Twenty years after the start of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, the agenda for next week's meeting of the nation's largest Protestant denomination seems relatively mild.
Sermons, prayers and reports will be part of the program, as usual, but the theological infighting between moderates and conservatives is not likely to recur Tuesday and Wednesday in Atlanta. The ideological struggle in the 15.7 million-member denomination has quieted on the national level, where conservatives are firmly in control, and has shifted to the state conventions.
In three states, Baptists are working out new ways to relate to one another--or not. In Virginia and Texas, there are now two state conventions, one composed principally of conservatives and the other a moderate-controlled mix of moderates and conservatives. And in North Carolina, conservatives and moderates are using bridge-building terminology as they consider a plan for shared leadership.
"I think what we're seeing emerge is a whole new structure of relationship between state and national levels of this denomination, and right now, there is no one single way to do it," said Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
Like most Baptist denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention is an association of autonomous churches, Ammerman said. There is no ecclesiastical hierarchy, no system of bishops or elders that approves doctrine or appoints pastors.
Instead, Southern Baptists have developed what Ammerman calls a "functional hierarchy," a system in which individual churches join local, state and national organizations and contribute to their programs. In turn, the churches acquire denominationally approved Sunday school and leadership materials, and--based on the size of their membership--they can send messengers, or delegates, to state and national conventions.
But disputes over such issues as women's ordination, same-sex relationships and interpretation of the Bible have divided moderates and conservatives.
And many congregations have found new ways within the denominational structure to organize and channel funds for missions, said Ammerman, author of "Baptist Battles," a 1990 analysis of the conservative resurgence.
In Atlanta, Paige Patterson, one of the architects of the conservative takeover of the convention, is expected to be elected without opposition to a second one-year term as president. The convention agenda includes consideration of the SBC Executive Committee's recommendations to keep the denomination's name and to affirm plans to hold the 2000 annual meeting in Orlando, home of Walt Disney World, one of the Disney conglomerate's theme parks that is being boycotted by some Southern Baptists.
But on the state level, Baptist divisions remain. In Virginia and Texas, some churches are dually aligned with the two markedly different conventions in their states, but others have chosen to be members only of the convention they believe represents them best. In each state, the newer, conservative-led convention sends more undesignated funds to the Southern Baptist Convention, while the moderate group offers giving options that support moderate-backed colleges, missions and other programs.
Baptists in Virginia were the first to flex their autonomous muscles, with the creation of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia in 1996. A total of 212 churches have aligned with this group, many moving from the larger Baptist General Association of Virginia, which now has 1,474 affiliated churches.
The Rev. Doyle Chauncey, executive director of the Virginia conservative group, says the unity within the individual groups is a benefit that's come from separation.
"You can start talking about the stuff that really matters--how to start new churches, how to win people to Jesus--rather than talking about each other," he said. "After all, the enemy is not us. The enemy is the Devil."
Despite their theological differences, leaders of the conventions agree that their division has allowed them to refocus on other issues. "I think the changes that have been most apparent have been the sense that people feel they have a home they're happy with," said Bob Dale, assistant executive director of the larger Virginia Baptist group. "One of the positive outcomes has been the attention toward starting more churches because now instead of having one [convention] working on church starts and new ministries, we have two."
In Texas, a convention formed last year because some conservatives felt they could no longer remain in the moderate-led Baptist General Convention of Texas, which continues to be the largest state convention, with 2.7 million members. More than 300 churches have aligned with the new Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
The larger Texas group remains strong, with about 4,800 churches, said the Rev. Ed Schmeltekops, associate executive director. But he said now that there is a choice of state conventions, some congregations are deciding whether to align themselves with one or the other, while others have split into two congregations over the issue.
"One result is that both churches will do better if they're not fussing all the time, if they're working together in their smaller groups," he said. There are, of course, dozens of other state conventions that are not contemplating any splits.
Some conservative and moderate North Carolinians hope they can move beyond the fighting by sharing the leadership of Baptist state bodies. Under a proposal that will be voted on in November, conservatives and moderates would alternate as leaders of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and its general board, which does the convention business throughout the year.
"We've chosen not to go the way of Virginia and Texas," said the Rev. Greg Mathis, a conservative pastor from Hendersonville, N.C., who co-chairs the Commission on Cooperation, an ad hoc committee of the 1.2 million-member convention. "They've split, and we're trying to work things out and work together as opposed to dividing."
Some, however, hope the plan doesn't get the two-thirds majority vote necessary from the convention. "In Texas and Virginia, each party declared who they were and went their ways," said R. Gene Puckett, retired editor of the Biblical Recorder, the North Carolina convention's news journal and a moderate opponent of the plan. "Here in North Carolina, we're making it fuzzy."
But the Rev. David Hughes, a Winston-Salem pastor and moderate supporter of the plan, is more hopeful.
"I really believe that this would be a great witness to the Baptist world--and maybe to the world at large--to see two groups building bridges with one another rather than feud with one another," Hughes said.
CAPTION: In Virginia, the Rev. Doyle Chauncey, above, and Bob Dale are on opposite sides of a schism in the state's Southern Baptist convention, but each sees positive aspects of the division.
CAPTION: Paige Patterson helped lead the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.