Any way you count it, fewer Southern Baptists
By: Cary McMullen, NYT Regional Newspapers
In the South, it is said, there are more Baptists than people. Besides a bit of humor about how numerous they are, the saying is a sly reference to the well-known Baptist practice of padding the church roll, yielding a larger total in the local Baptist association than there is in the census.
But far from being a provincial denomination of rural churches, the Southern Baptist Convention has evolved into an organization that asserts its political clout and claims its prominence as the largest Protestant denomination, with 15.7 million members.
Now convention leaders admit that figure is inflated by as much as a third. And since more reliable figures show that membership has remained flat throughout the '90s, they are searching for ways to start the church growing again.
The 142nd Southern Baptist Convention begins today at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta with 14,000 delegates, or "messengers," expected for a two-day meeting.
The meeting promises to be a quiet one - the presidency is not contested and there are no major issues or studies on the agenda. Messengers are expected to ratify two recommendations - to leave the organization's name as it is, and to hold next year's meeting in Orlando despite a boycott of the Walt Disney Co., which has a large entertainment complex there.
The messengers also will be told that there are fewer Baptists than there were last year.
In April, the Southern Baptist Convention reported that in 1998 it experienced its first drop in total membership in more than 70 years. The loss of 162,158 members is a 1 percent drop from the previous year.
Convention officials give several reasons for the drop, including a change in computer software and data collection procedures, and dissatisfaction with last year's declaration about "wives submitting graciously to their husbands" that prompted some congregations to sever ties to the convention.
But the drop is probably meaningless, since even Baptist leaders admit the category of total membership is seriously flawed.
"We've known for a long time the boasting numbers were inflated," said Convention President Paige Patterson. "Some of us were having a hard time with our consciences about it. Churches have been cleaning up their rolls, so I do not view the drop as unfortunate. We needed to get more honest about the numbers."
Total membership includes "non-resident" members, people who joined a local Baptist church but then moved away and never transferred their membership elsewhere. Since congregations are independent, and there is no rule that says they have to do otherwise, most continue to carry these non-resident members on the rolls and include them in their total membership.
Membership statistics at the state and national level depend entirely on voluntary reports of local Southern Baptist churches.
Patterson, who is 56 and who is expected to be re-elected without opposition this week, attributes some of the membership drop to an attempt to make the reporting more honest.
Referring to the 15.7 million total members, Patterson said, "As far as I'm concerned, it's accurate only to the degree it represents people who have affiliated with Southern Baptist churches. We probably couldn't find 3 million of them because they're non-resident Baptists."
It's more like 5 million that couldn't be found. According to Cliff Tharp, coordinator for constituent information for the Southern Baptist Convention, the number of resident members in 1998 is 10.7 million, or 32 percent less than total membership.
That is also fewer resident members than the convention had in 1991. While total membership figures did not drop until 1998, resident members have fallen since 1995.
A prominent religion scholar says the fate of other moderate and liberal Protestant churches - a long decline in membership and a corresponding loss of public voice and influence - could be in store for the Southern Baptists as well.
The core of the church's membership - white and middle class - is aging, said Robert Wuthnow, professor of sociology of religion at Princeton University,
Changes in demographics in the South in the past few decades have also affected the church, including migration from the more religious rural areas to cities, and from other, less religiously inclined regions into the South, Wuthnow said.
"For awhile, they were doing pretty well keeping up, but it seems to be diminishing, especially among younger people," he said.
Even a figure of 10.7 million may be suspect, since it includes inactive members - people who are still in town but haven't attended worship or contributed money to the church in years. No separate figures are kept for inactive members.
Since Southern Baptist congregations aren't responsible to a higher church authority, the denomination has difficulties keeping accurate records.
Other Protestant churches have procedures in place and financial incentives to keep their rolls accurate.
For instance, the United Methodist Church in 1996 reported about 8.5 million members. Each local Methodist church's rolls are reviewed annually and inactive or non-resident members are removed, said Steve Zekoff of the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration. The process is overseen by district superintendents. And since the church's contributions to regional and national programs are based in part on membership figures, "there's an incentive not to inflate membership," Zekoff said.
Patterson prefers to focus on numbers other than membership. He noted that the number of baptisms - a measure of new members - was higher than it has been in nearly 20 years.
"I'm less concerned about the number of members than the number of churches, the number of baptisms and worship attendance. If those were in arrears, I'd be concerned," he said.
Of concern for the future, however, is continued fallout from the convention's 20-year turn to the right.
Efforts by conservatives to control the convention, begun in 1980, were cemented about 10 years ago, and many moderates conceded the field, ceasing to contest elections or attend convention meetings. A group of several hundred moderate churches developed a parallel organization, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which operates mission programs and contributes to several new seminaries that are independent of convention control.
And since last year's annual meeting of the convention, there has been a series of aftershocks. Several churches in North Carolina, including First Baptist Church of Raleigh, as well as First Baptist Church of Greenville, S.C., announced they were leaving the convention.
Patterson called these departures "a steady attrition" and predicted there would be others, though he said, "it's not substantive enough to be called a split."
The action by the Greenville church was mostly symbolic, since it had not contributed to Southern Baptist causes since 1994. But the symbolism was strong because the church's founder, William B. Johnson, is generally considered the father of the Southern Baptist Convention and was elected its first president in 1845.
The Rev. Hardy Clemons, pastor of First Baptist in Greenville, said the 2,500-member church had considered the action for some time and decided in May to make the break.
