In the 1970s, Jerry Falwell and other conservative evangelicals built their brand on cross-town busing.
I’m not talking about federally-mandated school busing to achieve desegregation – not yet, anyhow. For now, I’m just talking about the “bus ministry,” one of several evangelistic/outreach programs Falwell deployed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to turn Thomas Road Baptist Church into one of the fastest-growing congregations in the United States.
What is a bus ministry? Basically, it’s a program through which a church provides free bus transportation to its Sunday services for members and/or visitors. Falwell did not invent the idea of bringing in the sheaves via bus, and his was not the only church using bus routes to boost Sunday attendance and garner new converts. But his very visible success surely helped make bus ministries one of the go-to tools championed by leaders of the church growth movement among evangelicals in the 1970s.
A key leader in the 1970s church growth movement was Elmer Towns, a member of Falwell’s church and a co-founder of Liberty University. In 1973, Towns co-authored a book with Falwell describing the ministries of Thomas Road as models that other churches could follow to see similar growth. “The Sunday-school bus ministry has the greatest potential for evangelism in today’s church,” Towns wrote in Capturing a Town for Christ (Fleming H. Revell Co., 1973). “More souls are won to Jesus Christ and identified with local churches through Sunday-school busing than any other medium of evangelism” (34). This is a broad statement about the evangelistic potential of bus ministries in general. Towns follows up this general endorsement of church bus programs with an explanation of what makes the bus ministry at Falwell’s church stand out:
Many bus workers only work in the housing projects, ghetto areas, and among the poor in the slums. All people within a community must be reached, the poor as well as the affluent. Thomas Road Baptist Church has sixteen buses that operate in middle-class neighborhoods of twenty-five-thousand-dollar homes and above. One bus brings in thirty-five riders from the status Boonsboro district, while the next bus that unloads on Sunday morning is from the Greenfield Housing Project, and the bare feet and dirty clothes indicate a poverty level.
Lynchburg has only fifty-four thousand people and some feel the Sunday-school bus ministry has reached its saturation point. Now twenty-one buses leave the city limits and bring children in from rural areas and distant towns such as Bedford, Alta Vista, Appomattox, Amherst, and Thaxton. One reaches fifty miles to Roanoke (35).
There’s a lot going on in these two paragraphs, and a lot going on around them. Housing projects, ghettos, and slums – in 1973 (and today as well, I guess) these words could be used to introduce race into a discourse without ever naming the issue. So I think Towns isn’t just talking about “the poor as well as the affluent” here – he’s also talking about black urban poverty and contrasting it with white suburban affluence. The assertion that “all people within a community must be reached” is not offered here as an argument that more churches should use busing to bring the black urban poor into their midst, but rather as a justification for churches to consider providing free bus service to white affluent suburbanites who might wish to become members. Busing can bring people of “status” into the church. And busing over long distances – well, that’s not a problem. What’s wrong with busing new members into a church located fifty miles away from where they live, if that’s where they want to be on a Sunday morning?
Is it just me, or does anyone else see the irony of this apologia for long-distance busing coming from white Southern Baptists in 1973? Even if I were to read Towns’s description of the bus ministry as a celebration of the church’s ability to bring black and white and rich and poor together in fellowship, it would still seem like an odd argument for church leaders from the Religious Right to be making in 1973, in the midst of nationwide controversy over federally-mandated busing to desegregate schools.
More to the point, did anyone else see the irony of such pro-busing arguments at the time? Did people see these two issues – church busing and school busing – as in any way connected?
As it turns out, some people did see a connection. For example, a 1972 article in the “Religion” section of the St. Petersburg [FL] Times opens on this ironic note: “Cross busing, a hot political issue this year, has taken another turn on the Suncoast as many churches institute or expand their own programs of cross busing, busing children and elderly people to church and Sunday school for Jesus.” The opening lines of the article aren’t just a newswriter’s hook; they reflect the oppositional – or at least skeptical – stance of some people who had attended “bus outreach clinic” sponsored by the Pinellas Baptist Association. During a Q&A session about bus ministries, the newspaper reports, “[a] woman sitting near the back of the chapel asked pointedly, ‘Do you bring in colored?’ ‘We bring in black and white,’ the minister replied. ‘We don’t check them. The kids don’t check them by race though I’m sure some of the deacons do,’ [the Rev. John] Pelham added as laughter cleared the air of tension.” Apparently, the tension wasn’t cleared for long. The article continues: “A young man asked if [the minister’s] church had any trouble. The minister tossed the question back to the youth who blurted out, ‘Have you had any trouble with the colored – fighting or anything?’ Pelham shook his head, perhaps more at the question than the answer, ‘No.'”
A few years later, the local newspaper in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, ran an article discussing various bus ministries in the region. The article quotes one minister who pointed out the irony of some Christians’ contradictory position on busing issues: “Some of those who condemn busing in the public school system heartily endorse busing from areas outside their community which is an interesting conflict of viewpoint, to say the least.”
I think so too. I think this is a historically interesting conflict, or at least a historically interesting juxtaposition of two very different ideas about what buses are and aren’t good for.
Out of curiosity, I ran a Google ngram to compare the frequency of usage of the terms “bus ministry” and “school busing”. Here’s what the results looked like (click images to enlarge):
These graphs show that usage of these two terms rose and fell almost in tandem. What they don’t show – indeed, what they can’t show – is what people using these terms might have meant by them at the time, or what the paralleled temporal trail of these terms might mean for understanding that time now.
I am interested in exploring this problem further. In the meantime, I’d like to hear what you all think.
 For example, according to a 1974 article from the Austin American Statesman, First Baptist Church of Dallas started a bus ministry in 1952, and a few large churches in Texas had been operating bus ministries before the 1970s. See Jack Keever, “Texas Churches Run ‘Ministry on Wheels,'” Jul. 11, 1974, Austin American Statesman, p. 64.