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Bethlehem Church: Interpreting Churches’ Success Claims

Bethlehem Church: Interpreting Churches’ Success Claims September 8, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Recently, the news site of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) had a major victory to report: Bethlehem Church, a megachurch in a small town in Georgia, reported 114 baptisms on one Sunday. That’s a pretty big boast, considering the SBC’s in a major decline and has been for generations now. This claim intrigued me, so today let’s look at some very earthly explanations for this outrageously good performance.

the motion of the ocean
(Ryan Loughlin.)

Everyone, Meet Bethlehem Church.

Bethlehem Church is a megachurch in Georgia with several campuses. It comprises about 4000 members total across three different sites. Its main campus is located in Bethlehem, Georgia, a tiny little town (600ish people) some distance east-northeast of Atlanta. Whoa nelly, that town has a whole lot of churches all densely packed together. It makes finding information about this one church very difficult!

The SBC affiliation of Bethlehem Church can be found way at the bottom of their “Beliefs and Values” page. But we already knew they were SBC because they appeared in a recent article from Baptist Presswhich is the news arm of the SBC. They don’t often print anything that isn’t directly SBC-related. More to the point, they’d probably refuse to run an article about a competing Baptist denomination experiencing massive success at anything.

Jason Britt is the lead pastor of Bethlehem Church. He appears on their Staff page along with his pretty wife and three cute, well-tended children. This dude is probably close to royalty in the SBC right now because he’s actually seeing good church growth. Indeed, he makes sure to note that growth in his bio blurb on that page:

Outreach Magazine named Bethlehem Church as a “Top 100 Fastest-Growing Church” in the country list for 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

If he can avoid big scandals, he might well decide to throw his hat into the ring for SBC president one day.

After all, J.D. Greear won his second try on the strength of far less success than Britt is enjoying now. Here, we’re seeing exactly the resume of an SBC president.

Bethlehem Church: In the SBC News.

The SBC, reeling from a decades-long decline, declared that September 12 would totally be “Baptism Sunday” for the foreseeable future. So on September 7, they ran a story about Bethlehem Church.

Megachurches in general usually enjoy way more baptisms than smaller churches do. A small church (<100 enrolled members) might not see a single baptism all year. The ones who do, often dunk children who aren’t even old enough for preschool yet just to make their numbers look nicer. By contrast, megachurches often hit triple digits or close to it every year.

Megachurches comprise only a fraction of active churches in the United States (5-10% according to this source). Thus, one might consider them the curve-blowers for the rest of their class.

Even so, Bethlehem Church has typically hit 200+ baptisms per year for the last few years.

Why Bethlehem Church Thinks It Had That Success.

Naturally, we learn in the Baptist Press story (relink), Jason Britt has a ready explanation for why his church saw 114 baptisms on August 22:

Britt told the Christian Index the church experienced one of those spiritual moments that can’t be manufactured, that can only be instigated by God.

“It’s like with Elijah,” he said. “We don’t bring the fire; we just stack the wood. Our job is to just be obedient.”

Translated from the Christianese, Britt means that his church Jesus-ed the Jesus Jesus properly and with enough fervor to make Jesus decide to make himself useful for a change.

Boy, that’s gotta just suck for churches that Jesus just like Bethlehem Church does, yet do not see so many baptisms. Dozens of churches Jesus so hard they can’t feel their faces, and yet they do not see 114 baptisms in one day or 200+ per year.

I’ve seen this happen myself. My second Pentecostal church saw virtually zero growth for the whole time I officially attended there, and well past. That church closed long ago, it seems; the internet doesn’t even remember that it ever existed. I remember how sad its pastor was that he was doing everything right, yet he saw no growth.

Forget that. Jason Britt is telling the SBC exactly what they want to hear. They ache to believe that Jesus-ing properly and hard enough will bring in tons of new converts.

Corollary: If a church ain’t bagging a lot of baptisms, then they’re not Jesus-ing right. 

Alternate Explanations.

I used to live in Atlanta, and I immediately thought of a few very earthly explanations for all those baptisms at Bethlehem Church.

First and foremost, I see almost a dozen colleges within 30 miles of Bethlehem.

That might sound like a huge commute to anybody who’s never lived in Atlanta. I assure you, Atlanta folks would consider that a no-big-deal, quick jaunt. When I lived there, I knew dozens of people who commuted almost 50 miles each way to their jobs — and were happy it was such a short drive. It is a really spread-out city with a huge, sprawling footprint. It’s like how people commute to New York City from as far away as Baltimore, except with nowhere near the mass-transit options.

August 22 would have been right around the first day of the school year for those colleges. Tons of incoming college students would be blowing through the area and finding a new church to attend.

And what is the first thing a new church member does?

They get re-dunked.

Seriously.

