Crisis of Faiths

A steady decline in the membership of some of Tennessee's largest denominations signals trouble for the businesses that rely upon them [From the July/August issue of Nashville Post magazine]

For the record, it’s 10.7 churches per 10,000 people.

That statistic from the Glenmary Research Center might be the closest thing to numerical verification that Nashville has “a church on every corner.” (Apparently, we can’t claim “more churches per capita” than any other major city; Glenmary ranks us third, behind Salt Lake City and Birmingham, Ala.)

It’s safe to say, however, that the Bible is bigger business here than anywhere. Nashville is home to the two largest Protestant denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church, and the two largest African-American denominations, the National Baptist Convention and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And it’s the epicenter of Christian publishing and music.

Nashville is where the Gideons produce their ubiquitous New Testament, where Thomas Nelson sells more Bibles than any other publisher, and where LifeWay Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the SBC, generates hymnals and Sunday school materials for tens of thousands of churches. It’s where Christian artists create, and an industry celebrates, music that reaches far beyond its Southern Gospel roots.

But that steeples-to-storefronts fabric is fraying.

Fade to gray

That’s not exactly breaking news at the 8th Avenue offices of the United Methodist Publishing House, where 30 years of eroding membership in UM churches has also eroded sales of the publishing house’s core products: worship and Sunday school resources. Neil Alexander, president of UMPH, says while print costs have climbed, the company can raise prices only so far before they become prohibitive to congregations with fewer supporters in the pews.

The problem is compounded by changing demographics and technology. United Methodists are a graying denomination; with an average age of 57, they don’t require the Sunday school curricula they once did. Individual congregations can produce their own bulletins and study materials, Alexander says, and many no longer use hymnals — another core product of UMPH.

The publishing house has roughly halved its workforce since the late 1980s, when it shuttered its printing press, he says. And while store sales still account for half its revenues ($90 million this year), three of its 25 seminary stores and six of its 45 full-line Cokesbury Bookstores have closed in the last three years. (Cokesbury is not alone; according to EP News, half of all Christian bookstores have closed since 1989.)

Whether it’s the church or the church-based business, “an institution that doesn’t renew itself fades away,” Alexander warns. “And what we’re about is too important to fade away.” The key to that renewal, he says, is reconnecting with youth — “but I can tell you that, strategically, we haven’t cracked that nut.”

Coat of many angles

Like the UMC, the Southern Baptist Convention has experienced a decades-long drop in membership. Still, there are twice as many Southern Baptists as United Methodists, and so with its built-in client base of 45,000 Southern Baptist churches, LifeWay Christian Resources may be better insulated against downward economic and denominational trends, says Marcia Nelson, religion editor for Publishers Weekly.

A 4,750-employee company, LifeWay is among the country’s top 150 online retailers. Its six divisions include LifeWay Christian Stores, with 150 U.S. locations, and trade publisher B&H Publishing Group. Although physical products like hymnals and Sunday school curricula are the bulk of LifeWay’s sales, the company has diversified to buffer the effects of both denominational decline and industry-related pressures, says Philip Nation, director of ministry development for LifeWay Research. LifeWay now offers services from consulting and conferencing to financial and architectural planning.

Like UMPH, LifeWay is a nonprofit; its $500 million in annual revenues support the SBC. Still, the diversity that helps boost its bottom line can carry it into territory that feels more “business” than “religion.” Take the B&H book Simple Church, in which co-author (and LifeWay president) Thom Rainer recommends that pastors apply the “simplicity” cure to anemic congregations. “Go ahead,” the introduction says, “let down your guard. No new program is going to be pushed.” The corresponding website,, redirects to Dallas-based, which offers pastoral coaching for a fee of $300 plus $295 to 425 per month.

Diversification isn’t LifeWay’s only strategy against denominational downsizing. LifeWay has also broadened its customer base, which now includes 35,000 non-SBC congregations.

As a result, “it’s difficult to equate the SBC membership decline with any adverse effect on our revenue,” says spokesperson Micah Carter. But many client churches are buying less, Carter says, and in recent years, LifeWay has streamlined accordingly. “LifeWay looks smaller than 10 years ago and will look different 10 years from now, as well,” he says.

