The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s biggest Protestant denomination and the largest gathering of evangelical Christians in the world, is in the “doldrums” and faces a challenge to determine whether it is on the right path, its leader said Thursday.
The convention’s president, the Rev. Bobby Welch of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., also said that a resolution decrying immorality in American public schools was likely to be debated at next week’s annual gathering in Nashville, Tenn., but that it would be wrong for Southern Baptists to withdraw their children from public classrooms.
In an interview Thursday, Welch predicted high turnout and enthusiasm in Nashville next week, which he said would signal that Southern Baptists were on the way to reconnecting with the “needs of the world around us.”
“If our convention will extend itself out toward the people — wherever they are — and emphasize the main thing, which is the spiritual good of them and their families and the good of the people around them, then the convention will rally to itself for the greater good,” he said.
But Welch said that was not a given. He noted that the annual number of baptisms in the convention had been largely unchanged for decades — a worrisome sign because baptism, he said, was “the first giant step in discipleship, a relationship with the Lord and Christ.”
“If this convention does not have a significant uplift, then it has every reason to pause and ask itself, ‘Do we have deeper problems than we realize?’” said Welch, who has made a renewal of evangelistic outreach the cornerstone of his administration. He was elected last year partly on a pledge to seek 1 million new baptisms, even though the convention has never baptized even half that many people in a year.
“We must break out of these doldrums,” he said.
Don’t abandon public schools, Baptists urged
Welch said no one was at fault for the church’s stagnant growth, which has stubbornly held for the quarter-century since fundamentalist-leaning leaders began taking over the denomination in 1979.
“We are not suffering today from bad people doing bad things,” he said. “We are suffering because of good people doing good things at the exclusion of the main thing ... getting outside of the walls of the church and reconnecting in New Testament Jesus terms with the people of the world and meeting them at the point of their greatest need. That’s the greatest cry.”
Welch said the need to reach out to people was why messengers at next week’s convention should not adopt any resolution that called on Southern Baptist families to pull their children from the public schools.
A resolution that specifically called for a mass withdrawal from public school classrooms failed last year when it was not accepted by the convention’s resolutions committee. Welch said that the committee was considering two similar resolutions Thursday and that at least one was likely to make it to the floor next week, although it probably would not explicitly call for an organized withdrawal.
Counting more than 16.3 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention could have a significant impact on school enrollment were it to organize an effective boycott, especially in already struggling rural schools in the South and the Midwest, where its congregations are concentrated. That, Welch said, would be counterproductive.
“The convention will be united on the fact that our school system is in terrible disrepair and in a critical and urgent need for help,” he said. “But what we are trying to come to grips with is how do we address that. And I do not believe that most Southern Baptists believe that just a wholesale, universal call for a withdrawing of students from public schools is the best answer.”
Beyond the reality that many families did not have the resources to send their children to private schools, Welch said, Southern Baptists are called to be “change agents in a world and a society that many times is totally ungodly.”
“Well, if that’s true, how far can you keep backing up from the fight and still effect change?” he asked.
The convention begins this weekend at the Gaylord Center in downtown Nashville and runs through Wednesday. President Bush is expected to address the convention by live video Tuesday night.