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Heather Pendergraft

Down South

Religion | Southern Baptists convene amid declining overall numbers

Issue: "No pray zone?," July 13, 2013

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) held its annual meeting in Houston in June, and although the assembly did not witness any of the spectacular controversies that have marked previous SBC meetings, it nevertheless confronted some hotly debated topics.

The meeting’s most anticipated issue concerned the SBC and the Boy Scouts. Some had predicted that the SBC would endorse a full-fledged boycott of the Scouts for the group’s recent decision to admit openly gay boys as members. But the actual resolution stopped short of a boycott, expressing “opposition to and disappointment in the decision” and calling for the removal of Boy Scouts executive leaders who supported the change.

SBC representatives (called “messengers”) also passed a resolution exhorting member congregations about their “legal and moral responsibility to report any child abuse to authorities.” Its sponsor, Peter Lumpkins, crafted the statement in response to a lawsuit alleging abuse cover-ups by leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), including its founder, C.J. Mahaney. A judge dismissed the case against SGM pastors in May, citing statute of limitation requirements. Mahaney stepped down as president of SGM in April. Prominent Baptist leaders Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church expressed their individual support for Mahaney in a public statement in May.

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The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse, scoffed at the SBC abuse resolution, calling it a “virtually worthless ‘feel good’ public relations move that basically protects no one.”

Messengers re-elected New Orleans pastor Fred Luter, the SBC’s first African-American president, without opposition. But the convention saw a change of leadership at the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), from retiring president Richard Land to 41-year-old Russell Moore, formerly dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Some observers regard Moore as a theologically conservative but less combative leader than those of the older generation of Southern Baptist stalwarts, especially those who led the “Conservative Resurgence” of the 1980s and ’90s, which put the convention and its seminaries firmly under traditionalist control. Moore argues that Southern Baptists can adopt a congenial approach while defending the gospel and essential principles such as religious liberty. “I don’t think gentleness is capitulation,” he says.

Moore signaled that he plans a more autonomous stance for the ERLC, which he insists is not a political action committee. “We are instead fiercely independent, prophetically near, and we exist to equip free churches in a free state to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,” Moore says.

Even though the SBC remains the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, a specter of decline hung over the meeting. The Annual Church Profile (ACP), released shortly before the meeting by the SBC’s LifeWay Christian Resources, painted a picture of Southern Baptist churches in slow yet protracted deterioration. There were a few bright spots, such as growth in the number of SBC-affiliated congregations, but “most of the ACP metrics declined in 2012 including membership, average attendance, baptisms and total giving,” the report concluded.

The 5.5 percent yearly drop in reported baptisms is particularly worrisome, as it brings the total number to just under 315,000 people baptized, the lowest total since 1948. Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay, calls that number “heartbreaking.”

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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