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Southern Baptist Leaders Warn Against Decline

While Southern Baptist leaders celebrated the 25th anniversary of the “conservative resurgence” that they claim rescued the nation’s largest Protestant denomination from the slippery slope of liberalism, some speakers at this week’s Southern Baptist Convention warned against signs of malaise.

While lauding the effort that opponents label a “fundamentalist takeover,” SBC Executive Committee President <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Morris Chapman said the convention must now move beyond the “crusade phase” and become more inclusive in selecting leaders.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
“If Southern Baptists steer too sharply to the right, we will end up on the road of separatism and independence,” Chapman said.
 
Chapman said his 1990 promise while running for president of the convention to “broaden the tent” has never been fully implemented. While trustees of convention boards must affirm biblical inerrancy and the Baptist Faith and Message, he said, there are thousands of Southern Baptists who need to be enlisted for convention support.
 
“I am concerned now that we have affirmed by vigorous endeavor that Southern Baptists are a people of the book, that we will develop a censorious, exclusivist, intolerant spirit,” Chapman said. “If this occurs, we will be the poorer for it.”
 
Chapman said the convention must never be “driven by politics,” but instead by a passion for missions and evangelism.
 
Jimmy Draper, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, said during his report that he is concerned by the fact that baptisms have declined for four straight years and the lack of younger messengers attending the annual meeting.
 
Declining baptisms “reflects a denomination that has lost its focus,” Draper said. While the baptism figures might reveal that more churches believe a profession of faith is enough and don’t pressure new believers to follow through with baptism, Draper said, “Perhaps our denomination is simply failing to reach people for Christ.”
 
On demographics, Draper said: “Walk around this building and notice how many people you see who are under the age of 40. There’s not many. There is a lack of denominational involvement and loyalty among young ministers. We haven’t shown them the relevancy of being Southern Baptist.”
 
Draper said Southern Baptists should be proud of their stand on the authority of Scripture. “At the same time,” he added, “many people see Southern Baptists against everything and trusting no one—even each other.”
 
Newly elected convention president Bobby Welch, pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., told reporters: “”When we say that we are plateaued, that is a large compliment to where we are.”
 
“We are declining,” Welch said. “We can do better than that.”
 
Welch has said a goal of his presidency is to lead Southern Baptists to increase the number of baptisms to 1 million a year, more than double the current rate of just over 400,000, a benchmark that has been stagnant during 25 years of conservative leadership.
 
Paige Patterson, one of the chief architects of the conservative movement, said baptisms would be even lower had conservatives not taken control of the convention from moderates.
 
“They’d look exactly like they do in a dozen other mainline denominations that have long since failed to mean anything at all to the work of evangelism and worldwide missions,” Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said at the SBC Pastors Conference.
 
Patterson admitted, however, that Southern Baptists ought to be baptizing more. “We don’t do it because we do not care like we ought to care,” he said.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com. This story was covered from Webcasts of the convention on sbc.net and compiled from news reports.