Most mornings in midtown Nashville find quiet streets and sidewalks filled with runners, dog walkers, and the occasional bicyclist. Vanderbilt University casts a long shadow over this community and shapes its culture into something that feels more like a Northern urban enclave rather than a neighborhood surrounded by “Southern” charm. Nashville is ground zero for the country music industry and the crown jewel of the “Bible belt,” with the headquarters for various Christian denominations (such as the Southern Baptist Convention) and numerous religious publishing empires (such asLifeWay) dotting its landscape.
Less than one month ago, Matthew McCullough completed his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University where his dissertation on American civil religion in the Spanish-American War earned accolades from the faculty. One might assume after years of arduous study that the 28-year-old would set out for a career in the academy. Instead, he decided to plant a church and preach.
McCullough represents a growing trend among Southern Baptists where young pastors are not stepping into “traditional” congregations or ministerial positions. Although church planting is presently in vogue among evangelicals, it is certainly not the path toward high visibility in large congregations with age-graded programs for families. Committed to a “no frills” method, Trinity Church is the result of Nashville’s Grace Community Church‘s vision for a congregation in this area of the city.
McCullough isn’t exactly what some might expect from a lifelong Southern Baptist. He is politically conservative, but not militantly so. On the usual evangelical shibboleths he remains steadfast with a twist. He is pro-life, but strongly pro-adoption of children in need of a home; though a steadfast advocate for marriage, he champions the need for local churches to embrace and provide safe places for those struggling with marital issues or homosexuality.
Listening to him preach in the auditorium of Eakin Elementary School on Sunday mornings is like hearing a lecture and engaging in conversation simultaneously. He reads from Genesis 12 and explains the significance of Abram in God’s promise to establish a new kingdom of people rescued from their sins and supernaturally placed into a new community. With professor-like precision, he moves to close the gaps between the ancient text and the modern era by carefully applying doctrinal principles of the Christian faith to known (and unknown) problems in the congregation.
Trinity Church’s membership spans the gamut from young professionals to college students skeptical of Christianity. Many members are not lifelong Southern Baptists, even though the church was established in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention. McCullough isn’t shy about being a Southern Baptist, but he is quick to point out that most members in his congregation know next to nothing of the infrastructure that comprises one of the largest denominational ministries in the world.
The small-town Alabama native (still a rabid Auburn fan) graduated from Boyce College (the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) prior to coming to Vanderbilt and works to minimize the work of the denominational machinery when it comes to the church’s outreach. His attitude is not one of annoyance or ingratitude. The SBC, he happily admits, “allows us to do more together than we can do alone.”
He points to the disaster relief in Alabama after tornadoes ripped through its major cities as one of the SBC’s finest cooperative ministries. Institutions that care for orphans, widows, and the elderly have his support, and the church has benefitted from the monetary investment of the Tennessee Baptist Convention—the state agency that cooperates with and helps manage the SBC’s North American Mission Board‘s efforts for church planting. The SBC’s International Mission Board is a cherished agency of this church, but McCullough is quick to state there is a drawback to the way Southern Baptists do missions as it can lead to a disconnect between missionaries and local churches.
Pastors like McCullough would not understand the enduring raw outrage of other Southern Baptists in the volatile SBC blogosphere who have written words so sharp that they make national politics look tame by comparison. It seems especially strange since all parties involved would claim inerrancy and salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. Even amid the perennial questions surrounding the ordo salutis, a basic doctrinal unity exists among those most vocal in their objections to current trends in SBC life. For what are all these theological conservatives fighting?
In midtown Nashville, where the Parthenon stands in the center of Centennial Park, the few residents who are mindful of Christianity are vocally opposed to its evangelical subculture. The American South is rumored to be an evangelical stronghold, but more and more this seems less and less the case, especially in the major cities.
McCullough and churches like Trinity are cognizant of this. Culturally, the American South is changing, and new sociological realities are dawning for Southern Baptists. The traumas associated with these new missiological challenges are creating a thrashing about in the denomination that could make the last three decades of controversy in the SBC seem like the calm before the storm.