"After about 150 years of the Southern Baptist Convention having unity in diversity, it's become a fundamentalist organization, more concerned with creedalism and politics, and we're not," he said.
"When they added the statement to the Baptist Faith and Message about submissive women, it was just one more in a long series of incidents. We were still listed as a church cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention, even though we haven't been in some time. We said, `Where's the integrity in that?' "
A further rift took place in November when a small group of conservative churches left the Baptist General Convention of Texas to form a separate organization, Southern Baptists of Texas.
They left after the Texas convention, the largest of 40 state and regional Baptist conventions with 2.5 million members, ratified a credentialing formula that would make it more difficult for any group to control the convention. Messengers also re-elected Russell Dilday, a moderate, as president.
Conservatives have expressed frustration that the Texas convention has not affirmed the theological position of the Southern Baptist Convention and fear that it may be preparing to break its ties to the national group.
The continued independence of Texas Baptists potentially poses what Patterson terms "a threat" to the Southern Baptist Convention. Individually and collectively, churches in the Texas convention sent about $40 million to Southern Baptist Convention programs in 1997, more than any other source.
"They may have the intention of breaking with the SBC, but they'll be amazed at how many churches want to stay," said Patterson, who is a Texas native and is now president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
Officials of the Baptist General Convention of Texas say they are simply maintaining the independence that Baptists have always had about matters of conscience and mission funding.
The Texas convention's vice president, the Rev. Ed Hogan of Jersey Village near Houston, said, "In the Baptist General Convention of Texas, people can be who they want to be and don't feel coerced. For some, that was not enough. In some people's minds, a choice had to be made. You were either pro-Southern Baptist Convention or pro-Baptist General Convention of Texas."
Hogan, 38, agreed with Patterson that there could be repercussions for the Southern Baptist Convention. He said after the November meeting, the state convention office received numerous supportive phone calls from churches in other states.
"I think there will be a ripple effect. Our growth rate is dramatically higher than the Southern Baptist Convention. We're starting more churches, we baptize more. The reason is, we're allowing people more freedom," he said.
According to Wuthnow, future growth in the Southern Baptist Convention may depend on reaching a variety of ethnic groups.
"The reason they're holding their own is new immigration. One of the largest Baptist churches in California is Chinese," he said.
It is a strategy the convention is pursuing.
African-Americans and Hispanics are the two largest non-Anglo groups in the convention and the fastest-growing, said Robert Wilson, manager for the African-American planting unit of the convention's North American Mission Board.
In 1989, there were about 1,250 black Southern Baptist churches. Today there are more than 2,000, said Phil Jones, a researcher for the Southern Baptist Convention.
Jones said the convention does not collect racial information on its members, but he estimated there are more than 700,000 members in predominantly non-Anglo churches. And there are 25 ethnic fellowships - such as Korean, Russian and Hmong - under the Southern Baptist umbrella.
"We are one of the most multi-ethnic denominations. We're not stepping back from reaching Anglos, but we are stepping up our efforts to reach ethnic groups because of the disparity for years of not doing that," Wilson said.
There are four teams that report to Richard Harris, vice president for church planting at the North American Mission Board, each of which is led by a member of a different ethnic group: African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Anglo.
"Those team leaders are representative of where the Southern Baptist Convention is going. We're saying, `We believe in inclusivity, but we believe in quality,' " Wilson said.
(Cary McMullen writes about religion for The Ledger in Lakeland, Fla.)
Gallup Polling Data on Southern BaptistsThe reported membership of the Southern Baptist Convention has risen slowly, which indicates better growth than many "mainstream" or "oldline" denominations, which have actually declined steadily in size over the last twenty years.
But the proportion of Americans who consider identify themselves as Southern Baptists has declined steadily and significantly over the past ten years, from 10% in 1993 to just 6% in 2001.
These figures represent the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Southern Baptists, according to the aggregate figures from a year's worth of polling by Gallup:
These figures are the results of responses to two questions. The first determined people's general religion: What is your religious preference -- Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish or an Orthodox religion such as the Greek or Russian Orthodox Church?
Then, if the respondent said they were a Protestant, a follow up question was asked: What specific denomination is that?
Southern Baptists hope to reverse decline in baptismsBy: Jean Gordon
Date: 19 June 2005
Source: The Clarion-Ledger (Mississippi)
...For churches in the Southern Baptist Convention -- which will convene its annual meeting in Nashville on Tuesday -- baptisms are a measure of their effectiveness at reaching new members.
But the convention has reported a declining number of baptisms in four of the past five years. A new study by a leading church growth scholar described the denomination in an "evangelical crisis."
The Southern Baptist president, the Rev. Bobby Welch, hopes to turn the dip in baptisms around at this week's meeting when he officially launches his campaign urging fellow Baptists to baptize 1 million people by June of next year. The number more than doubles the average number of baptisms in the denomination since 1950.
In a September interview with The Clarion-Ledger, Welch called his goal "completely realistic."
"There are certainly 1 million lost people out there," he said. "Lots of people call Americans the most unchurched people in the world."
James Guth, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., who studies religion and Southern politics, said the number of baptisms may have slipped because potential converts are joining the nondenominational megachurches that have sprouted up in the country's suburban communities.
"Southern Baptists probably haven't adapted to that movement as fast as they might," he said. "The people they might have recruited may be going there."
