Southern Baptists will discuss the pending Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage and join together in prayer and worship during their annual meeting Tuesday and Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio.
The Rev. Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and senior pastor at Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas.
Members of the nation's largest Protestant denomination likely also will discuss another year of declining membership. A new report from LifeWay Christian Resources shows that the Southern Baptist Convention lost more than 200,000 members in 2014. That's the largest one-year decline since 1881.
According to the Annual Church Profile, which is put together by LifeWay with the help of data from state conventions, church membership dropped by 1.5 percent to 15.5 million. The Southern Baptist Convention remains the second-largest denomination in the United States, behind the Catholic Church, but membership numbers haven't been as low since 1993.
The numbers aren't surprising to the Rev. Gary Hollingsworth, senior pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock.
"It's continuing proof of the continued secularization of our society more than anything else," Hollingsworth said. "Spiritual things are not relevant to their lives in the minds of some. So the numbers speak to what's going on in culture."
Hollingsworth said he sees the report as a challenge and as an opportunity to spread the Gospel.
"I look at it in an optimistic way," he said. "It's a great opportunity. There are more people who don't know [Christ] yet. So let's get out there and try to communicate."
The report shows that baptisms declined for the third-consecutive year, with a decrease of 1.6 percent. Last year 305,301 people were baptized, the lowest total since 1947.
The report did contain some good news. The number of churches within the denomination increased to 46,499, up by 374. The denomination also has 4,595 mission congregations. The Southern Baptist Convention has emphasized starting new churches and has a goal of 1,500 per year over a 10-year period.
'TRUTH' OF MARRIAGE
This year's meeting comes as the nation awaits the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on same-sex marriage. The topic will be discussed during an afternoon session Wednesday.
The Rev. Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and senior pastor at Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas, said the discussion is meant to help prepare churches for the future, regardless of what the court decides.
"It's obvious that the culture about marriage is changing in America, and we need to prepare our churches," Floyd said.
A poll conducted last month by the Pew Research Center shows that 57 percent of Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage. The poll of 2,002 adults had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
Floyd said Southern Baptists consider marriage to be a "covenant commitment" between one man and one woman and the court doesn't need to "attempt to redefine what God himself has already defined."
"We're not going to back away from the truth of what marriage is, that is one man with one woman for a lifetime, but at the same time we're going to love people," he said. "We're going to minister to people. We're going to walk with them through the journey they are in and help them navigate to being what God wants them to be.
"My heart is to hold the word of God in one hand and the love of God in the other."
Floyd said that Southern Baptists need to share the truth with love in a tone that is not judgmental but compassionate. He said the discussion is designed to help churches prepare to minister to those dealing with same-sex attraction, those already in same-sex relationships and families dealing with the issue.
"Our Southern Baptist churches must rise in this moment and minister to people of all ages who are wrestling with all the challenges of the sexual revolution in America," he said. "Children and teenagers need help. Parents need help. Adults of all ages need help. Pastors, Christian leaders, and churches need help."
Floyd said many Southern Baptist churches aren't equipped to address same-sex marriage.
"The bottom line is a lot of churches are totally intimidated by the issue," he said. "That's one thing we want to do. We want to tear down the walls and we also want to help them."
The panel will feature Floyd, as well as Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.; Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Nashville, Tenn.; Ryan Blackwell, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of San Francisco; Rosaria Butterfield, writer and speaker from Durham, N.C., and Matt Carter, senior pastor of Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas.
Moore said the panel is important because Southern Baptists need to know how to articulate their beliefs about marriage, and to do so without fear and anger.
"Same-sex marriage, regardless of what happens at the Supreme Court, is coming to every community in this country one way or another," he said. "We have to be the people who don't surrender our convictions and also the people who know how to minister in a world that will view our convictions as being backward at best and hateful at worst."
Moore also will present the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission report at the meeting on Wednesday afternoon. He said Southern Baptists are learning to adjust to a new reality "in which we clearly are not in step with the spirit of the age in this country on many issues."
"I think for many Southern Baptists there was an illusion for many years that we represented a majority of people in the country, if not in theology, then in terms of values," he said. "Very clearly that is not the case on many issues right now."
Moore said the Southern Baptist view on marriage is one of those issues.
"There was a time when you could preach on marriage without defining what marriage is," he said. "Now the basics are contested in the culture. I think the big challenge for Southern Baptists is to engage the new mission field we have without hindering it. There's a sense of pessimism that can come among a people when they see a culture embracing things we don't hold to as Christians. Our main challenge is to remain people who hold true to our convictions and do so with joy and kindness."
Moore said Southern Baptists are also concerned about religious liberty.
"In some sense I think Southern Baptists are going back to the future to the role that Baptists had in the Revolutionary era and when Baptists were irritants calling for religious liberty for all people. That's the mantle we put on again, calling for freedom of conscience for everybody will be a key part of our ministry for the rest of the world," he said.
In addition to discussion of social and denominational matters, the meeting will be a time of prayer and worship. Floyd has called on Southern Baptists to pray for what he calls a "great awakening" and has devoted the Tuesday night session to prayer.
The Rev. Douglas Falknor, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Fayetteville, said that praying and worshipping together are essential.
"People think [the annual meeting] is a big business meeting but it's really a large worship service," he said. "It's a revival type service with a lot of preaching. It's one of the important things we do when we join together as one large family and worship together. A lot of things people would say divide us are not an issue at all. There's a unity and it carries over into the business session. It's a remarkable time."
Falknor said he thinks that Southern Baptists this year are facing the same challenge they've always faced.
"That is, how can we as Southern Baptists be effective at caring for people in every way -- meeting physical and emotional needs at home and around the world and making sure that we are proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ," he said. "That is always the challenge and that will be the challenge we have as we go to the annual meeting."
Floyd, who was elected during last year's meeting, will be nominated for a second term by the Rev. J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. In announcing his plan to nominate Floyd to Baptist Press in April, Greear called Floyd "a leader God has raised up for us at this crucial hour, and sensing God's hand upon him, I want to see him lead us for another year."
Floyd said he's open to another term.
"Obviously there are some things I would like to do," he said. "The main thing is I just want to stay on message and really keep us focused as much as possible."
Floyd said the infighting of years past seems to have died down and that Southern Baptists seem more united.
"We're trying to lead people higher than getting in the weeds," he said. "We get in the weeds way too much, as Christians, as Southern Baptists. We need to remember what our message is, which is the Gospel and remember what our mission is, which is to make disciples around the world. If we'll do that God will take care of the rest."
SundayMonday on 06/14/2015
Print Headline: Southern Baptists face challenges of a new era