Fifty ways to leave...

Such is the nature of the church-based business, that the traditional symptoms you might read in an annual report — shrinking retail space, reduced head count, etc. — reflect a larger, harder to quantify crisis in the denominations that produced and nurture them.

It’s been a very public crisis at the 155-year-old Southern Baptist Convention, which outgoing president Johnny Hunt compared to the Titanic when he took the helm in 2008. LifeWay Research soon bolstered the comparison, noting a 35-year decline in the baptism rate, a key measure of growth for Southern Baptists.

Despite a slight rise in that rate last year, LifeWay’s Rainer was hardly sanguine about the SBC’s future. “I’m not ready to start celebrating that the trend has been reversed,” he told The Tennessean in May. “It’s still a very small number, historically. We were actually baptizing more people in 1950, when we were a denomination half this size.”

To be fair, population shift has hurt the SBC. The number of Southern Baptist churches is actually increasing, but more than half are in low-growth areas. The denomination’s problems, however, go far beyond demographics.

“We’ve got a third more people in America than we had in 1950, and we’ve got more churches, yet we’re baptizing fewer people,” notes Rev. Ted Traylor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., who unsuccessfully ran for the SBC presidency in June. “We’ve got a spiritual issue. And it’s not just Baptists — others are the same way.”

Though it’s true that all major Protestant denominations are steadily shrinking, between its politicization and its public infighting, the SBC has been particularly effective at alienating its members. Since the 1970s, its leadership has become more fundamentalist and politically outspoken, and the SBC’s public image has been defined by reactionary grandstanding like the boycott of Walt Disney Co. for its “pro-homosexual agenda.”

Off-put by protracted doctrinal tug-of-war, scores of Baptist churches have disaffiliated from the convention, and some Southern Baptist schools have fought to reduce denominational control over their leadership. (In 2007, after much legal wrangling, Belmont University in Nashville bought its independence from the Tennessee Baptist Convention for $11 million.)

To protect themselves from the fallout, many remaining Southern Baptist congregations, which operate autonomously, have carefully calibrated their convention affiliation — and their financial support — of the SBC. Rev. Mike Glenn of Brentwood Baptist Church says the denomination “has become so politically identified with the right that it doesn’t help you with engaging your community. So we work with the Baptist structures where it helps us — like [with] international missions. Where it doesn’t help us, we don’t say anything.”

Others don’t fly the Baptist flag at all, like LifePoint Church (previously First Baptist Church, Smyrna) and The People’s Church (First Baptist Church of Franklin).

“I can’t remember the last time I talked to somebody about this being a Baptist church,” says Rev. Rick White of The People’s Church, who took flak from Southern Baptists 10 years ago when he adopted the non-denominational name and a non-traditional, “seeker-sensitive” worship style.

Rev. Frank Lewis of First Baptist Nashville says the 185-year-old downtown landmark has kept its name primarily for historical reasons, although “there have been times when we’ve cringed about a few things.”

Such a spiritual crisis quickly becomes a financial one when, according to LifeWay’s own figures, only six million of its 16 million members attend church on a typical Sunday, and each generation puts less in the collection plate than the generation before. “The average evangelical gives 2½ percent of his income to the Lord’s work,” says Rev. Bryant Wright of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., and the SBC’s new president. “If that isn’t an expression that they love money more than they love the Lord, I don’t know what is.”

Unfortunately for leaders such as Wright, younger churchgoers don’t associate institutional giving with loving the Lord — a fact that hits hard in the trickle-up world of the SBC. “The postmodern culture doesn’t send money to big buckets,” Glenn explains. “They want to go to missions personally.”

Denominational drift

If Southern Baptists are fleeing the fold, mainline Protestants are drifting, or dying, away.

According to Rev. Dan Rosemergy, chair of the Interfaith Alliance of Middle Tennessee, most young Americans “don’t connect with the doctrine of the institutional church, the language, even the forms of worship. They find within themselves ways to connect with the sacred.” A recent LifeWay survey revealed that while two-thirds of “millennials,” those born between 1980 and 1991, call themselves Christian, only a quarter attend weekly services; two-thirds never or rarely do.