William Glass, a Mississippi University for Women professor who studies religion in the South, attributed the slump either to the possibility of increased competition from other denominations or to the church simply having reached the limit of people willing to join.
Another factor could be Southern Baptist families are having few children, he said.
With more than 16 million members and 43,000 churches, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
In Mississippi, 2,110 churches and 700,000 members affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Baptists believe baptism by immersion is a symbolic expression of the believer's relationship with God. To join a Baptist church, the ritual is required for those who haven't already professed their faith and been baptized.
Since 1950, the number of baptisms in Southern Baptist Convention churches has fluctuated around 384,000 annually. But after climbing to 419,342 in 1999, the number of new converts slipped each year until 2004, which showed an increase, to 387,947.
In Mississippi, the number of baptisms mirrors the conventionwide trend. Total baptisms dropped from 16,400 in 2000 to 14,123 in 2003 but climbed to 14,417 in 2004.
Some attribute last year's bump in baptisms to Welch's cross-country summer tour promoting evangelism...
One of the greatest challenges to reaching new converts in the South is many people already consider themselves Christian if they've been raised in a church family, Anderson said.
"It's socially acceptable to go to church," he said. "People don't really see the need for a personal relationship with Christianity."
...Unlike Pinelake, 82 percent of all Southern Baptist churches baptized 12 or fewer people during 2003, according to a newly published study conducted by Thom S. Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Though the number of baptisms has remained flat, Southern Baptist Convention membership has more than doubled since 1950, swelling from 7 million to 16 million members (people may join a Southern Baptist church after being baptized in a different Christian denomination).
That means there's a growing ratio of current to new members. In 1950, one person was baptized for every 19 Southern Baptist church members. By 2003 the ratio had climbed to 43 to 1.
In Mississippi, the current ratio is nearly 50 to 1, according to the Mississippi Baptist Convention annual.
Glass said the declining number of baptisms may actually be a measure of success.
"They've brought in more people while still being rather successful in retaining members," he said.
Anderson said the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era has created both a challenge and opportunity for evangelism.
"People are more open to the Gospel because of world events," he said. "On the other hand, because people are searching, there are more and more options for people. There are different types of faith people are sampling to find that fulfillment."
Texas unit of Baptists may cut ties with denominationSource: Associated Press, 1 July 2000
DALLAS - The Southern Baptist Convention's largest state unit may sever ties with the denomination a move that would dramatically drain membership and financial support.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas is openly discussing a break with the national body, which this month rewrote its official statement of faith to disallow female pastors and two years ago called for a wife to "submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband."
"The truth is that, for some time now, a true Baptist could not support some of the agencies in SBC life," the Rev. Clyde Glazener, president of the Texas convention and pastor at Gambrell Street Baptist Church in Fort Worth, told The Dallas Morning News.
"We're not interested in siphoning off a lot of funds from Texas to fund a Jerry Falwell-clone church."
One proposal under discussion for the Oct. 29-30 meeting of the Texas convention would cut off funds to the national denomination. Texas provides 14 percent of the denominational budget.
Another proposal would allow congregations outside the state to join the Texas convention, in effect creating a rival national denomination.
Baptist moderates oppose changes this month to the Baptist Faith and Message, including emphasis on stricter interpretations of the Bible.
The Southern Baptist Convention claims 15.8 million members and more than 40,000 churches. If the 2.7 million members of the Texas convention were to form a separate body they would rank eleventh in size among U.S. denominations.
Southern Baptist leaders warn denomination stagnatingDate: 17 June 2004
Source: Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS - With over 16 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention remains America's largest Protestant denomination and continues to grow even as more liberal Protestant groups decline. But as the SBC ended its annual meeting, some leaders said the denomination appears to be stagnating.
The Rev. Jimmy Draper, president of the SBC publishing house, reminded the 8,500 church representatives Wednesday of a decline in new member baptisms in each of the past four years. He said it reflects "a denomination that's lost its focus."
The SBC's newly elected president, the Rev. Bobby Welch of Daytona Beach, Fla., said at a news conference it would be a compliment to say the SBC has "plateaued."
In fact, he said, baptism figures show "we are declining."
Associated Baptist Press, operated by moderates who oppose the SBC's conservative leadership, reported that statistics show a slowdown since the denomination began its rightward swing in 1979.
The article said SBC membership increased by 22 percent since 1979 but by 64 percent during the quarter-century before 1979.
In 1954, the SBC posted one baptism per 22 current church members compared with one per 43 last year. And the SBC statistician said the constituency is aging as fewer children under 12 attend Sunday School.
The Rev. Paige Patterson, a prime strategist in the 1979 campaign and now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, acknowledged the article in a speech, but contended the numbers would be far worse if moderates and liberals had continued to control the SBC.
The warnings came even as the SBC adopted a resolution that the rightward shift it began 25 years ago strengthened its churches and re-energized mission efforts.
Also on Wednesday, the meeting:
- Issued a statement endorsing a Constitutional amendment against gay marriage.
- Rejected a highly sectarian proposal that would have urged parents to pull all students out of American public schools and place them in Christian schools or home schooling.
- Rejected a study of whether to change the denomination's name and drop "Southern." Some debaters said the venerable label turns off potential converts while others felt it symbolizes biblical fidelity.
Texas Baptists may cut funding of SBC; state leaders oppose ending all tiesSource: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 27 June 2000
By: Jim Jones
Texas Baptists will not split with the national Southern Baptist Convention, but doctrines adopted by the body's conservatives this month have driven a deep wedge between the state and national groups, moderate Baptist leaders said yesterday.
