Restore Baptist Churches to Save the West

Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.

Building upon Aaron Renn’s suggestion that evangelicals adopt a “cultural insurgency” mindset for life in Negative World, Timon Cline and Clifford Humphrey offered a provocative essay calling Christians to a fortress-building strategy that does not merely seek survival in our current weak cultural position, but conquest. They aim not for détente, but a new Positive World, in which Christianity is the rule and norm. Seeing their essay as an initial volley, Cline and Humphrey invite further reflection and comment to prod evangelicals toward strategic and ambitious action. I’m eager to accept that invitation and offer one specific, concrete, limited, yet significant application of the strategy: Revitalize Baptist churches. 

Thousands of Baptist churches are declining and at risk of closing their doors for good. Many of these churches are located in Christianity’s historical stronghold in America: Appalachia and the South. Revitalizing these churches presents an opportunity to employ the cultural insurgency mindset. Realizing that capturing cities or building towns may be too ambitious for our present cultural position, Cline and Humphrey urge evangelicals to “think smaller, at first,” organizing a network of antifragile institutions that possess the resolve and resilience necessary for Negative World. 

Doug Wilson has often used another military metaphor to describe the Moscow project: the decisive point. In military strategy, the decisive point is a battle that is both feasible to win and worth winning. For example, making New York a Christian city would be strategic, but it’s not feasible right now. Likewise, as Wilson has often explained, taking some very small town in Idaho might be very attainable, but not very strategic. At first blush, it may seem like revitalizing small Baptist churches would fall into this latter category, but I believe dying Baptist churches as a category can qualify as a decisive point, being both feasible and strategic. The strategic significance of such a project can be seen in its potential for harnessing the principles of the insurgency mindset Renn identifies: owned space and shifting loyalties. Any one church may not meet the significance threshold to be a decisive point, but taken in aggregate and as part of a network of fortresses, the revitalization of Baptist churches is both feasible and strategic.  

Owned Space

Many dying churches own their buildings outright. They may not have many people, but they have sanctuaries, education buildings, fellowship halls, and gymnasiums. New church plants often are forced to rent space from a school, theater, or other community organization, making them transient in the minds of the community and subject to the sensibilities of their landlords. 

The church I pastor experienced several “heydays” in the 1960s, 80s, and 90s, but by the time I came in 2022, the attendance had dwindled to about forty people on any given Sunday. Yet, thanks to the kindness of God and the faithfulness and fruitfulness of prior generations, the church owns remarkable facilities in the heart of a recently revitalized small town, and has the type of financial resources that takes generations to build. In other words, our church isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. We aren’t going to be kicked out of our meeting space if my preaching runs afoul of the zeitgeist. Because of our owned space, we can weather some storms—and light a few fires of our own. 

Of course, dying churches in need of revitalization are not unique among churches in having owned space. Healthy established churches often own their facilities, too. But the key to Cline and Humphrey’s argument is the need for a network of fortresses with owned space. In our current situation, we need all the aligned fortresses we can get and can ill afford to lose these chess pieces off the board. 

Further adding to the network effect, revitalizing churches often do not yet have enough people to fully utilize their owned facilities, which presents some unique opportunities to partner with other aligned institutions by providing them space to operate without fear of reprisal from landlords or the need to raise massive funds upfront. For example, these churches can use their space to house newly formed Christian schools, sports leagues, or even food co-ops or farmers markets. Any one of these might only represent a small fortress or outpost on their own, but together they begin to form formidable culture-building potential in a given locale. 

Capturing Loyalties

Cline and Humphrey also noted that one lesson for us is to:

“identify a population that is critical to your enemy and find a way to acquire their loyalty. In our situation, this means the Normies, the potentially “red-pilled” who are otherwise useful idiots for the opposition. Winning them is crucial.” 

Baptist churches are well-positioned to win the loyalty of Normies because they are, well, normal. The religious culture of America, for good or ill, is largely Baptist due to the proliferation of Baptist churches in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many non-church-going cultural Christians in Appalachia and the South have personal and family roots in Baptist churches. Having grown up going to VBS and playing church basketball in Baptist churches as kids, the barrier to attending a Baptist church is fairly low because they are familiar.

