After decades of focusing their expansion efforts on the suburbs, a growing number of Southern Baptists are flocking to northeast cites for what's known as "church planting," or establishing new congregations in wicked Godless places. And NYC, with its gambling and bars that sell spirits til the ungodly hour of 2 a.m., is a top target for proselytizers, the Times reports today. Years of investing God-capital in NYC seems to be paying off, with some 45 Southern Baptist "church plants" established here since 2001, and another 50 churches planned for the NYC area in the next five years. Which comes as an enormous relief because, as the Southern Baptists point out, NYC really needs Southern Baptists.

The Baptists' North American Mission Board, or NAMB (not to be confused with NAMBLA!), plans to spend $20 million in 2012 on new churches in New York and 26 other cities, the Times reports. On their website, the Mission Board encourages fellow Southern Baptists to focus their church planting efforts on NYC, which "needs your help." And they seem to be "helping" the most New Yorkers in Chelsea, of all places, where The Gallery Church boasts a congregation of 100.

To be sure, there are already many longstanding Baptist churches here in NYC, but most of these are not Southern Baptist congregations, and their demographics tend to differ from the predominantly white Southern Baptists. The National Baptist Convention, for instance, has almost 10 million members and is predominantly black; it was formed after black Southern Baptists felt alienated by the Baptists' perceived racism in the 19th century. And perhaps the most famous Baptist church in NYC is the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which broke off from the First Baptist Church in Lower Manhattan in 1808 over racially segregated seating.

But now the Southern Baptists see an opportunity for growth in diverse urban areas. Nancy Ammerman, a religion professor at Boston University, tells the Times the Southern Baptists "are targeting ethnic minority communities both for new starts and for ‘adopting’ existing churches into their denomination." It's challenging work, though; as one Southern Baptist trying to plant churches in the Northeast explains: "People here have a strong, independent spirit." But give it some time and millions of dollars, and surely they can break that!