In an attempt to reach urban elite professionals and reverse sagging membership, the Southern Baptist Convention has also adopted a postmodern strategy that downplays much of the denomination’s conservative social agenda. In New York magazine (October 18), Franklin Foer writes that in the last few years the SBC has experienced membership loss and has responded by attempting to “reach a long-neglected market: cities. Southern Baptists have sent experienced urban missionaries to Chicago, Phoenix, Boston, and Las Vegas and given them two years to spiritually make over the cities.”
But the SBC has invested the most heavily in New York, an area that has seen less conservative evangelical activity, aside from burgeoning ethnic outreach. In New York, the SBC has established several congregations as part of its New Hope New York campaign, with unchurchly names like Mosaic, Journey, and Graffiti. The strategy uses visiting lay missionaries who pray and evangelize residents, particularly targeting the influential sectors–such as those in entertainment and the media.
Foer writes that the new missionaries are heavily influenced by the Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, Calif.and its pastor Rick Warren (author of the best-selling Purpose-Driven Life). With Warren, the missionaries have embraced New Age and therapeutic rhetoric, blanketing “Hell’s Kitchen with postcards promising `holistic growth’ and `lives transformed.'”
To further “win over believers in the urban north,” the SBC missionaries have “checked their politics at the door,” and eschew focusing on such hot button issues as abortion and homosexuality. So far, the SBC groups have gained a following among three subgroups: Asian-Americans who grew up in evangelical homes, Southern expats looking for some comforting reminders of home, and a “good number of longtime city dwellers,” (including the “NPR-listening antiwar variety”). Many in the latter subgroups are lapsed Catholics seeking a new spiritual home.