Further, the remaining members in these churches are latently aligned with the new Christian Right. They wouldn’t necessarily put it in those terms, but they realize the country they knew and grew up with is gone, but they can’t quite put their finger on how it happened or what to do about it. But they are eager for those who tell the truth without wavering and offer assertive leadership. When someone does that, their instincts align.  

Therefore, if we can revitalize these churches and fill their pulpits with bold preaching that applies all the Bible to all of life, including making unapologetic specific application for today’s most pressing issues, we can capture the loyalty of Normies. 

Further, while the dwindling membership of these churches might represent a short-term hurdle, the situation has potential long-term upside because these churches have already experienced a pruning. By the law of averages, larger established churches will have more people among their ranks loyal to the spirit of the age, especially when it comes to egalitarianism and woke ideology. These types of people often will have already self-selected out of the dying Baptist churches. The new pastor can then screen and filter new members by his preaching and public writing, attracting aligned members and repelling those who would subvert the mission from within. The long-term result is a stronger fortress.

We Can Do This

Revitalizing Baptist churches is feasible for at least five reasons. First, the Baptist understanding of the autonomy of each local church makes it easier for based pastors to enter the pastorate. They need not deal with any progressive denominational bureaucracies. Each church calls its own pastor, and due to a burgeoning national pastor shortage, many dying churches are simply looking for a few good men. An organization focused on connecting churches in need of revitalization with aligned and qualified men willing to pastor them could see tremendous fruit. 

Second, revitalizing churches is feasible because people need shepherds. A pastor who loves and serves his people; who genuinely cares for their souls; who is present both in times of joy and seasons of suffering; who is a steadfast anchor in times of crisis; and is a faithful teacher of God’s Word will win the loyalty and following of his congregation. God made us to need and follow shepherds. Therefore, if we can connect true shepherds with true (if struggling) churches, God might be pleased to bless the church and turn them into one of the many fortresses that usher in the new Christendom. 

Third, many of these churches are in Christianity’s historical strongholds in America—Appalachia and the South, still the regions of our nation most hospitable and receptive to the Christian faith. Fourth, and related, these regions are also home to many in the Unbelieving Right, the non-Christian dissident conservatives who, being fed up with the progressive Left, are ripe for the Gospel that roots their desire to RETVRN in history, eternity, and truth. In other words, southern and Appalachian struggling churches who take a missionary posture toward cultural Christians and the dissident right have a bright future for revitalization. 

Fifth, the proliferation of remote work makes revitalizing churches in rural and dying communities more viable. As the Great Sort continues and more families seek to move out of urban and large suburban areas to more affordable housing and less intrusive government, the pool of congregants for these dying churches will grow. Likewise, many churches in need of revitalization can only employ bi-vocational pastors. In years past, the pool of potential pastors in these areas would be severely limited by the other job opportunities in the area. Now, with remote work, the pool of bi-vocational pastors available to a church is greatly enlarged. 

The Means and the Will 

Again, this essay is only meant to give one specific application of the fortress-building strategy for cultural insurgency. I’ve limited it to Baptist church revitalization because, being my tradition, it’s the one I’m familiar with, but also because of the prominence of Baptist churches in the American religious landscape. 

Another reason church revitalization, especially among Southern Baptists, is a decisive point is because we have the resources to pull it off. The SBC’s North American Mission Board has half a billion dollars in assets and receives over $100 million each year in missions giving from Southern Baptist churches. Imagine a based NAMB pouring money and resources into revitalizing rural and small-town churches across Appalachia and the South instead of sending most of their missions dollars to large blue cities that require a leftward contextualization and a progressive framing of Christianity. Imagine NAMB connecting qualified and uncompromising men to struggling churches rather than expending their efforts on soft-pedaling egalitarianism and woke ideology to Southern Baptist churches. I am thankful that NAMB does have a focus on church replanting, which is similar in many ways to revitalization. However, in terms of messaging and money, this does not seem to be a top priority for NAMB. What if Southern Baptists committed to salvaging what we have rather than always starting something new? What if we loved and served these congregations in such a way we earned their loyalty, and then led them to redeploy their resources—in time, focus, people, money, facilities—toward rebuilding Christendom in their communities and networked with other fortresses throughout the nation doing the same?

