Monday, October 19, 2009

1000 Miles, 3 Baptist Churches

A few weeks ago, I embarked on an autumn photography driving tour of portions of Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho, starting from my home near Bozeman. The 1000 mile trip, a loop, traversed a cross-section of the Rocky Mountain West: state roads, county roads, tiny communities, small towns, larger towns, one very large city (Salt Lake), back streets, city streets, and interstate highways. As in most road trips, my antenna was attuned to noticing church buildings (I can't seem to help myself!). On autumn road trips of the past in the Southeast, I recall seeing so many church buildings that the ratio must have been in the neighborhood of one per mile! And a fall tour of New England a few years ago resulted in numerous church sightings, although admittedly many were old buildings sitting alongside country roads and seemed little-used.

The Rocky Mountain West, however, is a different animal. In a thousand miles of driving, I spotted dozens of Mormon wards, tabernacles, and temples; exactly three Baptist churches; and no more than twelve Christian churches total (primarily Lutheran, which is to be expected in this part of the country).

American Baptists arrived early in the Rockies region, and have a nominal presence today; there are three in a fifty mile radius - 100 miles east to west or north to south - of my house. Southern Baptist congregations trace their origins to the 1950s, as oil workers from Texas and Oklahoma, some Southern Baptist, landed in the area as a result of job transfers; still struggling, there are four SBC churches within a fifty mile radius of my house. I know of one independent Baptist congregation in the same area, although I'm guessing there may be one or two of which I know not. And, as of this year, Cooperative Baptists have one congregation (The Well at Billings, Montana) in about a four hundred mile radius, if not more, of my house (see the map here); the Billings congregation is the first of five churches we plan to plant in Montana.

Sure, there are plenty of Lutherans and Catholics (the dominant faith of the region's early settlers), a sprinkling of other mainline Protestants (Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians), and a number of non-denominational congregations, a few of which are fairly large - not to mention LOTS of Mormons and quite a few Jehovah's Witnesses. All told, though, very few folks (less than 1 in 3) who collectively live in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada claim to be in church (or synagogue or other house of worship) any given week, among the lowest number in the nation (along with some New England states). Even so, self-reported religious surveys tend to result in inflated numbers, and my guess is that less than half of the one-third actually attend church at any given time.

And so I wonder: why aren't Cooperative Baptists paying more attention to the unchurched West (and, for that matter, unchurched New England?). I wonder, but in reality I already know the answer: we CBF Baptists thus far refuse to take church planting seriously. We incessantly talk missions (this is good!), yet despite the fact that our moderate Baptist seminaries are now turning out hundreds of graduates annually, we're doing very little to establish new congregations in which they might serve.

Montana might not be the most obvious place from which to try to raise CBF consciousness about church planting, but then again, maybe it does make sense: the unchurched nature of much of the American West rivals that of many mission fields worldwide, and missions is the heartbeat of CBF.

1000 miles, 3 Baptist churches. That's the same distance as driving from the southern coastal city of Charleston, SC to the mid-western town of Jefferson City, Missouri.

We can do better than this. If we only try.

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