I don’t think the SBC keeps track of re-baptisms. If they do, they don’t share this information. Instead, they present them all as brand-new conversion baptisms. But they’re very different animals. 

A Far Worse Explanation: Poaching.

Another explanation for all these baptisms offers itself immediately:

QAnon and COVID denialism have split churches along their seams all through the denomination, even if the SBC’s current president, Ed Litton, has his head completely buried in the sand about it. These controversies add to the SBC’s current struggles with racism in the form of their hostility toward Critical Race Theory (and with sexism, still, since they haven’t addressed the Abuse of Faith scandal yet).

I checked out every source I could find about Bethlehem Church. In all of their pictures, I see no social distancing or mask-wearing. Their official pages (like here on Facebook) do not talk about vaccinations or urging people to protect themselves from getting sick. They do not make any proclamations, either, about supporting Black people or women in their struggles. So I’m guessing that Bethlehem Church is quite regressive.

Any time squabbles break out in evangelicalism, a megachurch stands to poach a lot of members from the area’s smaller churches. As I mentioned, there are a whole lot of those churches in Bethlehem, Georgia.

Imagine all of those churches fighting over these current controversies. It wouldn’t take much for a belligerent, offended evangelical to start thinking about finding another church to attend. Regressives, in particular, tend to seek out churches that echo their own opinions.

I’m guessing there’s a lot of regressive evangelicals around Atlanta. After all, in a small town west of Atlanta (map), a strikingly young Georgia Baptist University teacher literally just died of COVID — because he probably wasn’t vaccinated.

And once an evangelical moves churches, especially if it involves joining a new denomination, what is the first thing they do?

Yes!

They get re-baptized.

The Other Problem: Retention and Churn.

SBC leaders have long lamented their denomination’s churn problem. Churn is a business term. It means the number of existing customers who sever their relationship with the company to go elsewhere. A company wants to keep this number as low as humanly possible.

Evangelical churches in general face a massive churn rate. They already faced a bad churn rate before they began to worship Donald Trump and QAnon’s trolling masters. I was writing about it at least by 2016. Their new affiliations have only made matters worse. They now suffer a worse churn rate than even their hated enemies: liberal denominations.

And this isn’t new, really. Back when I was Pentecostal in the late 80s/early 90s, I heard people talking about how sad it was that people would join, then leave for other churches. The SBC’s solution set isn’t new either. They’re still using exactly the same strategy that my Pentecostal group used: discipleship, which is sort of an intense indoctrination led by a mentor who gets really involved in their student’s personal life. And it’s working about as well for the SBC as it ever did for the Pentecostals decades ago.

If Bethlehem Church is baptizing so many hundreds of people, then we may assume they’re losing a lot of those people after a while (exactly as we saw when we examined J.D. Greear’s megachurch reports; they weren’t growing nearly as quickly as we’d expect with baptizing so many people). For the few new converts they may see, the euphoria of baptism wears off, and then the new baptize-ees see that life is still about the same as it ever was. Most are members flitting in from other churches, though, and often they flit back out again later on.

As long as evangelicals can’t simply force people to join up and stick around, their retention rate will continue to suffer.

Once Again, Bethlehem Church Shows Us the Truth About Evangelicalism.

I see nothing whatsoever about Bethlehem Church that stands out. It’s a standard-issue fundagelical church. Its pastor is probably pretty charismatic as a person, as most megapastors are. Every sermon of his that I’ve glanced across just tells his followers exactly what they want to hear. Like this one:

bethlehem church and prosperity gospel
Screenshot of a photo shared on the Bethlehem Church Facebook page. (Source.) PHRASING.

In the screenshot above, abundance is Christianese for “getting what you want from Jesus.” Jason Britt’s (probably-stolen and unattributed) twist on it is just a typical Christianese deepity.

So it seems extremely unlikely that the baptism rate at Bethlehem Church has been divinely boosted by a god who is desperate to save as many of his ant-farm pets from himself as he possibly can before he murders the entire world again in a fit of rage.

It seems far more likely that Bethlehem Church is 1) simply scooping up other evangelicals from area churches in the wake of various social-policy squabbles in evangelicalism these days, along with 2) bagging the usual crop of college students transitioning in from other churches as they move into their new homes for the next 9-10 months.

And that’s really a best-case scenario — even for evangelicals, though they don’t realize it.

(PS: Gee, I wonder how that first group will feel about belonging to an SBC church once they notice that the denomination now forces its international missionaries to get vaccinated for COVID?)

NEXT UP: A young evangelical lad has written a list of suggestions for evangelicals in the wake of the Texas abortion law. We’ll see where he’s reckoning without his hosts with his list, and we’ll give him a real answer to his title question. Because it has one, and he has no curiosity at all about it.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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