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Beginnings and ends

Religion | A conservative Baptist pioneer dies, historic mainline denominations shrivel, and other religious news

Issue: "Into the light," Dec. 3, 2005

Adrian Rogers, the pastor whose election in 1979 as president of the Southern Baptist Convention activated a conservative strategy that led to a turnaround from creeping liberalism in the denomination, died Nov. 15 in Memphis, Tenn., from pneumonia while undergoing treatment for cancer. He was 74.

Rogers served as pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis from 1972 until last March; under his tenure, Bellevue grew from 9,000 members to nearly 30,000. He also headed Love Worth Finding, a nationwide radio and television ministry.

In meetings in the mid-1970s with several conservative SBC strategists alarmed at liberal theological trends in SBC seminaries, Rogers agreed to become a candidate for the SBC presidency. If elected, he pledged, he would use his nominating powers to name to seminary and denominational boards only those who believed in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. After almost backing out, he won election on the first ballot. He and his successors followed through on the pledge and eventually saw conservatives weather opposition to take the levers of power in the 16-million-member denomination.

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"He was the center of everything that the conservative movement did," said Houston judge Paul Pressler, a chief architect of the turnaround.

Losing steam

The continuing decline of the historic mainline denominations is much more than just a matter of losses from aging and growing secularization. A recent analysis by the Washington-based Institute for Religion and Democracy, an evangelical think tank, suggests that large numbers of disaffected members are switching to conservative churches.

Between 1965 and 2003, the latest year full figures were available, membership declined by the following percentages:

  • Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) shrank by a whopping 57.2 percent, to 770,793;
  • Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), 43.5 percent, to 2.4 million;
  • United Church of Christ, 37.4 percent, to 1.3 million;
  • Episcopal Church, 35.8 percent, to 2.3 million;
  • United Methodist Church, 25.4 percent, to 8.25 million;
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 12.3 percent, to 4.98 million;
  • American Baptist Churches, 6.9 percent, to 1.43 million (larger losses were staved off by growth in black and Hispanic churches).

On the plus side, the Assemblies of God registered a spectacular 377 percent increase, to 2.72 million; the Southern Baptist Convention, a 52.6 percent increase, to 16.43 million; and the U.S. Catholic Church, buoyed by Hispanics, 45.4 percent, to 67.25 million.

For mainliners, it could be worse than it seems. For example, actual Sunday attendance in the 2.32-million-member Episcopal Church (ECUSA) averaged only 795,765 in 2003, down by 62,801 from the year before. ECUSA researcher Kirk Hadaway blames part of the hit that year on ECUSA decisions to consecrate a noncelibate gay bishop and to give tacit approval to blessing same-sex unions. But, he adds, it was part of a continuing decline.

Cable for Copts

The first Christian satellite TV channel in Egypt began broadcasting last month. Aghapy Television was established by the Coptic Orthodox Church, the country's largest denomination. Copts make up about 10 percent of the 74 million Egyptian population. Church officials say the channel will carry church services, family programs, and documentaries about ancient monasteries. It will not carry anything that could upset Muslims, they said.

Relations between Muslims and the Christian community are tense, with periodic violent flare-ups. The Muslim-run government places heavy restrictions on churches; Christians often are discriminated against in employment and repressed in other ways. Many Muslims resort to violence over anything they deem offensive to Islam.

Still reaching out

It's official: Shortly after evangelist Billy Graham turned 87 in November, his Charlotte, N.C.-based organization announced he'll no longer conduct crusades. The ailing preacher said he looks forward to seeing how God will use him to reach people with the gospel in other ways. He suffers from Parkinson's Disease, fluid on the brain, and prostate cancer.

Trusted

The U.S. Supreme Court last month allowed "In God We Trust" to remain on a county government building in Lexington, N.C., in agreeing to a decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Ruling against a suit by two local lawyers, the lower court said the phrase has both historical and present patriotic uses. It also passes the three-fold test commonly used to determine whether the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution has been violated, the court said. The slogan has appeared on U.S. coins since 1864; Congress adopted it as the national motto in 1956; and it is inscribed prominently in the chambers of Congress and elsewhere.

Bishops move

Bishops of the United Methodist Church unanimously declared that "homosexuality is not a barrier" to church membership. In a rebuke to the UMC's highest court, the 69-member Council of Bishops also said that individual UMC pastors don't have the authority to say who can and who can't be a church member. They said that power belongs to the bishops and other church officials. They were replying to the UMC Judicial Commission, which reinstated Virginia pastor Edward Johnson and said that under UMC rules, he had the right to determine who can be a church member. Rev. Johnson had been suspended by church leaders after he barred a practicing gay from formal membership. The bishops didn't address the UMC's policy against gay sex, which Rev. Johnson said he was upholding.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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