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Southern Baptists ponder how to spread gospel

Leaders of Southern Baptists — America’s largest Protestant denomination — gather this week, worried about how to attract new members.
/ Source: The Associated Press

There are more than 16.2 million Southern Baptists worshipping in the U.S., but as leaders of America’s largest Protestant denomination gather this week, they are worried about how to attract new members.

“What might God want you to try? What could you do differently that might make a difference in someone’s life?” said Pastor Dick Lincoln, of Shandon Baptist Church in South Carolina.

Lincoln was among those attending the church pastors’ conference, a two-day event with the theme “Reaching Today’s World for Jesus Christ” that led up to Tuesday’s start of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting.

In the past 50 years, the number of annual baptisms per church member — a key indicator of church growth — has dropped sharply. Southern Baptists baptized one person for every 19 church members in 1950, a ratio that dropped to 1 baptism for every 43 church members in 2003, according to research published last year by Thom Rainer of the Southern Theological Baptist Seminary.

Rainer, also president of the Southern Baptists’ LifeWay Christian Resources arm, said his research raised concern that, “actually, we Southern Baptists are talking more about evangelism than doing it.”

To counter that trend, outgoing SBC president Bobby Welch set a goal of baptizing 1 million people in the year beginning last Oct. 1. As of June 5, 258 of the SBC’s 43,465 churches had reported 3,494 baptisms — a rate per church that would leave the SBC short of its goal without an uptick in baptisms between now and the end of September.

Speaking to pastors on Sunday, Welch expressed optimism the church would reach the target. But Robert Parham, a critic of the Southern Baptist leadership who leads the Baptist Center for Ethics, sees a lack of enthusiasm in the reported numbers.

“The fact that so few churches have submitted baptismal figures suggest that churches are not baptizing converts and that churches did not buy into Welch’s program,” Parham said in an e-mail interview Monday. “Both suggest a denomination in trouble.”

‘Change the culture, if not the message’
As many mainline Protestant denominations hemorrhage congregants, the Southern Baptists’ concerns about slow growth may seem minor. But for a denomination that places winning converts at the heart of its mission, the slide is worrisome.

“There’s a concern that we’re not reaching the world for Christ. ... We have to be willing to change the culture, if not the message,” said Doug Vaughan, pastor at the 150-member First Southern Baptist Church in Roseville, Calif.

Such cultural changes — like offering contemporary worship services or extending a successful church’s franchise to a second or third campus — can be wrenching for a denomination rooted in rural Southern traditions.

“I didn’t want it, didn’t like it ... knew I wouldn’t like it,” Lincoln said of adding a contemporary service at his church in 2000. “I decided I’d never get these people (lobbying for contemporary worship) to shut up.”

Modern worship: A necessary evil
Lincoln said he still doesn’t like contemporary worship, but has come to view it as a way of letting his church cast a net that “brings up fish of every kind — and lets God sort them out.”

Speaking Monday on “Reaching Today’s World Through Multi-Campus Churches” was Ronnie Floyd, one of three candidates running in Tuesday’s election for SBC president.

Floyd has built a two-campus Southern Baptist church in northwest Arkansas — First Baptist in Springdale and the nearby Church at Pinnacle Hills. His hourlong talk was filled with the sort of pragmatic advice one might expect to hear at a seminar for business entrepreneurs. At one point, Floyd even cited a recent Fortune magazine article about the consumer electronics giant Best Buy.

Research your market, Floyd said. Know whether you’re ahead of or behind the growth curve. “High-risk innovations are necessary,” he said. “Consumers determine strategy.”