When the Rev. Russell Moore was a Baptist boy in Mississippi, he knew the culture around him had lots of unwritten rules.
Dogs didn't live in the house. Women didn't chew tobacco in public, and men didn't chew at church or during funerals. Tattoos were forbidden and scary.
So he was scandalized one Sunday when a man came to church sporting a tattoo of a naked lady, propping his arm on the pew for all to see. To the young Moore's surprise, his grandmother whispered that this was good news -- because the man's wife had long been trying to get him into church.
Moore recalled his grandmother saying: "He's not trying to be rude, honey. He just doesn't know Jesus yet."
In a way, that's where Southern Baptists are right now, said Moore, in a pastors' conference sermon before the recent national Southern Baptist Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Baptists are struggling to relate to real people who live in a changing culture that frightens, or even angers, lots of church people.
"For a long time ... in certain parts of this country, baptism was kind of a Bible Belt bar mitzvah," said Moore, who leads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Washington, D.C. "You needed a Christian identity, you needed a church identity, in order to make it as a good American, in order to be part of the culture around you. Those days are over."
Moore's words in recent weeks -- in pulpits and mass media -- have offered fresh evidence that some leaders of America's largest Protestant flock realize the cultural ground is shifting in America, including their once safe base in the South.
For a generation or two, SBC leaders have struggled to come to terms with the implications of that word "Southern" in their brand. Finally, in 2012, the convention voted to stick with its historic name, even with its Civil War-era baggage. The SBC did offer churches the option of putting "Great Commission Baptists" on church signs instead, a name linked to the New Testament call to reach out and make new disciples.
But there's the rub. The American mission field keeps changing. Meanwhile, the SBC has suffered through nearly a decade of slow decline in membership and church attendance. Baptisms have declined for three consecutive years, a painful trend for Christians who stress evangelism.
Nevertheless, Moore said it's good that the cozy illusions of the old Bible Belt are dead. Using a blunt metaphor from the pop-culture past, he stressed: "Mayberry leads to hell, just like Gomorrah does."
The "messengers" assembled in Columbus also discussed the SBC's attempts to move forward on old issues linked to race. In 1993, the convention passed a historic resolution acknowledging, "Our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning by the role that slavery played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention," while apologizing and repenting for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."
Still, while the rapidly growing number of black and Latino churches is now a bright spot in SBC life, a report to the convention confessed that of the "249 individuals nominated and elected to serve on the Executive Committee since 1996, no more than eight were from non-Anglo racial or ethnic groups."
Later, after the shooting of nine worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Moore drew yet another line in the Southern sand. The Confederate battle flag, he argued in an online essay, has long been a symbol used to "enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night. ... The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire."
Here's the bottom line, said Moore, in remarks to the full convention: There was a time when Baptists were "comfortable in our culture, or at least in the little cocoons we could build within it." The convention's leaders, he added, were even tempted to "speak of a 'Southern Baptist Zion,' referring to the states beneath the Mason-Dixon line.
"Those days are over, and not a moment too soon. Baptist Christianity just doesn't do well as a water-carrier for anybody's civil religion."
(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.)