When Mike Glenn began pastoring Brentwood Baptist Church in suburban Nashville 30 years ago, the region was known as a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) hub, and working for the denomination gave a sense of status in the church.
Not anymore. The church has boomed by thousands, and being a denominational leader “no longer carries any cachet,” Glenn said. “If you had in one room the executive of a denomination and in the next room you had a YouTube influencer, everyone would go to the YouTube influencer.”
Brentwood’s story parallels Nashville’s. Its Christian culture once centered on the headquarters of the SBC and the United Methodist Church (UMC), but the Music City has become a corporate hub populated more and more by nondenominational evangelicalism.
That’s not to say Christian denominations have left Nashville. The two largest US Protestant denominations—the SBC and the UMC—as well as two of the largest Black denominations—the National Baptist Convention, USA and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church—all maintain administrative offices, publishing houses, and operations there.
But denominations are less prominent than they once were in America, and that national trend is amped up in Nashville.
Between 1980 and 2020, the metro area’s population more than doubled, from 520,000 to 1.2 million. The city made a home for major corporations, including Amazon, Bridgestone, and HCA Healthcare. And as the city’s demographics shifted, so did its Christian landscape.
Workers flooding in from elsewhere didn’t particularly care about denominational identities, Glenn said. To reach them with the gospel, “nondenominational and community churches” and ministries have proliferated.
Nashville has been a home for nondenominational publishing since 1972, when Thomas Nelson located its headquarters in the area. And the city’s Christian music industry also contributes to the corporate and nondenominational flavor.
A contemporary Christian music surge in the 1990s saw artists like Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, and Kirk Franklin sell as many albums as rock or country acts. As album sales soared, the Christian music industry came to employ more Nashvillians than the country music industry.
Denominational enterprises, on the other hand, have faded. Belmont University departed from the Tennessee Baptist Convention in 2007. UMC publisher Cokesbury shut down all its bookstores. The SBC’s publishing house, Lifeway Christian Resources, is shedding its 277,000-square-foot building in Nashville’s Capitol View development.
Even the city’s civil rights advocacy—a proud part of its Christian heritage—is less tied to denominations than it used to be. Dennis Dickerson, an AME historian at Vanderbilt, said today white and Black leaders have forged relationships apart from their institutions.
Meanwhile, Educational Media Foundation (EMF), which owns the K-LOVE and Air1 radio networks but also does publishing, faith-based films, podcasts, and live events, is moving its $200 million operation from Northern California to Nashville.
“Everything has really migrated here,” EMF CEO Bill Reeves told The Tennessean. “It just makes sense for us to be here around the content creators and the business people.”
David Roach is pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Saraland, Alabama.
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