Southern Baptists Struggle to Maintain Flock

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

Alarmed by a drop in membership and baptisms, members of the Southern Baptist Convention are set to consider at their annual meeting, which starts Tuesday, a 10-year initiative to reverse the decline.

The number of people baptized in Southern Baptist churches fell for the third straight year last year to the lowest level in 20 years, and membership in the nation's largest Protestant denomination decreased by close to 40,000 to 16.27 million last year. Leaders of the convention say the numbers could represent a turning point for the organization.

The convention's president, the Rev. Frank S. Page, has predicted that unless the denomination takes swift action, the number of Southern Baptist churches will fall by half by 2030.

"We're at the point now where the decrease could be a little blip and we could increase, or it might continue . . . into a downturn," said the Rev. Bill Wagner, a former Southern Baptist missionary who is running for president of the denomination.

The initiative is one of several issues that 9,500 church "messengers," as convention attendees are called, will tackle at the two-day meeting in Indianapolis. Among other issues: choosing a replacement for Page, a popular president who served for two years and cannot run for reelection. They also will vote on a controversial policy that bars missionaries from speaking in tongues, even in private.

The meeting comes, insiders and outsiders say, as the denomination is adrift after major battles in the 1970s and 1980s, when traditionalists defeated modernists in a struggle for control of the denomination. The "controversy," as Southern Baptists call those battles, raged over such issues as biblical inerrancy, temperance, homosexuality, abortion and the role of women in the church. It culminated in 2000 with revisions to the Baptist Faith and Message, the denomination's statement of belief, that barred women from serving as pastors and called for wives to "submit graciously" to the leadership of their husbands.

"Thirty years ago, when the controversy started, the promise was if you are inerrant and if you keep these traditionalist fundamentalist doctrines, people will run to us because you know who you are and because you draw these lines," said Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University Divinity School. Instead, Southern Baptists face some of the same struggles as the declining mainline denominations, such as the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, he said.

"There is a challenge before us to not stagnate," said Jeff Ginn, executive director of Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, which is part of the convention but is bucking the trend and has seen an increase in baptisms. "Many of the mainline denominations are facing that challenge. It's been slower to come to us, but I think it is on our doorstep. We don't want to go into decline."

But some are doubtful about the initiative, which includes strategies to reach out to younger demographics, such as college students and families with young children, with programs and worship services geared more to their interests and tastes.

It also encourages Southern Baptists to become more proactive about sharing their religious beliefs with non-Baptist friends and co-workers. Skeptics say Southern Baptists have launched similar plans before, with little success.

"There is just not a lot of enthusiasm for programmatic solutions from the churches and specifically from pastors," said Greg Warner, executive editor of the Associated Baptist Press, an independent media outlet. "What they say is, 'It's not a program that we need; it's a renewal of commitment or renewed commitment [to the Baptist faith], and you can't package that in a program.' "

In recent years, young conservative ministers and seminary students, who helped elect Page, have used blogs to rush into the debate on the denomination's future, raising questions about its tight leadership structure, the status of women and its ban on alcohol for fear that the church is becoming too fundamentalist.

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