Many Texas Baptists are distressed over the revised Baptist Faith and Message which they say exalts the Bible over Jesus. The independent state convention may cut back on the more than $40 million it sends annually to the national convention.
In recent years, the moderate-dominated state convention has cut about 2 percent of its offerings to the national body but still contributes 33 percent of its money to Southern Baptists, Texas officials said. Texas moderates have reacted to the rightward turn of the national denomination in recent years by creating their own seminary programs at Baylor University and other schools. They also finance some of their own mission programs and church literature, and allow churches to freely contribute to moderate national groups.
Still, Texas does not plan to form an alternative national denomination, said the Rev. Charles Wade of Arlington, executive director of the 2.7 million-member state convention.
"The Southern Baptist Convention's recent revision of its basic statement of faith underscores the need for the Baptist General Convention of Texas to redefine its relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention, not cut all ties and start an alternative national body," Wade said.
"The Baptist General Convention of Texas ... will continue working with Southern Baptists where we can," he said.
While there are some conservatives who "would like to draw a dividing line as deep as the Grand Canyon, this is a time for redefining our relationship, not severing it," Wade said.
Texas moderates find it difficult to halt support of some denomination programs, especially its huge missionary effort, Wade said.
Outgoing national president Paige Patterson said, "The reason they have to talk in terms of redefining rather than exodus is for the simple reason they would lose too many churches."
It is hard to predict what consequences a funding reduction from Texas would have, Patterson said. About 14 percent of the denomination's $159 million budget comes from Texas.
"We would think that other state conventions would take up the slack," Patterson said. "But even if it hurt financially, we would not change what we believe is true and right."
The Rev. Clyde Glazener of Fort Worth, president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said, "We have not split from the Southern Baptist Convention; they have split from us."
The revised Baptist Faith and Message Statement "would not be Baptist at all if someone had not insisted they put back in the statements on priesthood of the believer and soul liberty," Glazener said.
The revised statement bans women pastors and includes earlier additions stating that women should submit to the "servant leadership" of their husbands.
But greater arguments erupt over the removal of statements from the 1963 version, stating that Jesus "is the criterion by which the Bible is interpreted." Conservatives argue that the statement gave liberals a rationale for altering the meaning of the Bible.
Glazener, pastor of the Gambrell Street Baptist Church in Fort Worth, said removing Jesus as the highest revelation is putting the law above God.
When the state convention meets in the fall, Glazener predicted, Texas Baptists will reject revisions in the 2000 faith statement and again reaffirm the 1963 declaration.
Some moderate Texas Baptists have suggested that the 2.7 million members form a Texas- based Convention of the Americas which would take in moderates from churches in North and South America.
"We've already said we are not planning to start a Convention of the Americas," Wade said.
The Rev. Miles Seaborn of Fort Worth, founding president of the Southern Baptists of Texas, a conservative alternative to the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said he believes the moderates are preparing to form a separate denomination.
"The components are in place to do it sooner or later," Seaborn said. "They are doing it a step at a time. If they did it too abruptly too many would be shocked."
Defections to Baptist Fellowship PredictedSource: Religion News Service. Printed in Los Angeles Times, 8 July 2000
The coordinator of the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has predicted that changes in the Southern Baptist Convention's statement of faith will prompt as many as 5,000 churches to leave the denomination and join the fellowship.
"I am convinced there are thousands of Baptists that believe in our core values and share our vision and want to become part of CBF," said Dan Vestal, coordinator of the fellowship, at its General Assembly in Orlando. "They would find CBF and CBF networks a denomination-like home in a post-denominational world."
Vestal said changes made in June by delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in its "Baptist Faith and Message" contrast with the stands of the fellowship.
For example, new revisions in the statement say the Bible teaches that only men should be pastors. Vestal said it is possible to interpret the Bible that way, but "that's not the only way to interpret Scripture."
Vestal also commented on the removal of the phrase from the faith statement that names Christ as the criterion for interpreting the Bible.
"We love and cherish the Bible as Holy Scripture," he said, "but we do not place Scripture over Jesus."
About 1,800 churches are affiliated with the fellowship, which was formed in 1991 when moderates found they no longer controlled the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Baptist groups face split decision
Number of member churches: 40,000
Annual budget: $281 million
Web site: www.sbc.net
Baptist General Convention of Texas
Number of member churches: 6,000
Annual budget: $51 million
Web site: www.bgct.org
Southern Baptists of Texas Convention
Number of member churches: 419
Annual budget: $1.9 million
Web site: www.sbtexas.com
SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research
"The BGCT is betting the farm on an appeal to regional pride and state pride," said Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a Houston native. "But a significant number of these churches are going to choose the SBC. These are Southern Baptist churches."
Moderate leaders say they are creating an enduring home for traditional Baptist values.
"Texas Baptists are once again exerting what Baptists everywhere knew: that we're free and autonomous and the state convention is not under control of some larger, upper hierarchy," said Dr. Wade said.
A third choice
But there is a third choice, some Baptist leaders say: a post-denominational future in which churches pick and choose how they want to work with state or national bodies, without the powerful allegiances that have marked Southern Baptist life.
That would reduce the power and influence of both state and national conventions, said Ron Kornegay, director of missions for the Amarillo Baptist Association.
