A ‘dis­rup­tive’ new leader in pow­er­ful South­ern Bap­tist job

The Saline Courier Weekend - - OPINION - TERRY MATTINGLY Terry Mattingly is the edi­tor of Ge­tre­li­gion.org and Se­nior Fel­low for Me­dia and Re­li­gion at The King’s Col­lege in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

It’s a long way from Sto­ry­line Fel­low­ship in Den­ver’s western sub­urbs to down­town Nashville, Tennessee, and a pub­lish­ing-and-min­istry op­er­a­tion the lo­cals have long called the “Bap­tist Vat­i­can.”

That’s 1,165 miles, on a map. The cul­tural gap be­tween the Colorado Rock­ies and Tennessee seems big­ger than that.

Sto­ry­line Fel­low­ship is the con­gre­ga­tion that the Rev. Ben Man­drell and his wife, Lyn­ley, started in their liv­ing room in 2014, grow­ing it into a mod­ern evan­gel­i­cal flock with 1,600 mem­bers in a re­vamped Wal­mart fa­cil­ity. That’s the kind of chal­lenge church planters ac­cept when work­ing as mis­sion­ar­ies out­side the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion’s heart­land in the Bi­ble Belt.

Now 42-year-old Man­drell has jumped from the SBC fron­tier into one of the most high-pro­file jobs in Amer­ica’s largest Protes­tant flock -serv­ing as the new pres­i­dent and CEO of Life­way Christian Re­sources, the com­plex pub­lish­ing, re­search and me­dia com­pany with about 4,000 em­ploy­ees that in sim­pler times was called the Sun­day School Board.

Bi­ble classes re­main on the agenda, stressed Man­drell. But so are many other min­istries that sym­bol­ize a new re­al­ity that all reli­gious lead­ers will have to grasp, one way or the other: The good old days of safe, pre­dictable church work are gone.

“Not that we’re not do­ing what we used to do” in terms of pub­lish­ing ma­te­ri­als used for Sun­day Bi­ble classes and other fa­mil­iar forms of out­reach, said Man­drell in a tele­phone in­ter­view.

“But we have to do so much more be­cause Amer­ica is get­ting so com­plex and di­verse . ... We have to keep ask­ing our church lead­ers, ‘What do you need us to pro­vide for your tool­boxes to do the work that you now know that you have to do?’”

This era of rapid change led to ob­vi­ous ad­just­ments -- in­clud­ing the se­ries of ex­plo­sions on Jan. 6, 2018, that lev­eled the 12-story Life­way tower, with its iconic giant stone crosses, that loomed over one cor­ner of down­town Nashville. Life­way moved to smaller, mod­ern­ized fa­cil­i­ties close to the Tennessee State Capi­tol.

Then, in March of 2019, SBC lead­ers an­nounced they would close all 170 of the brick-and-mor­tar Life­way stores in 30 states. This

would mean mov­ing Amer­ica’s largest Christian re­tail op­er­a­tion -- sell­ing Bi­bles, gifts, books, Bi­ble study ma­te­ri­als, mu­sic and church sup­plies -- to­tally over to Life­way.com. Other sec­u­lar and sa­cred re­tail com­pa­nies have, of course, been rocked by sim­i­lar changes in the in­ter­net age.

When Man­drell was hired, SBC Pres­i­dent J.D. Greer called him the “kind of vi­sion­ary, dis­rup­tive leader that Life­way needs just at this mo­ment.”

Th­ese days, the word “dis­rup­tive” is a com­pli­ment -- even among South­ern Bap­tists.

The bot­tom line: Church lead­ers have no choice but to ac­cept that Amer­i­cans face chal­lenges previous gen­er­a­tions could not have imag­ined, said Man­drell.

Life­way will need to pro­duce re­sources ad­dress­ing is­sues rang­ing from fam­ily break­downs linked to Amer­ica’s opi­oid cri­sis to the daily strug­gles of par­ents cop­ing with their chil­dren’s lives on smart­phones, tablets and other emerg­ing forms of tech­nol­ogy. Pas­tors have strug­gled to ad­dress pre­mar­i­tal sex and co-habi­ta­tion. Now they’re see­ing par­ents and chil­dren clash­ing over gen­der-iden­tity is­sues.

Mean­while, it is ironic that peo­ple work­ing on Life­way’s cre­ative arts, sales, video, pub­lish­ing and edit­ing teams will be try­ing to use many of those dis­rup­tive dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies as bridges to fam­i­lies and church lead­ers.

“Je­sus didn’t talk about what to do with kids and smart­phones . ... We have to un­der­stand that our chal­lenge is putting the ageless truths we see in scrip­ture into the con­text of the world we see around us to­day,” said Man­drell. “You have to have a the­ol­ogy that’s ro­bust, but you also have to be cul­tur­ally rel­e­vant.”

Man­drell paused, then stressed that he un­der­stands some of th­ese strug­gles -- be­cause he is fac­ing them.

“There’s al­ways go­ing to be a place for hav­ing a book on pa­per in one hand and a cup of cof­fee in the other hand,” he said. “Some­times I need that fa­mil­iar book that I have marked up and used for years. I re­ally don’t see that go­ing away.

“We have to keep do­ing lots of the ba­sic work we’ve al­ways done, while also em­brac­ing the changes.

... We will have to find a way to cut the losses and max­i­mize the gains. That’s the job that’s ahead of us.”

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