Rev. Timothy Kimbrough of Christ Church Cathedral suggests that the sense of tradition that motivated generations of churchgoers now runs counter to modern American sensibilities. “The excess of a post-enlightenment world, where the focus is on the individual, is that to do anything by rote or simply because of tradition is anathema to the path less traveled,” he says. “It’s not just that it’s insufficient cause to come [to church]; it’s the very wrong reason to initially appeal.”

This existential crisis is not apparent in Nashville’s spreading infrastructure. The metro area has tripled its population over the past few decades, and James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of the divinity school at Vanderbilt University, notes that “existing churches didn’t get three times larger; you got three times more churches.”

But more churches don’t yield more churchgoers. Some 60 percent of Nashvillians don’t worship regularly, says Rev. Scott Roley of Christ Community Church in Franklin. Hoping to lure lost lambs, most congregations try to find the right blend of traditional message and modern delivery. Roley, for example, retains some high-church elements in his Presbyterian services but preaches in jeans and sandals. But such cultural accommodations aren’t enough to reverse a fundamental problem, he says.

“It doesn’t matter what the discipline or theological structure,” he says. “There are people leaving the church because they’re disenchanted with it.”

Spreading the Word

Though the crisis in the church may be, at its core, spiritual rather than financial, church leaders looking to replenish the flock have turned for a solution to that boon or bane of business owners everywhere — marketing.

In 2000, the United Methodist Church tackled its membership troubles head-on with a multi-stage, research-based ad campaign branding itself as welcoming and socially progressive. (The latest stage, Rethink Church, launched last year at a cost of $20 million.) As of 2008, the results were measurable, according to Rev. Larry Hollon, CEO of United Methodist Communications. United Methodists rose from ninth to second place in name recognition among 10 major denominations, he says, and ads immediately boosted church attendance by 12 percent. (It’s unclear whether churches retained those attendees long-term, he notes.)

The UMC’s marketing research revealed a critical fact: Millennials answer calls to action, not calls to worship. Young people responded overwhelmingly to the denomination’s recent “Imagine No Malaria” campaign, raising $7 million in two years to send malaria nets to Africa. “That’s a measurement that does not translate necessarily into the creation of youth groups or young adults taking part in a local church worship service,” Hollon says. Great news, that is, for the denomination’s spiritual mission; not so much for its member churches, or its publishing house.

When young people do respond to the call to worship, they’re likely to be found at a gathering like Kairos, Brentwood Baptist’s Tuesday-night “come-as-you-are worship experience” featuring big-screen video and contemporary Christian music. Though Kairos launched six years ago with a direct-mail ad campaign, Rev. Mike Glenn says Brentwood Baptist almost never uses traditional advertising; word-of-mouth and a burgeoning location have helped it grow eight-fold, to 7,000 members, during his 20-year pastorate, he says.

But like many churches that are successfully “replenishing,” Brentwood Baptist has made smart use of social networking, which is akin to marketing but far more palatable to millennial tastes. Young people are invited to visit Kairos on Facebook and follow it on Twitter, and if they hear music they like at Kairos, they can download it from iTunes, via the Kairos website.

This sort of media-driven, denominationally ambiguous service is what seems, for now, to still pull some young people into church. The model is rooted in 1980s-era “seeker-sensitive” mega-churches, which at the time were criticized for jettisoning the Bible along with the choir robes. Today’s mega-pastors, however, tend to dismiss the “seeker” label. Young people want straight talk, Glenn says, even if it’s delivered in the frenetic environment that’s become their comfort zone.

“They have very sensitive crap-ometers,” he warns. “Our little brothers and sisters are the most marketed-to generation in history. They’re constantly being hassled. If they think you’re trying to sell them something, you’re over.”

But selling is necessary in the business of religion, even if the product is the Gospel message, says Rev. John Gouldener of Crossroad Community Church. Gouldener says he took some heat several years ago when he appeared in live TV spots and on secular radio promoting nondenominational Highland Park Church, which he then led.