"These two groups make it sound like you only have two choices," he said. "The third choice is to continue to support the ministries of the SBC and the ministries of the BGCT and not to support all of the needless, tedious politics."
The Southern Baptist Convention claims 15.8 million members in about more than 41,000 churches. One in eight Texans belongs to Baptist churches. The Baptist General Convention of Texas claims about 6,000 churches, with 2.7 million members. A newer conservative group closely tied to the national convention, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, claims 419 churches.
Some moderates outside the state are looking forward to working more closely with Texans.
"We're cheering those people on," said the Rev. Bruce Prescott, coordinator of Oklahoma Mainstream Baptists, a small moderate group. "The biggest thing is to wait and see if Texas is going to open it up."
The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, created three years ago to give Texas conservatives a home, considers the moderate vote an opportunity. Conservative Texas churches will be more likely to affiliate with a conservative state group, said Dr. Jim Richards, executive director for the conservative state body.
"Churches move slowly," he said. "I do not anticipate a huge avalanche of churches [joining his group], but it may be more of a steady stream."
Local association representatives from the Panhandle to the Big Bend to the Gulf Coast say the overwhelming emotion in local churches is frustration with the leadership of the state and national bodies.
"The biggest thing I am hearing is that the folks in the churches are tired of the political rhetoric," said David Brown, missions director for the Central Texas Area, which includes the area around Corsicana. "They are simply tired of it and don't want to have to deal with it."
Theological and political
The issues that divide the two sides are theological and political. And some Baptists across the country say they share the feelings of Texas moderates.
"It does make a statement to the SBC that we're not going to continue to support this system," said the Rev. Becky Matheny, director of the Georgia Baptist Heritage Council, a moderate group formed in May.
Georgia is one of nine states with conservative conventions where moderate Baptist organizations have recently formed.
The Atlanta-based Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a small national moderate Baptist organization, is watching Texas with excitement and a little apprehension, said communications director David R. Wilkinson.
"There is also the potential that Texas Baptists, in their commendable effort to declare their own autonomy, may also fall into an old-style provincialism of Texas first, Texas only," he said. "That would not be in keeping with the best of Texas Baptist tradition."
At times the rhetoric used by both sides has sounded like a particularly dirty secular political campaign. But people on both sides and in the middle are hoping to get beyond the harsh language and back to the work of faith that brought them together to begin with, said Dr. Hearon of Dallas.
"The ministries that united us through the past have been grand and glorious," he said. "The differences that divide us today are significant. But diversity has always been a part of us as Baptists."
NEW YORK (AP) - Is America's largest Protestant denomination unraveling?
Two decades after strict biblical conservatives began winning control of the Southern Baptist Convention and four months after they reworked the doctrinal platform, it's beginning to look that way.
One congregation after another has voted to halt financial support or leave the Southern Baptists altogether. Last week, former President Jimmy Carter renounced membership in his lifelong denomination due to its "increasingly rigid" theology.
At heart, this uncivil war is theological. Denominational leaders say the Bible is "inerrant," perfect in historical detail as well as spiritual teaching, and insist that those who work at Southern Baptist institutions uphold this. Their "moderate" opponents say Baptists do not believe in imposed creeds, and there should be more leeway in biblical interpretation. Subsidiary disputes involve abortion, homosexuality, politics, women and much else.
The climax could occur Monday if there's a declaration of semi-independence from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which accounts for 13 percent of denominational funding and 17 percent of the Southern Baptists' membership of 15.9 million.
Proposals to the meeting in Corpus Christi would undermine the 75-year-old "Cooperative Program" that funds the denomination, slashing support to Southern Baptist Convention seminaries next year by $4 million, and to headquarters agencies in Nashville, Tenn., by $1 million. Money would flow instead to favored schools and causes within Texas.
That would virtually de-fund five of the six SBC seminaries. The sixth is the largest in the world, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, which faces an $800,000 hit even though its students include 1,368 Texans.
Another measure at Corpus Christi could threaten the denomination in a different way.
It would open the Baptist General Convention of Texas to full participation by Baptists in other states. Proponent David Currie of Texas Baptists Committed says that would merely provide "safe haven" for unhappy congregations. But others think the Texas convention might eventually become a multi-state denomination, rivaling the Southern Baptists.
Campaigning is intense. On a new headquarters Web page, the top executive in Nashville, the Rev. Morris Chapman, says the Texans' complaints are false and misleading. "When someone is drilling holes in the boat the crew must both bail water and try to repair the damage," he adds.
Currie's organization, which has worked for years to uncouple Texas from the Southern Baptist Convention, has helped plant similar groups of self-identified "mainstream" or "moderate" Baptists in 13 other states.
Four Texas activists have incorporated a Baptist Convention of the Americas on paper, in case a new denomination is needed.
One of the four, retired Sysco Corp. chairman John F. Baugh of Houston, says that might not happen, but "something will be formed. We cannot in good conscience participate in activities of the fundamentalist faction in control of the SBC."
Within Texas there are already two statewide conventions, the one meeting in Corpus Christi and the competing Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, which has enlisted 419 congregations since 1998. That group supports the national denomination and its commitment to Bible inerrancy. Virginia also has two competing conventions.
Meanwhile, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an Atlanta-based group of 1,800 congregations both inside and outside the Southern Baptist Convention, provides parallels to many SBC programs - foreign missions, church-planting, publishing, pensions - and there are hints it, too, might evolve into a denomination. Carter identifies with the fellowship.
