of Baptist congregations. The movement spread, taking hold in the early American colonies throughout the rest of the 17th and 18th centuries.
A regional split between Southern and Northern Baptists occurred in 1845 over the issue of slavery, with the Southern Baptists rejecting the abolitionist views of their Northern counterparts to form the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC has since repudiated its segregationist views and today, and while it remains 85% white, around 14% of its members report being racial and ethnic minorities. In 2012, the SBC elected its first Black president, Fred Luter Jr. The SBC also determined recently that members may refer to themselves as “Great Commission Baptists,” rather than Southern Baptists, to get away from the organization’s foundational legacy (the Great Commission refers to a command from Christ to his disciples to go forth and make disciples of all nations). Summit Church lead pastor, J.D. Greear, is a former SBC president, who has also expressed his preference for the Great Commission moniker.
“It has a history,” said Derrick DeLain, himself Black, of the SBC’s origins. “It’s super complicated.” He said it is a challenge when minorities and women in his diverse congregation approach him about the SBC’s founding principles, as well as its attitudes toward women. “We are trying our best,” said DeLain. “We don’t want to highlight the SBC, we want to highlight the beauty of Christ and who he is. It’s difficult to do that well because of the different things that’s taken place in the SBC.”
For him, the SBC’s attraction lay in its missionary focus and its collaborative character. “Us being a part of it so far,” DeLain said of the convention, “to be able to see like-minded churches grow, to see like-minded churches planted, the SBC, financially, is a powerhouse when it comes to a lot of that.” Belonging to the SBC and its church networks “helped us tremendously,” he said. It was through his SBC connections that he learned that Glenwood Baptist, whose pastor had stepped down due to health issues, was interested in revitalizing.
And the networks matter: The Southern Baptist Convention is not a hierarchical denomination, but a literal annual convention. Its members are the roughly 50,000 Baptist churches across the U.S. and Canada that ascribe to the Baptist Faith and Message, the articles of faith developed by an SBC committee in 1925 and revised over the years. Member congregations send representatives to the convention to conduct business and vote on various measures brought forward by member congregations. For the rest of the year, an executive committee remains to carry out the initiatives and to address issues that emerge from those few days. That work takes place at the highest levels: managing budgets, preparing for the next convention, and seeing to the technicalities.
In essence, the SBC doesn’t plant churches; its member churches do. Addressing the planting and replanting needs identified by SBC member churches falls to SBC organizations like the North American Missions Board and its church planting arm, the Send Network. Funded by the giving of SBC member churches, the NAMB and Send Network resource church planting and replanting missionaries with training, funding, and other forms of assistance, in various locations within their jurisdiction. “The rate at which churches are dying means that we are needing to plant more and more churches just to maintain the number of churches that exist in these cities, as well,” said Matt Love, who oversees Summit Church’s church planting cohort that trains pastors.
The most recent Southern Baptist Convention met in June of this year, in Anaheim, California. Still recovering from the impact of COVID-19 on attendance (their annual report said congregations are still operating between 35% and 65% of their pre-COVID levels), they anticipate continued closures. “Everybody that was kind of doing it to check the box stopped checking the box,” said Love.
Proclamation is a multiracial and multigenerational congregation that meets in a neighborhood only 10 minutes’ drive from downtown Nashville’s honky-tonks and tourist traps on Broadway. Surrounded by fast food chains, a Dollar Store, and Walgreens, it feels much farther. This particular Sunday includes a “Family Meeting” after the standard worship songs and sermon, in which Operations Pastor Kevin “Rev Kev” Stone gives a brief year-end summary of the church’s budget and growth. While it is emphasized that no one should feel obligated to stay, DeLain encourages even new members to stick around as a way to find out more about the church. The church is in its second year, and Stone explains that while the number of donors has gone down, the total number of donations are up to over half a million dollars, something that he said “research” would consider unlikely. This giving enables Proclamation to maintain a community fund, which is obligated to fund initiatives in the outside community, and, in 2023, to start funding new church plants themselves. Despite the decline in donors, Stone insists it is a healthy sign overall. One-time donations can be inflated in the beginning for a new church, when excitement and necessity drive initial giving. “There’s a transition taking place,” he said. The report shows recurring donations are up, which Stone said indicates that there are more people “who call Proclamation home now.”