“There were denominational pastors talking about me in their Sunday sermons, saying, ‘You should not go on television and advertise like you’re selling a hamburger,’” he recalls. “Well, for years, hope was the only strategy the church had, and it worked because everybody went to church on Sunday; that’s what we were supposed to do. But our generation began to backpedal on that. Now, we can have the greatest church service in the world, but if we don’t market that, no one will know.”

Selling the Good News

Though every industry leader interviewed for this story characterized his primary mission as evangelical, not commercial, the economic impact of religion on Nashville is inescapable. Tens of thousands of people make their living in the Music City spreading the Good News.

And most of them are not tied to organized religion. Far bigger than LifeWay, for instance, is the country’s leading Christian publisher, Thomas Nelson, whose fortunes are linked more to an industry sector than to a denomination.

But while UMPH’s Neil Alexander is fretting over empty church pews, Thomas Nelson’s Chairman and CEO, Michael Hyatt, is scanning the horizon, waiting for The Next Big Thing — mega-hits like The Purpose Driven Life (Zondervan, 2002), which historically lift the entire Christian genre.

While Hyatt won’t discuss numbers, he says Thomas Nelson’s revenues reflect the recent dearth of mega-hits; online reports by industry analysts indicate the company’s sales dipped 9 percent in 2008 alone, and last year it pared its 600-person workforce by 19 percent.

Thomas Nelson keeps a toe in the traditional Christian market, despite the general decline among religious bookstores. Bibles still constitute 30 percent of the company’s sales, Hyatt says, and its core customer is still a 35- to 55-year-old woman. But it now sells 65 percent of its products through mainstream retailers, which are frequented by a broader demographic, including that coveted millennial — 67 percent of whom don’t read the Bible, according to LifeWay Research.

“The pressure being felt in the Christian market is in the distribution channel and at the retail level, not at the publishing level,” says Publishers Weekly’s Nelson. “The publishers who work with the CBA (the Christian Booksellers Association) may not ignore Christian retail, but they also know on which side their bread is buttered. Right now, they’re selling a lot in the ABA (secular) market.”

In 2008, according to industry reports, Thomas Nelson became the first major publisher to withdraw from the International Christian Retail Show, the industry’s largest trade event.

Yet Hyatt considers Thomas Nelson to be different from its competition — generally Christian imprints of secular publishers. “We’re all-in,” he explains. “This is the market we’re committed to, and we’re in it for reasons beyond what would be commercially explainable.”

Marcia Nelson predicts a technological shift in the Christian sector, including the demise of The Next Big Thing as self-publishing democratizes the genre. (Thomas Nelson launched its own self-publishing arm last year.) But Hyatt says he’s more concerned about cultural shift. If millennials are not reading the Bible, it might be because they’re too distracted to read at all.

“While publishing has made it easier for authors to get into print, what they are not making any more of is people’s attention,” he says. “The greatest threat publishers and authors face is not technology, but obscurity.”

Making a joyful noise

If there’s a bright spot in the business of religion, it’s in Christian music — and that’s good news for Nashville. Music pumps $6.38 billion annually into the local economy, according to a study by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and Belmont University, and Christian music has been a significant part of the mix since the 1980s.

Granted, the whole music industry is reeling from a decade of plummeting sales, and the Christian niche has not been immune. The Gospel Music Association recently restructured, cutting its staff from 18 to three and selling its 5,000-square-foot offices on Division Street.

But Christian music can boast a growing slice of the industry’s overall shrinking pie. With some $500 million in annual sales, the genre is 7.2 percent of all music sales, a percentage that is steadily growing. Last year, even as parent company EMI fought to forestall bankruptcy, EMI Christian Music Group President Bill Hearn reported that his division was publishing eight of the 10 songs sung in churches every week. Fewer people may be worshipping, but worship music is a growth industry.