When Southern Baptist leaders rewrote the denomination's doctrinal statement, "Baptist Faith and Message," this year, Carter found it unacceptable, he told The Associated Press.
Especially troubling, he says, was the deletion of this sentence: "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ."
That, Carter says, "removed the written premise we had always accepted, that Scripture is interpreted by the words and action of Jesus Christ. Which means in effect the Scriptures are interpreted by pastors or officials who lead the Southern Baptist Convention. This is contrary to my basic beliefs."
In a letter mailed to 75,000 Baptists by Currie's Texas group, Carter said that besides freedom of biblical interpretation the conservatives threaten separation of church and state, priesthood of lay believers, religious press freedom and women's equality. (The revised faith statement disallows women pastors, and a 1998 amendment says wives should submit to the "servant leadership" of husbands.)
Texans are quite conservative in theology and few of their congregations would ordain women, says Marv Knox, editor of the Baptist Standard, the Baptist General Convention of Texas weekly. But the platform's new stand against women pastors violates the autonomy of local congregations. Texans, he says, are "not prone to have folks from other places telling us how to conduct our affairs."
Southern Baptist officials project calm amid the restlessness in their ranks. They point out that while some congregations are leaving, 41,000 remain and the denomination planted 1,701 new ones last year.
"I don't fear a split. I don't even fear a splinter," says the Rev. James G. Merritt, convention president and a pastor in Snellville, Ga.
The mighty empire boasts other impressive numbers. Though membership is a bit below the 1997 record, total receipts including those of local congregations reached $7.8 billion last year.
The SBC operates America's biggest home and foreign mission boards, dispatching 9,800 workers and 28,000 temporary volunteers. Its seminaries train 13,500 students.
True enough, and Southern Baptist leaders indeed reflect majority belief on the Bible, acknowledges the Rev. Bill Leonard, a sharp critic of the conservatives. Leonard is dean of Wake Forest University's new divinity school in North Carolina, part of an archipelago of 11 campuses for those who find Southern Baptist Convention seminaries too restrictive.
Nonetheless, Leonard says, "The whole system is coming apart."
He sees the Baptists as balkanized and thinks they are reverting to the network of regional groupings and specialized ministries that existed before the more centralized denomination was established in 1845.
"Texas is the jewel in the crown," Leonard says. "We don't know what the SBC will look like when Texans have cleared out in large numbers."
Naturally, the president of loyalist Southwestern seminary sees things differently. The Rev. Kenneth Hemphill says "the whole conservative reformation" across the SBC establishes "the authority and accuracy of the Word of God," a belief that unites Baptists across the world.
"The Southern Baptist Convention," he says, " has never been at the level of strength it is right now."
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas Moderate Texas Baptists voted Monday to reduce their donations to conservative seminaries, an action that signaled their continued discontent with leadership of the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
But delegates at the Baptist General Convention of Texas also overwhelmingly rejected a motion that would have eliminated almost all donations to the Southern Baptist Convention.
Moderate Baptists decrease funding to conservative seminaries
The vote shifted more than $5 million away from seminaries supported by the national convention and almost doubled contributions to three moderate Texas seminaries.
The vote on seminary funding, described by partisans on both sides as one of the most important in years, followed 45 minutes of discussion. Most delegates, apparently ready to take a stand against the national body, rejected a call for more time. The truncated discussion left the frustrated pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and many other delegates standing at a microphone.
"I'm afraid that what most of this is, is bitterness, wrapped up in revenge, encased in payback and cloaked in theological piety," said the Rev. Mac Brunson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. He had hoped to ask the convention to hear representatives of the conservative seminaries before taking action.
Monday's vote was the latest in a two-decade tug-of-war that has left the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention firmly in conservative hands and leadership of the Texas convention in moderate hands. The vote shifted more than $5 million away from seminaries supported by the national convention and almost doubled contributions to three moderate Texas seminaries.
"This is the most significant schism in Southern Baptist life since the convention was formed in 1945," said Dr. Bill Leonard, a historian of Baptists and the head of the moderate seminary at Wake Forest University.
Texas Baptists also gave final approval to a change in their rules that will open leadership roles to representatives of out-of-state churches a decision that some believe will move the state convention one step closer to creating a new national denomination.
The Southern Baptist Convention says it has 15.8 million members and more than 41,000 churches. The Baptist General Convention of Texas the largest state convention in the country estimates its numbers at 2.7 million members and about 6,000 churches. Its annual meeting will end Tuesday.
Cutting off conservative seminaries to support others wasn't necessary, said Dr. Ken Hemphill, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
"Both could have been done," he said. "This didn't have to be an either-or situation."
Theological differences between conservatives and moderates center on, among other things, women's roles and changes to the Baptist Faith and Message that moderates believe have compromised traditional Baptist values. Conservatives say they're defending biblical orthodoxy.
Moderates across the nation watched Monday's vote with interest.
"Very careful, thoughtful, strategic thinkers have realized that the SBC is no longer what it was when we were young," said the Rev. Tom McCann, head of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, the only other large, moderate state convention. Because of the Texas vote, Virginia moderates "will be encouraged to be more aggressive," he said.
Before the vote, the Texas convention's executive director made the case for splitting with the national body.
"Jesus took his stand against religious authoritarianism, moral judgmentalism and dogmatic fundamentalism," Dr. Charles Wade told more than 6,400 delegates, called messengers, who overflowed the main hall at the Corpus Christi Convention Center.
