Southern Baptists face numbers crunch

Baptisms dropped to a 20-year low in the Southern Baptist Convention of 2009, and membership and giving were down, too. The declines caused hand-wringing in the nation’s largest Protestant body — and set the stage for intense debates when SBC leaders gathered on June 23-24, 2009, in Louisville, Ky., for their annual convention.

Apart from the cutbacks that the downturn caused at Southern Baptist seminaries and agencies, the real drama centered on the impression that Southern Baptists are no longer successful at winning converts, which is their principal reason for being. Some SBC leaders drafted a manifesto, the Great Commission Resurgence, that they hoped would breathe new life into the convention. Yet others are expressed opposition ahead of the convention.

Morris Chapman, president of the SBC executive committee, was opposed to one of 10 articles in the revival plan: article IX, which called for streamlining the denomination’s bureaucratic agencies. In a rare show of disunity, he publicly aired his disagreements with the plan’s authors, SBC President Johnny Hunt and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Daniel Akin. Others feared that the plan, if adopted, may end up merging two of the denomination’s most important institutions, the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board.


The issue is important because the Southern Baptist Convention has 16 million members and a cultural prominence and political influence few other denominations can match. But the issue of growth or decline also hit home with a community whose theological ethos is summed up in the Great Commission to win souls for Christ.

The convention also voted on a resolution congratulating Barack Obama on his election as the nation’s first African-American president and called on Southern Baptists to pray for him and seek God’s blessings on his administration. The motion stood in contrast to widely publicized comments by the Rev. Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., and former second vice president of the convention, who told Fox News Radio he regularly prays for Obama’s death.

Passage of a resolution celebrating Obama’s historic election did not indicate that Southern Baptists are tilting to the Democrats after decades of support for Republican candidates by both SBC leaders and rank-and-file. The convention passed at least one resolution critical of Obama’s views on abortion and gay civil unions.


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