While an SBC member, Proclamation is not a Send Network alum. Instead, Proclamation was “sent” (in church planting parlance) by the Summit Collaborative. According to Love, the Collaborative emerged as “a natural outgrowth” in the years following Summit Church’s first church plant in Denver over a decade ago, roughly the same time that the SBC was launching its initial replant efforts. Today, Love said, the Summit Collaborative consists of around 60 churches. They form a network that identifies and grows future church leaders in their home churches, before sending them to the Summit Church for what Love calls a nine-month “finishing school,” the capstone training intended to specifically equip them to go out as church planters. Speaking from Summit’s Durham offices, located within a campus occupying about a city block and a half of a nondescript suburban office park, he outlines the Collaborative’s philosophy.
“Doing the broad stuff can make you feel like you’re doing something, and it can bring people in the door,” he said. “But you put the emphasis on defining success in terms of how we’re building relationships with people in the community.”
But initially, DeLain didn’t see himself building relationships with the people of Nashville. “All I thought of Nashville was honky-tonks and country music, and I don’t know if you can tell,” said DeLain, who is originally from New York, “but that ain’t me.”
During his Collaborative training, he visited what was to be his future mission field on the recommendation of friends, and it changed his view of the city. “We’re trained to be missiologists,” he said. “If we’re going to be on mission, we need to understand the mission field.” It sparked a realization: “Most people who are Nashville through and through, they could care less about honky-tonks,” he said. Once you leave behind the tourist spots, he noted, “you actually see the makeup of the city, and see the diversity, and see the style, and the language, and the community as a whole. It’s nothing like what you would think it is.”
Following the Summit Collaborative model, once he completed his training, DeLain arrived in South Nashville in the summer of 2020 with a team ready to engage who had “mission on mind.” DeLain coached them, using his Summit Collaborative training, on how to be intentional with their neighbors and the people they encountered at the grocery store. “They’re going on walks intentionally, they’re going to parks intentionally,” he said, and striking up conversations. “And then the natural, ‘What brought you here?’ ‘Oh, we moved here to help start a church.’ ‘Wait, what? What do you mean by that?’ Instant communication, instant conversation, where they’re inviting people into church.” According to DeLain, a majority of people at Proclamation are “over-churched,” meaning they are coming in with a church background, and in many cases are just “over” church: “‘I’m just done with religion all together,’” he said. But a “large number of people as well,” DeLain said, “they’re just kind of seekers.” He characterizes their general attitude as “‘I’m skeptical about this Jesus thing, but you guys seem pretty dope.’” In a few cases, DeLain said people are coming over from other churches, in which case he said, “We do ask them, hey, is there a reason why you’ve come from your church?” and whether they have had a conversation with their current pastor about their reasons for looking elsewhere.
DeLain chose the neighborhood for its diversity, and when he arrived with his similarly diverse team of 60 replanters, he said, “One of our very first values is that we want to be a church that engages all people. You can’t be a church that engages all people if you aren’t around ‘all people.’” But arriving during COVID made that kind of outreach difficult at first. He said Proclamation has really only been able to engage in earnest with minority groups (who tended to be disproportionately affected by COVID and to be more vaccine hesitant) in about the last nine months, as fears over COVID have ebbed.
In the meantime, word had gotten out that Proclamation was in the neighborhood. And when people did begin to arrive in person, DeLain estimates around 80% had been listening to Proclamation services online. When Delain began preaching at Glenwood in August 2020, the church was about to close its doors, and was averaging about 20 sexagenarian members. Now, he said peak weekend attendance has reached 360 people between both Sunday services. The sanctuary, he said with a laugh, “comfortably” seats around 175.
The Glenwood congregation invited DeLain to be its pastor after his inaugural “guest preaching” stint, the church changed its name to Proclamation in late 2020, and after a January 2021 soft launch with a few “preview” services, DeLain kicked off in-person services in the former Glenwood Baptist (now Proclamation) Church on Easter 2021.
In talking to church replanting experts and church consultants, estimates of how long an effective revitalization takes range from six months at the very least, to a decade. The SBC’s Send Network claims an 80% survival rate for its church plants, which they define as still standing four years after their founding.
