Shelby County is Baptist country
By Jacinthia Jones
Strike up a conversation with Chip Hunter, and the topic of faith is bound to surface.
It's his favorite subject, and he doesn't hide it. He keeps a Bible and two daily devotionals on his desk at work. Last fall, he and other church members went door-to-door evangelizing in Memphis neighborhoods.
"We're called to be ambassadors for Christ in the Scripture, and a good ambassador is supposed to do what the chief or head of state tells him to do. My King tells me to go and be a witness," says the 50-year-old insurance agent, a Southern Baptist who attends Bellevue Baptist Church.
Religion is just as important for Erma Clanton, who says she found her second life in the church. The 79-year-old retired educator heads the drama ministry at New Sardis Missionary Baptist Church in southeast Shelby County.
She can be found there at least three days a week, faithfully attending Sunday morning worship, Tuesday drama meetings and Wednesday night Bible study. She's missed only one Sunday this year, and that's because she had pneumonia.
"Church keeps you fired up and on the right track," says Clanton. "If I don't go to church, I don't feel right."
In many ways, Hunter and Clanton typify religion in the United States, and the South in particular, according to a new study on religious demo graphics in the country.
Despite the growing diversity among the nation's faithful, the United States remains a predominantly Christian nation, with Catholics outnumbering all other faiths.
But the South remains Baptist territory, the report found, with the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention leading the way.
Nearly half of Tennesseans with a religious affiliation are Southern Baptist. And 59 percent of Mississippi's faithful are Southern Baptist, which is the highest percentage of any state in the nation.
The study, Religious Congregations & Membership: 2000, is conducted every 10 years by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies and published by the Nashville-based Glenmary Research Center.
Data were collected in 2000 from 149 religious bodies that participated in the study, which is considered one of the most comprehensive head counts of faith groups in the country. The U.S. Census does not collect data on religion.
But the Glenmary study does not include data on the nation's predominately African American religious groups, which did not participate in the voluntary survey.
That leaves a large hole in the study results, especially for Shelby County, which is 48.6 percent African American.
Nonetheless, it does provide a picture of the growth and decline of many other religious denominatons.
The survey found that between 1980 and 2000 most mainline Protestant denominations lost followers, while Catholics saw a steady increase in their faithful, both locally and nationally.
Meanwhile, the United Meth odist Church and Churches of Christ maintained a strong presence here, even though both reported declines.
Comparatively, the Southern Baptist Convention - second in size only to the Roman Catholic Church in the United States - enjoyed modest gains nationally and in much of Tennessee.
Shelby County was the exception, though. The number of believers here increased by 12,000 in the 1980s, then tumbled by 18,000 - almost 11 percent - in the 1990s.
Denominational leaders say the decline is an indication that people have left the county, not the church. The study's findings seem to support such a population shift.
Even as the number of Southern Baptists in Shelby County declined by 17,899 during the decade, 18,129 more were reported during the same period in DeSoto County.
Overall, Southern Baptists retained their ranking as the largest faith group in Shelby County by more than 3-to-1 over the next-largest group that reported, Roman Catholics.
"The national trend shows that Southern Baptists have been growing every year," said Cliff Tharp, who tracks membership for the denomination in Nashville. "It doesn't match the population growth - it's kind of plateaued - but it's not in decline."
For the first time in 50 years, the national study also included data on non-Christian groups other than Jews. This was the first count in Shelby County that included Buddhists, Baha'is, Hindus, Jains and Muslims, though no group claimed more than 1 percent of the total population.
The growth of nonde nominational churches is not reflected in the study, which collected data only from denominations.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) surfaced as one of the fastest-growing denominations in Shelby County.
Since 1980, the number of Disciples of Christ here has nearly tripled from 6,400 to more than 17,400 thanks in part to the growth of churches like Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church and Lindenwood Christian Church. (A lawsuit filed this week says that Mississippi Boulevard's attendance has dropped by half duirng the past year.)
"I believe we have more Disciples worshiping in Memphis on Sunday morning than any other city in the United States - even more than Kansas City and Dallas where we have a greater concentration," said Dr. Glen Stewart, regional minister and president of the Christian Church in Tennessee.
Stewart said part of the attraction of the Christian Church is its polity, which is democratic rather than hierarchical. "The people in the pew make the decisions," he said, adding that the denomination also is interracial.
Due to lack of statistics, any growth is difficult to gauge with the historically black denominations - including the black Baptist groups and two Memphis-based denominations, the Church of God in Christ and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
The CME Church reported 33,000 followers in Shelby County a decade ago, and Glenmary researchers estimated another 104,000 black Baptists (compared to 169,000 Southern Baptist) here. But this time researchers decided against doing another estimate in an effort to encourage black denominations to self-report, said Rev. Dale E. Jones, a Church of the Nazarene minister who oversaw the survey.
Many of these groups say they don't participate in the decennial count because they don't have updated membership rolls. Both the National Baptist Convention and the Church of God in Christ are in the midst of their own tallies, but have not yet released official figures.
"Our church doesn't really give official numbers to anyone because we do not even know ourselves what our membership is," said G. E. Patterson of Memphis, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ. "We've had some leaders in the past to report numbers for ego purposes but I don't have a figure that I could certify."
All of which can skew results significantly in places like Shelby County, where black residents make up nearly half the population.
Anecdotal evidence suggests black churches in general are on the upswing, scholars say.
"Church plays a central role in African-American life," said Dr. Randolph Meade Walker, a Baptist pastor, adjunct professor and retired director of the Center for African and African-American Studies at Le Moyne-Owen College.
Walker said when he came to Memphis in 1972, not a single black church could claim to have 1,000 people in attendance on a Sunday morning. But the past 30 years have ushered in the black mega-churches, which Walker defines as having 5,000 members or more.
"It's amazing that all of these huge churches have appeared," he said, adding that the sheer number of black churches in town has increased as well. "It's really phenomenal that our churches have grown like they have.
"Now we even have a second tier of mega-churches, those in the 1,000-1,500 range. The church I serve (Castalia Baptist, with 400 members) is considered a small church now," Walker said.
- Jacinthia Jones: 529-2780
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