Southern Baptists Meet to Combat Membership Malaise

Adelle M. Banks | Religion News Service | Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Southern Baptists Meet to Combat Membership Malaise


June 25, 2009

(RNS) -- Southern Baptists opened their annual meeting Tuesday (June 23) with calls to turn around plummeting baptism rates, even as researchers warned that the nation's largest Protestant body could lose half its size by mid-century.

"I really do believe that we need revival in the Southern Baptist Convention," said SBC President Johnny Hunt, a pastor from Woodstock, Ga. "I believe we need revival in the hearts of our leaders, starting with your president."

With one eye focused on a new vision for the future, the denomination nonetheless kept one eye on past battles with an overwhelming vote to break ties with a gay-friendly church in Fort Worth, Texas. The decision to expel Broadway Baptist Church came with no discussion from the more than 8,000 Baptists attending the meeting in Louisville, Ky.

What got more attention was a new report from the denomination's LifeWay Research, which concluded that SBC membership could drop by close to 50 percent by 2050 if it doesn't do more to reverse its image as an aging and mostly white religious body.

"We're aging," Hunt acknowledged in his presidential address. "One of the reasons -- and it is a true reason -- is we need to really join with our brothers of ethnicity in this convention."

He chastised his fellow Baptists for being "professional" rather than passionate about their faith. He noted how many Americans didn't know the term "Laodicean" when it was the winning word in the National Spelling Bee championship last month. The word, which means lukewarm, refers to a church mentioned in the book of Revelation that is bemoaned as "neither cold nor hot."

"Ladies and gentleman, America has not heard of the word `Laodicean,' but I'm afraid that the church has not perceived it," said Hunt. "We challenge the people and go home and forget what we preach just as quickly as they do."

Hunt, who was re-elected Tuesday to a second one-year term, has co-authored a "Great Commission Resurgence" declaration, which he hopes will recharge Southern Baptists by urging them to reconsider how they evangelize and how the denomination is structured.

Delegates are expected to take possible action on the declaration later in the meeting.

Yet the call for reform met resistance early in the meeting.

Morris Chapman, the president of the SBC Executive Committee, who has publicly opposed the document, said Tuesday that reliance on the Bible, rather than a particular statement, is the answer to the SBC's challenges.

"The Southern Baptist Convention is not too big to fail," Chapman said. "It is possible that our focus could become more blurred and our faith could become weak ... No committee, no president, no agency, no institution and no executive director can renew our strength. No program and no report can revive our soul."

The decision to break ties with the Fort Worth church came after a messenger, or delegate, asked for the action during last year's meeting.

Members of the SBC's Executive Committee met with leaders of the church in February and concluded that the church was not in "friendly cooperation" with the denomination because it welcomes gays.

The church, in a statement issued Tuesday, immediately disagreed.

"We do not believe Broadway has taken an action which would justify its being not in friendly cooperation with the SBC," said the church, which was affiliated with the denomination for more than 125 years. "It is unfortunate that the Southern Baptist Convention decided otherwise and has severed its affiliation with Broadway Baptist Church."

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