What if we took some old-school Baptist energy with us into the new Christendom? It’s fun to imagine deacons smoking on the back steps again, poasting attendance in the front of the sanctuary, and making potluck Jello salad great again. But what we really need is men with chests who preach that Heaven is real, Hell is hot, sodomy is a great sin, the Bible is authoritative and sufficient for every area of life, men are not women, the blood of Jesus cleanseth from all sin, and (whispers to our presbyterian brothers) baptism is for believers only. We need missions offerings, hymns about the cross, and neighborhood evangelism. We need thick communities who love the Lord and each other; who teach their children and the neighbor kids the Bible; who won’t give an inch to the progressive Left that wants to destroy their way of life. 

All of this is possible. It’s not that we don’t have the means, it’s that we Southern Baptists don’t have the will—yet. We are experiencing a crisis of leadership, for our leaders have their priorities inverted. This is why the newly launched Center for Baptist Leadership is so important. We need new leadership that can lead Southern Baptists to wage a cultural insurgency that doesn’t make peace with Negative World but conquers it. 

A vision to strengthen our stronghold regions through church revitalization is precisely the insurgency mindset that is possible to do and worth doing. By God’s grace, and one church at a time, we’ll take our homeland again for King Jesus. 

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Rhett Burns

Rhett Burns is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Travelers Rest. He's a small business owner and a contributing editor to the Fight Laugh Feast magazine. He lives in Travelers Rest, SC with his wife and four children. He can be found on X/Twitter @rhett_burns

6 thoughts on “Restore Baptist Churches to Save the West

  1. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should. We should note that the metaphors being used by Renn, Cline, and Humphrey are metaphors used by other insurgents in other conflicts. Some of those insurgents include people like Vlad Lenin and Fidel Castro. And that should give us a moment of pause as to who we are seeking to imitate. Are we following how Jesus told us to relate to unbelievers with the “Onward Christian Soldier” battlecries? Are we following the instructions from and examples set by the Apostles with our military metaphors that focus on conquering the enemy? Perhaps all of this conquest talk shows that what we accuse the LGBT agenda of is just projection on our part.

    Martin Luther King Jr cites a passage from Mark when James and John asked Jesus to put them at His right and left hands when talking about Christians exemplifying the ‘Drum Major Instinct.’ Though we all have that for egotistical purposes and thus should judge each other as peers, we need to point out when our egos are getting too much say in our theologies. We need to work together to control that Drum Major Instinct lest, like how Paul described the Jews of his day, we have a zeal but one that is not according to the Word of God.

    1. Typical Commie Curt response.

      I think I’ve devised a formula for you: reverence to your idol MLK Jr (false social gospel), gloating about Occupy Wall Street activism, simping for the alphabet mafia, whining about words used by your least favorite authors on this blog, blanket diagnoses of authoritarianism, false accusations of not following Christ, and other leftist/Marxist ilk perpetuated throughout the response. Treat this like a Madlib, pick your favorite subjects and give it to a kindergartener to let them do the rest.

      Here we have an article (and other articles on this site) written by men who are doing the real work of rebuilding American Christianity, and read by men who do the same. He has a continual bone to pick with men like Pastor Burns who refuse to allow leftist agendas to take hold in their churches. On three quarters of these articles, like this one, Commie Curt sees his Bat Signal and hammers out his leftist vomit in the comment section. This is his activism, he tells himself! The contrarian hooplah is truly good work, he says!

      Keep up the hard work, sir. Obviously, you see it as your job to entertain us in the comment section, since that’s what you do all day.