Opinions were not unanimous. Dora Butler and Myrtle Jackson, from Liberty Baptist Church in Dallas, said they favored continued funding for the conservative seminaries and were disappointed with the vote.
"But we're still supporting our Texas schools," Ms. Butler said. "We're not leaving upset. We're still Texas Baptists."
"And we're still Southern Baptists," Ms. Jackson said.
Ted Cromer of Beckley Hills Baptist Church in Dallas said the process to make changes in the funding moved too quickly.
"But I'm sure they did a lot of research, so I trust them," he said, referring to a committee appointed last year to study the seminaries and report to the convention. Monday's vote approved the committee's recommendations.
The Rev. Howard Daniel, senior pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, said the move was too radical.
"I understand not everybody is happy with what the SBC has done, but we don't have to take a radical step," he said. "I'm a product of Southwestern [Seminary], and I can say I'm truly disappointed."
Monday's vote leaves Texas churches with the choice of how to make their donations. It will take about nine months to tell whether moderates or conservatives are right about the will of the average Texas Baptist, said Dr. Richard Land, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"It means we will have to await the decision of the 'headquarters' of the Southern Baptist Convention," Dr. Land said, "and that is the local church."
Staff writer Berta Delgado contributed to this report.
CORPUS CHRISTI In the latest skirmish between moderate and conservative Texas Baptists, several clear winners emerged this week: the three theological schools across the state that stand to get more money.
Delegates to the Baptist General Convention of Texas voted Monday to cut contributions to conservative seminaries run by the Southern Baptist Convention and to divide $4.3 million among more moderate schools at home: Hispanic Baptist Theological School in San Antonio, Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco and Hardin-Simmons University's Logsdon School of Theology in Abilene.
"I think Texas Baptists have said, 'Look, we want to support students who will get the kind of theological education that we want represented in our churches, and that we want represented around the world,'" said Baylor president Robert Sloan. "It's not a question of the number of students; it's a question of the kind of students that Texas Baptists want to support."
The overwhelming vote by delegates, or "messengers," pulls money from six Southern Baptist seminaries across the nation, including Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. If the vote had gone the other way, those schools would have received about $5.3 million. Now they'll split no more than $1 million, and the bulk of that amount will go to Southwestern, the largest Protestant seminary in the world.
Boon for Hispanic school
Dr. Charles Wade, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said that Truett and Logsdon are crucial to the future of Texas Baptists. And he said that the Hispanic Baptist Theological School is "one of the great, great challenges."
"This is a school that's 52 years old and never been accredited," he said. "Accreditation was not a high priority, but it has become a very high priority."
Dr. Albert Reyes, president of Hispanic Baptist Theological School, said that with the future demographics of Texas pointing toward a larger Hispanic population, that population can no longer be ignored.
"In the past we've been providing money to people who need it least," he said. "And now this decision says we're going to give the money to people who need it the most."
He said that many students at his school have to drop out because they cannot afford the $4,000 per semester tuition. He said the money received will go toward scholarships and to help gain accreditation as a Bible school by upgrading the library and other resources.
The Rev. Baldemar Borrego, pastor of a Spanish-language church in Wichita Falls and a leader in the Hispanic Baptist Convention, said attention to the school is greatly appreciated by students and alumni.
"I think this is a new beginning in Texas for Hispanics," said Mr. Borrego, who attended the school in the early 1980s. "For too long, we as Hispanics have been left out."
The leader of one seminary that will lose money was looking for ways to remain optimistic.
"What I'm doing right now as president of Southwestern Seminary, which has lost $700,000, is to begin to say, 'What is God doing good in the midst of this?'" said Dr. Ken Hemphill.
He said the state group's action will force churches to decide how they want their money spent and to look at theological issues in greater depth. That, he said, can only be healthy.
'A significant loss'
Said Dr. William Crews, president of Golden Gate Baptist Theological seminary in San Francisco and chairman of the seminary president's council: "It's not only a significant loss of money. The greater loss is the partnership so many of us have had with Texas Baptists."
Dr. Wade said that Texas Baptists have sent money to SBC seminaries for years and that those contributions helped to keep students' costs to about $1,000 per semester. In comparison, he said, students at the three moderate Texas schools pay between $3,000 and $4,000 per semester.
"Why should our students, who want an education in a traditional Baptist venue, be penalized grievously?" he asked. "It just doesn't make sense."
He said that if leadership of the national convention had not taken a right turn, and had trustees not required professors to sign an amended confession of faith, Texas Baptists might never have made the move they did this week.
'A new direction'
The moderate Texas schools are not sure exactly how much money they will receive until details have been ironed out. But the Hispanic school expects between $300,000 and $1 million; Logsdon expects about $1 million; and Truett expects more than $1 million.
Dr. Sloan, of Baylor, said that the endowment at Truett had run out and so the cost to students was going to rise. He said the money would help defray the $4,000 to $4,500 per-semester cost.
"I am exuberant," Dr. Sloan said. "My real emotions have to do with what this means to Texas Baptists. Of course it's wonderful for the Truett student, but this means so much more than just the wonderful gift of subsiding theological education. This is the beginning of a new direction for Texas Baptists."
He said the seminary started in 1994 with 51 students. It has grown to 247 students.
"This is probably the most rapidly growing seminary in America," he said. "We're going to continue to increase our numbers pretty dramatically. It's this kind of funding that will enable us to do that."
Dr. M. Vernon Davis, dean of the Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, said his school, with 82 students, can use the money toward becoming a full-fledged theological seminary.