Bringing a church back to life takes “tactical patience,” said the SBC’s senior director of replanting, Mark Clifton, over the phone. His teams work across North America to help churches that struggle, have plateaued, or are simply trying to turn a corner, especially after COVID. In 2013, after his success in reviving a nearly century-old Kansas City church that had risen to an average weekend attendance of 140 from just 18 elderly members when he started, Clifton said the NAMB approached him to help address the hundreds of SBC churches closing annually. He spent the next year traveling the country to examine the problem. “At least in our denomination,” he said, “no one had put all this stuff together.” Today, Wornall Road Baptist Church has a leadership team with almost as many members as the whole congregation at its nadir.
Today, these experiences inform his approach to church revitalization, which he said begins with attentive concern for the existing members. Often the last ones standing, they can be worn out by the experience, he said. But above all else, Clifton’s revitalization strategy is outwardly focused. The key for him lies in giving a church a reason for being that is grounded in the understanding that the church exists to serve the community around it. This year, he said, his network of regional and state associations will be able to claim the replanting of 175 churches that would have closed their doors (the SBC’s 2022 annual report said it planted 600 new churches and replanted 135 last year).
“The community needs sacred spaces,” said Clifton.
He identifies churches as likely replant candidates, like the former Glenwood Baptist Church, located in neighborhoods in transition. That’s why, just as the Summit Collaborative does, he emphasizes fostering a connection between church and community through engagement. Clifton said pastors should be developing external partnerships and working on getting to know the community better “than anybody else there.” He cites pastors going on ride-alongs with police, visiting the city council, talking with school counselors and other local clergy, as well as meeting with nonprofits operating within the community, as ways they can better understand its needs. “We exist to make this community noticeably better,” said Clifton. “We can’t do that if we don’t know the community.”
Clifton co-hosts a podcast called Revitalize and Replant, with former Lifeway CEO Thom Rainer, now head of Church Answers, which trains and certifies nondenominational church consultants.
Although certification through Church Answers is a newer initiative, Rainer said he has been doing consultations for churches “as a side gig” since he was a pastor in Florida in 1988. As a well-known author and the longtime head of an iconic Christian media company, he brought name recognition and credibility to church leaders looking for assistance, beginning mostly with Southern Baptist churches before expanding out to other denominations.
Like Clifton, Rainer sees insularity as a threat to a church’s vitality. He also credits cultural shifts for the broader decline of churches, especially in Nashville, where he lives nearby. “It used to be that, as an example, if we were looking at a place in Portland, Oregon, 15, 20 years ago, it would be considered culturally nonfriendly to Christians,” he said. “Nashville,” by contrast, “was considered culturally friendly.” But there and elsewhere in the Bible Belt, the climate “is becoming much less so.”
“There’s less desire for those who are not in a church to go to a church, and therefore churches start declining,” said Rainer. “Usually it’s an external cultural reason, because we are not reaching those who are not part of our faith system.”For Southern Baptists, church membership is distinct from conversion. Even amid declining memberships in SBC churches, baptisms are ticking back up since the pandemic, even if they aren’t at prior levels. “The reasons that baptism numbers matter to us is because they represent conversion,” said one SBC pastor recently. It is also, per the Baptist faith and message, “a prerequisite to the privileges of church membership.”
Nashville churches may be waking up to a more apparent reality that has existed for some time, however. Brian Holloway, a Nashville-based church consultant certified by Church Answers, remembers encountering the term “buckle of the Bible Belt” when he arrived in the city for college in the mid-’90s. “You know, that’s Christians saying that,” he said. “We’re just defining the area that we believed has always been ours. I’d probably argue that it’s not been religiously friendly, it’s just been Christian-friendly.”
Last year, Tennessee passed bills intended to regulate bathroom usage based on biological sex in schools and businesses, and there is currently proposed legislation in the state General Assembly to criminalize drag performances in premises where children may be present. “All of those things are things that the church traditionally hasn’t had to deal with,” Holloway said, “And so when there are people suddenly dealing with them, then people are going to decide if the church won’t.” He notes that while such bills and laws may be religiously motivated, “that doesn’t mean everyone, or all of these religions, agrees with it.” He cites Christian nationalism, which newly elected SBC President Bart Barber recently condemned, as another concern facing area churches that, unaddressed, could cause people to leave.