The far broader trend in Christian music, however, mirrors the millennial preference for personal spirituality over institutional religion. Jeremy Holley, vice president of consumer and interactive marketing for Word Entertainment, says that though church youth groups are Word’s core audience, the bands connecting with youth “don’t necessarily want to be labeled ‘Christian,’ but are into social justice and wanting to impact change.”

Matt Austin, general manager of listener-supported 88.7 WAY-FM, says teens and young adults, his radio station’s target demographic, don’t respond to an “eat your spinach” message.

Musically as well as lyrically, the genre has spread far from its Southern Gospel roots; the GMA Dove Awards show is replete with pop, hip-hop and rock acts. “Anybody who’s watched the Dove awards in the last 10 years is going to get a Grammy feel,” notes Ed Leonard, GMA chairman.

The effect, increasingly, is music so amorphous that only the label affiliation distinguishes it as “Christian.” For example, Dove- and Grammy-winning rock band Red, which records for Sony’s Provident Music Group, favors songs about the internal struggle of good versus evil — a classic Christian theme. But neither of Red’s two studio albums, both certified gold, includes a clear religious reference.

Provident CEO Terry Hemmings does not equate that trend with declining faith. “[Youth] are more interested in investing in their faith,” he says, “but they want to address it in a completely different way. So we find that products that are just reminders that they have a God are not as impactful as those that call them to action.”

The strategy of meeting millennials where they are has paid off. More Christian singles are debuting in the top 25 of Billboard’s Top 200, and Contemporary Christian is the second-largest radio format, behind country.

The people’s church

Despite the success of some in the music and publishing industry at finding Christian products that retain that coveted millennial appeal — sometimes at the expense of overt references to Christianity — it’s clear that the closer one gets to the source material, the less one can tinker with the trappings. And for all of the actors in the business of religion in Middle Tennessee, such constrictions raise the question: Is the Christian message still marketable?

For businesses not linked to organized religion — no matter how “all-in” they consider themselves — the answer is yes, with caveats. Thomas Nelson publishes a spectrum of materials, from Bibles — the Word in pure form — to books by Brentwood-based financial guru Dave Ramsey, whose Christian ethos is a subtext to his primary message. If current trends hold, and fewer people each year read the Bible, Thomas Nelson can sell fewer Bibles and more Dave Ramsey, and, in doing so, still be considered a Christian publisher even as it moves further into the secular marketplace.

For denominational businesses, such pliable labeling makes for a murkier message. Are LifeWay’s architectural planning services more “Christian” than those of a qualified competitor whose business card sports a fish symbol? Regardless, LifeWay’s diversification has helped keep it — and SBC missions — afloat, while UMPH, which has stayed truer to its denominational calling, struggles against the cultural tide. But traditional business strategies — rebranding, diversification, etc. — are not an option for the church itself, whose mission is the message.

UMPH’s Neil Alexander suggests the church’s problem is not the message; it’s the messenger. “We have an embedded point of view,” he says of the current generation of church leaders. “There are ways that we are off-putting [to young people], and we don’t even know it.”

To Christ Community’s Scott Roley, the problem lies in the insular structure and traditions of the church itself: “North American Christians build this ark — whether it’s our music or our churches — keeping everybody together, versus really engaging the culture.” His solution? “Open up the ark, and throw everybody off.”

Certainly the Christian message is still viable and compelling. But if it’s best perpetuated off the ark, what becomes of the framework left behind?

There’s an implicit prediction in what James Hudnut-Beumler of Vanderbilt calls “the fascinating trend toward entrepreneurially rather than denominationally begun churches.” That is, a handful of people want a place to pray, but they pass up an established church to start a storefront of their own.

It’s not a new phenomenon — for religion or business. “Actually, the pattern is just as it was in the 1940s and ’50s,” Hudnut-Beumler notes. “Somebody gets permission to meet in an elementary school, they put a sign out front that says the church meets here every Sunday, and then they build up to a certain level where they can then go purchase property and build a church.”

For churches, and by extension for companies like UMPH and LifeWay that exist to meet their needs, it’s just the latest revolution in a classic business cycle — the big box stores are losing customers to younger, nimbler competitors. The good news? People are still shopping, and there’s plenty of Good News to go around.