"We know we're small," he said. "We know we're in the infancy stage, but we have a large vision. And we believe this has set us on a good path."
The school, which is five years old, will use the money to recruit students and faculty and to provide scholarships.
"The first few years were really a struggle as far as funding issues were concerned," said Dr. Davis, who previously was dean at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., one of the six SBC schools. "Now this opens the door to where things we dreamed of can be accomplished."
Staff writer Jeffrey Weiss contributed to this report.
The D.C. Baptist Convention has rejected demands from the Southern Baptist Convention to allow direct oversight of its financial affairs, refrain from interfaith activities and support the conservative denomination's stand on abortion, homosexuality and other issues.
The rejection, ratified by nearly 200 local Baptists at a meeting Monday night, sets the stage for a potential rupture between the D.C. convention and the national denomination -- a break that would mean the loss of $475,000 in annual funding to the local group, nearly a third of its $1.5 million budget.
The D.C. convention consists of about 140 congregations in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
"It was an overwhelming majority," the Rev. Jeffrey Haggray, the group's executive director, said of the vote taken at First Baptist Church of the City of Washington in Northwest. "It was not even necessary to count, it was so clear."
Robert Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, said through a spokesman that he was "disappointed that it appears that the D.C. convention has rejected our proposal." The board is the agency through which the national convention funds local groups.
Board officials, Reccord added, "will carefully study the response and our relationship with the D.C. convention before responding."
Last fall, the board listed conditions for continuing its 124-year-old partnership with the local organization. It said it wanted to place a "strategist" in the local group's office to administer spending of the denomination's funds. It also demanded that the local group avoid joining "cultural festivals that include non-Christian religious organizations" and that it stop criticizing the denomination in its newsletter.
Another "nonnegotiable area" of concern, the board said, involved "theological differences." In recent years, the increasingly conservative 15.8 million-member denomination has been demanding stricter adherence by local Baptist churches to its literal interpretation of the Bible and its stances against abortion, homosexuality and female pastors.
Haggray said the D.C. Baptist Convention does not take positions on those matters, letting member congregations adopt their own views.
The local group also is affiliated with two national Baptist groups that have more liberal views than the Southern Baptist Convention: the American Baptist Churches USA and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
Haggray said that although the local group's rejection of the mission board's demands was "firm," the tone was intended "to reflect our values around cooperation."
The local group requested a response from the board within 45 days. From that response, "we'll see if we're really dealing with an ultimatum or not," Haggray said.
Anticipating that the national convention might cut funding, Haggray said his organization has begun "to see where we can trim our mission costs, and we'll be actively soliciting increased donations from our churches . . . and exploring new partnerships with other entities, though we don't know who they are right now."
Some local Baptists said they were unhappy about the national convention's attempt to impose its more conservative theological views. "This is like the head office trying to bring the frontier back in line," said the Rev. John P. Burns, pastor of College Park's University Baptist Church.
On the issue of refraining from interfaith cooperation, Burns said, "the D.C. convention feels the exact opposite, especially since September 11."
BRIDGETON, Mo. (AP) - Moderate Southern Baptists in Missouri are the latest group to break away from the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.
About 350 Missouri Baptists announced April 20 that they would form an alternative to the Missouri Baptist Convention. The new moderate organization will be called the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.
"It's going to be a convention for people who don't want to fight anymore," said Randy Fullerton, pastor of Fee Fee Baptist Church in Bridgeton, who presided over the meeting.
Moderate Baptists in several states have been forming alternative fellowships, reacting to the denomination's conservative shift in recent years.
Despite the rifts, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, says it grew even bigger last year, adding 92,612 followers for a total membership of 16,052,920.
ST. LOUIS - The new president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination says dwindling attendance at its annual convention is no indication of the denomination's strength.
"The direction of the Southern Baptist Convention, the focus of the Southern Baptist Convention is clear," the Rev. Jack Graham of Plano, Texas, said following his election Tuesday. "I believe it's a new day for Southern Baptists."
The convention was disrupted Tuesday by gay-rights activists, who tried to disrupt outgoing President James Merritt's keynote speech. A dozen protesters were on hand from the group SoulForce, which claims Southern Baptist teachings lead to violence against gays and bisexuals.
"Stop killing us," one man shouted as police dragged him behind the curtains at America's Center. "Stop the spiritual violence."
"God loves his gay children," a woman shouted.
As the protesters filed onto the convention floor, Merritt took aim at the media and Hollywood - groups he said nearly unanimously accept homosexuality, according to surveys he cited.
"We now face the fact that there are certain groups that are going to protest us every year," he said.
"They have let me know in their correspondence, 'We are not going away.' Well, I've got news for the pornographer, the adulterer, the homosexual, the pedophile, the abortionist. We are not going away either."
Fifty protesters were arrested in all.
On Tuesday, two convention delegates made motions for the church to rescind an order for missionaries to affirm the Baptist Faith & Message, the denomination's chief doctrinal statement. The statement was amended two years ago to, among other things, prohibit women from serving and pastors and to direct wives to submit graciously to their husbands.
Some Baptists oppose the affirmation because they consider it a creed, which they say makes it contrary to Southern Baptist tradition.
The motion to rescind the order was referred to a committee.
The Southern Baptists claim more than 16 million members. As of Tuesday, fewer than 9,500 delegates had registered for the two-day convention, down from a record of more than 45,000 set in 1985.