While Holloway is not Southern Baptist, culture war issues and politics have indeed riled the SBC in recent years. A high profile sex abuse case might also be impacting SBC membership, as it has in the Catholic Church. But whether Southern Baptists are voting with their feet is difficult to determine. Holloway credits COVID with an accelerated decline in church attendance. “It was a natural out, they didn’t have to tell anybody, there was no real way to track if you weren’t attending anymore,” he said with a laugh. “It was easier to get out.”
Holloway says there’s also a historical pattern in the city. “You can look back through history,” he said, “and through the Nashville area, and see when people moved out of the core area of Nashville.” He dates Nashville’s gentrification to around 20 years ago, when he says condos started showing up downtown.
“I used to think it’s a big town that feels like a little town,” he said, recollecting his arrival in Nashville in 1994. “I could go downtown and it was pretty calm.” Now, he said, if he takes a lunch break in the area, “there’ll be pedal taverns everywhere.” Not that he begrudges them. “I’m glad they’re having fun.” Today, downtown Nashville still has its share of large, neo-Gothic churches. But on the sunny November Sunday after Proclamation’s Family Meeting, the one with the biggest crowd is in front of the Ryman, the so-called “Mother Church of Country Music.” Broadway, Nashville’s strip of bars and cowboy boot outlets (one has a sign forbidding bachelorette party scavenger hunts), was every bit as busy as one would expect it to be at night, with live music spilling outside into the milling crowds, and bouncers posted at doors, dressed like early ’00s bad-boy magicians, carding entering patrons. More than a few groups in the gift shops are lugging suitcases, suggesting a final stop before heading home to prepare for Monday.
Towns outside of Nashville are also starting to grow as people spread out to the surrounding suburbs. “That’s what happened in the ’60s and ’70s,” Holloway said. “Nashville can’t—the roads can’t even handle it. There’s not enough space to house anybody.”
Amid this kind of demographic shift, Holloway, Rainer, and Clifton, are all agreed: Outward focus is the key to revitalization. “If I were to eavesdrop on your family’s discussions, there would be inside jokes,” Holloway said. “If I were a guest in your house, you would probably be a little bit more open,” avoiding idioms and in-group expressions out of deference. It is the same for churches, Holloway believes. Insider language doesn’t “mean anything to anybody but that church,” he said. When churches make the assumption that his status as a consultant will make them more relevant, Holloway corrects them. Returning congregants will determine their relevancy: “What I’ll try to help you do is not be weird around people who don’t know you.”
Rainer is optimistic about this kind of approach. “Right now, we’re seeing a greater receptivity to hey, let’s stop being so insulated,” he said, “let’s begin to look beyond ourselves.”
“More churches today, not enough, but more churches are beginning to do more things outside the walls of their churches than any time I’ve seen in the last eight decades,” Rainer said. His own church, a former church plant outside Nashville, partners with another organization to send members into the city to feed and provide the homeless with mobile showers and bathrooms.
In the Gospel of Luke, Christ tells a parable of a dishonest steward who knows he is about to be fired. The steward quickly goes to all the people who owe his boss money, and settles their accounts for less than the original amount. Once he’s out on his ear, the servant reasons, he can hope for a warm welcome in at least some quarters. “The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light,” Christ concludes, advising his followers: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
“People forget the church is a business,” said Vincent Charron, a graduate of Liberty University’s Church Revitalization doctoral program and of Church Answers’ consultant certification. In addition to being a nondenominational pastor himself, he also heads TCM Leadership Group, a church consultancy program that helps other Protestant pastors revitalize their churches. A former Army engineer, he calls himself “a systems guy,” who delivers pastors quadrant analyses of their sermons to help improve their preaching. It’s Moneyball for pastors, whose income in most cases is tied to congregational giving, which can make change a daunting prospect.
The problems facing a church seeking revitalization are not always spiritual or cultural, however. Facilities can be limiting: Rainer cited the example of a church that wasn’t growing its attendance. In what he described as an unusually straightforward consultation, it was determined that there simply wasn’t enough parking. People would drive away when they couldn’t find a spot. The church expanded its parking lot. “And guess what,” said Rainer. “The church grew.”
