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Southern Baptists Try to Combat Stagnation
outhern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt urged members of North America’s largest Protestant denomination to move beyond their comfort zones as they seek new ways to evangelize and combat declining baptism rates.
"I'm tired of having my membership in a convention that's declining," he said in a presidential address on the opening day of the Southern Baptists' annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, June 15. "I'm tired of not putting the priority in reaching teenagers for Jesus Christ. I'm tired of being hammered over and over again about money instead of the mission in Jesus' name. Let's get a compelling vision that people would want to give more money to."
Taking up that charge will be Bryant Wright, senior pastor of a church in Marietta, Georgia, who beat out three other candidates to succeed Hunt as the SBC's next president. Wright, 57, also is founder of Right From the Heart Ministries, a broadcast and Internet ministry focused on evangelism.
Hunt's remarks came as delegates spent more than two hours debating whether to adopt a "Great Commission Resurgence Task Force" report, which was later adopted by a clear majority. The report noted that the number of teenagers baptized by Southern Baptists has dropped from 140,000 in 1970 to 75,000 in 2008, and said the average Southern Baptist gives 2.5 percent of his or her annual income to local and wider church causes.
Though Baptists have long been committed to Jesus' command to make disciples in all nations, there was deep division among members of the 16.1 million-member denomination over the report's recommendations.
Critics cautioned the report's recommendations could have detrimental effects on Southern Baptist agencies, including cutting the budget of its executive committee and changing the way state Baptist conventions work with the denomination's domestic mission board.
One of the harshest critics has been outgoing Executive Committee President Morris Chapman. "Failure to fulfill the Great Commission is not a structural problem and cannot be solved by structural solutions," he said. Rather, he said it won't occur "until we get our hearts in tune with the Lord Jesus Christ."
Chapman said the task force would drastically change the methodology of the denomination and reduce the way Baptists cooperate with one another, comparing the change to rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking Titanic. "Under God, I do not want to go in the wrong direction on the wrong road at the wrong time in our history," he warned.
Some delegates, called messengers, sought to postpone adoption of the report indefinitely and one delegate accused leaders of bullying Baptists into accepting the report.
James Merritt, a Georgia pastor and former SBC president, supported the report and tried to turn Chapman's Titanic analogy on its head. "We've been sitting on our deckside lounges watching this ship sail into the iceberg of declining baptisms, diminishing missions and what is becoming a dead orthodoxy."
For the second year in a row, Hunt drew on the words of evangelist Billy Graham to urge Southern Baptists to take action on reviving their evangelism focus.
"May this be the year that we as Southern Baptists agree to lay aside every distraction that keeps us from accomplishing that goal," Graham said in a letter Hunt read after receiving it from the elder evangelist earlier in the week.