      1. Andrew,
        For all your verbosity, you addressed neither any specific point made in the article nor any specific point made in my comment. And yet, you complained that I gave a blanket diagnosis for authoritarianism, amongst other issues which were also absent in my above comment.

        The article is not about me but the general direction in which the writer, and those he mentioned, want to take the Church and Christianity in this nation. And that direction is illustrated by military metaphors, especially by Cline and Humphrey and somewhat by Burns, rather than pointing to the teachings of Jesus and the instructions from and examples provided by the Apostles. And so it is very reasonable to question the direction that the above article wants to set for American Christianity seeing the personal examples those who are to imitate. That is especially true when the direction specified in the article bears a significant resemblance to James and John when they asked Jesus to sit at His right and left hand. BTW, the MLK reference to the Drum Major Instinct isn’t about authoritarianism.

        Do you believe that the Gospel is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1)? And do you agree with Paul when he states later on in Romans that people come to faith from hearing the preaching of the Gospel (Romans 10)? BTW, a similar statement by Paul was in Galatians 3.

        And so is it the imposition of Church Law on society that makes a society Christian or is it the preaching of the Gospel? Remember that the Apostolic Church faced a far harsher negative view from the world than we are facing? How did the Apostles respond to that negative view?

        Again, the article is not about me. So do you want to deal with the specifics in the article and my comment or do you prefer to distract people from those specifics? After all, one of the previous articles posted on the American Reformer website complained about those who prefer to blast the “enemies” of Reformed traditions rather than spending their time promoting those traditions.

    2. Hypocrisy is defined as the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform. Everything within your reply is exactly that. You lead with “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should”. Maybe it’s time you looked into that mirror and questioned yourself. While you opine to following Jesus, the Apostles, and Paul, you support an agenda that directly conflicts with the beliefs of all the aforementioned individuals and the entirety of the bible. Openly bashing an article that is nothing more than an outreach to those who seek a similar preferred life style, offering them a place they can feel supported in, is mirrored in your accusations of others.

  2. This is an excellent article Rhett, as was the one by Cline and Humphrey.
    10 years ago we moved our family from Colorado to small town Alaska. This was not a “Benedict option” move, but more of a strategic retreat. Here we attended church and worked on rebuilding the decayed town center. We revitalized buildings and installed small businesses. Things were going very well. However, the Marxist upheaval that was prevalent throughout the country especially during the Covid insanity opened our eyes to our vulnerabilities. One, our church was one we attended mostly for not forsaking the assembly. Two, the town is nearly 70% leftists and Alaska, I fear, is soon to follow (as Colorado did). Three, the assembly, mayor, and population in general are a socialist nightmare which is why all of the buildings were vacant and rotting to begin with. Four, our personal liberties were absolutely not protected during Covid, or during any natural disaster, or frankly at any time at all. Five, as the country disintegrates before our eyes we are in a very precarious location for travel, supplies, and even basic utilities. Six, our children are “going down South” for school and employment – two more in August to New Saint Andrews in Idaho and we would like to be closer.
    All that being said, we have reached our “decisive point” whereby another strategic retreat has been ordered and have spent the last 2-3 years looking for a new place to build a “stronghold”… not just a church, but an entire revitalized town where:
    a) the church building (denomination irrelevant) and most of Main street is vacant, inexpensive, but still able to be revitalized.
    b.)the state and general population are not against us – revitalizing a beloved Main street can make good impressions on a community (and a very bad one for anti-capitalists). Using this good impression to influence and create a local body politic and restore the “law of the lesser magistrate”.
    c.) Has some sort of strategic import and meanwhile helps restore the soul, minds, economy, and dignity to the local population
    d.) Has a high likelihood of self-sustainment in shipping, trade, energy, food, etc…
    Interestingly, I also have found that Appalachia or the South are good candidates for projects like this. Particularly but not limited to West Virginia and Mississippi.
    I would love to talk to somebody more about these projects.

    1. Sounds like they rejected your vision and your right wing politics. That’s always a good sign of needed self-reflection.

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