These practical considerations can get pretty granular: “There’s measurements to determine how many pews you need,” Holloway said. “It’s gotten larger in the last few decades because of two reasons. Generally speaking, Americans are getting larger. And we also don’t want to be as close together, because of COVID and everything.” A church from the 1970s with an auditorium that would seat 2,200, for example? “Honestly, it’s probably about 1,600, if we’re really doing modern measurements,” he said.
From a business standpoint, replanting is a big money saver. DeLain said he was able to leverage SBC connections he cultivated while training at the Summit Collaborative to end up at the church at Glenwood. “If we weren’t part of the SBC, we would probably be renting one of the schools in our neighborhood here to do ministry,” he said. “It’s actually set us up. We are two, three years ahead of what we should be because we have this building, and because we’re part of the SBC.”
Whatever the financial and logistical advantages though, the actual process of overhauling and renovating a congregation’s membership can take a while. A pastor’s preaching is central to a Baptist service, and since there is no central licensing and ordination authority for Southern Baptist pastors, the character of the service can vary widely. As a result, replanting pastors risk opposition to their initiatives from those who preferred their predecessor’s way of doing things. In our conversation, Clifton occasionally likens church replanting to a battle. It is one fought by inches: “Years two and three are the hardest years,” he said. “And a lot of guys tap out in the second and third year.” A church consultant or church planting network can encourage and advise a pastor as they maneuver through the ongoing spiritual and practical challenges of revitalization.
Today, Clifton sees focus on young people as a key dynamic in church revitalization. “It seems like the secret sauce in every real replant situation,” he said, “The generation that’s missing in these churches is the generation between say, 20 and 35.” While he values multigenerational connection, Clifton, who is in his early 60s, says he’s “one flu season from going to Heaven,” so it’s important for older believers “to make sure there are people here when we leave.”
Serving the community resonates with younger people, Clifton believes, and to do so effectively, he identifies making the building and facilities themselves indispensable to the community. He cites various examples from his own experience of the ways they become relevant: hosting meals for local high school teams before games, allowing other congregations to meet on their premises, setting up on-site maternity homes, hosting cultural and community festivals, and establishing counseling centers. The result, Clifton said, is that even people who never attend services become grateful for the presence of the church in their lives. “You get to repurpose a building,” he said. “There’s a spirit here, things that have happened here. It doesn’t become condominiums or it doesn’t get torn down to be a parking lot. It continues to have vitality as a sacred space in that neighborhood.”
Certain challenges remain for the SBC to bring generations together, however. “I’ll be the first to tell you,” said DeLain, “it’s convoluted, it’s messy. There’s a lot of stuff at the SBC that I do not agree with. But at the same time, it’s been helpful to be a part of it to allow us to do the work that we’re able to do. We’re having conversations not only with ourselves, but even with Matt [Love], the leadership at the Summit Collaborative, to just figure out like, hey, do we stay here?” He acknowledges these questions are difficult. “But at the end of the day, man, the Lord has called us to pastor the people here at Proclamation, not pastor the people of the SBC, and so we want to be faithful to, and be good stewards of, the people the Lord’s brought here our way.”
Proclamation’s slick branding includes a welcome tent with swag bags for newcomers, a photo backdrop in the foyer, and professionally edited videos at their services and on their social media. Its up-to-the-minute aesthetic has been grafted onto the shabby hominess of Glenwood Baptist’s midcentury blandness and old-fashioned stained-glass windows. Plans for renovation are in the works, however. “The phrase that I hear a lot in this world is you can’t build with old wood,” said Charron. He was referring to the exodus of old members that occurs “all the time” when a new pastor comes to replant. But he could just as well be referring to the state of the physical structure of the church itself.
“It’s a living sermon,” Clifton said of a revitalized church. “Our gospel is all about redemption and bringing dead things back to life. A church that was nearly dead that comes back to life is a picture of what the gospel can do in someone’s life.”
At Proclamation in South Nashville, the pews fill in at the 9 a.m. service while the worship band plays. “Hallelujah, I am not alone,” read the lyrics on the screen. As the singing continues, older members in the back join the young woman with piercings, the young families, teens, and the young adults holding coffee in to-go cups. One older man stays seated, tapping his cane to the music. “From the tomb I came alive,” they sing. “And let there never be a day that I don’t rise to bring you praise.”
Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.