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On Religion: A ‘Disruptive’ New Leader in a Powerful Southern Baptist Job

It’s a long way from Storyline Fellowship in Denver’s western suburbs to downtown Nashville 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, helping it grow 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 the 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. That’s the complex publishing, research and media company, with about 4,000 employees, that in simpler times as 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 grasp, one way are 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’re 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 tool boxes to do the work that you now know that you have to do?’ ”

This era of rapid change led to obvious changes — including the series of explosions on January 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, digital tablets and other emerging forms of technology. Pastors have struggled to address premarital sex and cohabitation. 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.”

Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and is Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

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