Southern Baptists Try Different Ways To 'Reconcile Baltimore To God's Kingdom'

July 13, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,

There was a coffeehouse vibe in the basement of a Bolton Hill brownstone where 20 or so men and women gathered on a recent evening.

Mostly in their 20s and 30s, they had hugged hello as they filed into the brightly painted former architecture studio. They had poured the free-trade French roast and unpacked the cupcakes. They had broken into small groups for an icebreaker - name the three people you would take to a desert island - and laughed when it turned out that several had come up with MacGyver, the resourceful secret agent from the 1980s television show.

Finally, it was time for Joel Kurz to get to the point.

"We're asking you to join us in planting a church," the 28-year-old pastor of the Garden Community said. "We're asking you to reconcile Baltimore to God's kingdom."

One of more than a dozen such startups in the area, the Garden Community is at the vanguard of a push by the Southern Baptist Convention into Baltimore, targeted as a "strategic focus city" by its North American Mission Board. Eleven churches have begun to hold worship services here in the last two years, two others are set to open in September, and organizers see as many as half a dozen more forming by the end of the year.

The new congregations are as varied as the neighborhoods in which they've settled. New Hope Community Church, which meets in a Curtis Bay recreation center flanked by bars on all four corners, serves breakfast before Sunday services and sends worshipers home with sandwiches afterward. The Light Church in Mount Vernon boasts a coffeehouse and art gallery. The Gallery Church in Charles Village holds a Saturday discussion group in an Irish bar.

The effort comes as the nation's largest Protestant body struggles to reverse a historic decline in membership. If current trends hold, President Johnny Hunt warned members at the annual convention last month, its numbers could fall from the current 16.2 million to 8.7 million by 2050.

For the last decade, leaders of the traditionally rural denomination have been trying to reach beyond its Bible Belt stronghold and into the urban areas of the Northeast, Midwest and West - regions where it may be better known for its socially conservative positions on abortion and homosexuality than for its spiritual beliefs, worship practices or good works.

The Baltimore Baptist Association invited the North American Mission Board to set up Embrace Baltimore in 2007. The move brought experienced managers to the city to help bolster the 72 mostly small Southern Baptist Convention churches already in the area and the new ones to come.

Here, as in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities on which the denomination has concentrated its efforts, the focus has been less on political activism than on community service.

"We didn't want to be known strictly for what we were against, but we wanted to be known for helping people in need," said Rich Carney, a strategy coordinator for the mission board. "It's one of those situations where, as followers of Christ, we need to put hands and feet on what we say."

So New Hope Community Church has given away furniture and sent volunteers to a local soup kitchen. Infinity Church, which is due to hold its first Sunday service on Sept. 13 in Northeast Baltimore, has held sports camps for local youth.

"It's just kind of getting out to meet the neighbors, casting vision, sharing with them what we're trying to do, loving on the community," Infinity pastor Aaron Pankey said.

In May, members of the Garden Community walked what they called the Trail of Tears, visiting the sites of the five most recent murders in the neighborhood and stopping at each to lay a rose and pray for peace in the city. The church, which bills itself as a "creative community of Jesus followers," is gearing up to paint a local elementary school, mentor students and help their parents complete high school diplomas.

At the meeting in the brownstone, Kurz opened the New Testament to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans and spoke of the sacrifices made by the early Christians living in a hostile empire.

"We live in an empire as well," he said. "It's an empire of consumerism and I would say it's an empire of individualism. And the thing is that we end up giving in to the lie of the empire without even realizing it.

"Money, cash, becomes our god. Climbing the corporate ladder becomes our ministry. Wal-Mart is our worship center. It's OK to try to get all that we can for ourselves and walk over those who don't have anything and not reach out to help."

He asked attendees to stick with the church, to worship with it and join in its community service. "We are asking you to sacrifice what you like, sacrifice things that you like, in order to discover a life that you'll love."

Kiki White, visiting the Garden Community for the first time, was impressed.

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