Southern Baptists to reflect on numbers

Southern Baptists are gathered in Dallas this week for the denomination's annual gathering and business meeting against a backdrop of concern regarding members of its leadership, a continued decline in membership and a vote to decide who will become the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Delegates, referred to as messengers, also will vote on a resolution affirming that men belonging to the largest Protestant denomination in the United States have abused, silenced and objectified women.

The vote comes on the heels of an announcement Friday that Paige Patterson had withdrawn from giving the keynote sermon at this year's meeting.

Patterson -- a two-term president of the convention who led the denomination's conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, and who is a former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth -- was fired May 30 from the seminary's top post because of his mishandling of a rape allegation while he was president at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina.

Patterson was moved into the position of president emeritus by the seminary's board of trustees after video surfaced concerning a sermon in which he defended a boy who had been "ogling" a girl, saying the boy's response was "biblical," and after he advised a woman to remain with her physically abusive husband.

Greg Addison, associate executive director of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, said Patterson's decision to recuse himself from the role at this week's annual meeting was "for the sake of unity and to be as little of a distraction from the important work at the annual meeting."

Two other former Southern Baptist national leaders also have come under scrutiny this year.

Paul Pressler, a former vice president of the convention who along with Patterson led the denomination's conservative resurgence decades ago, has been accused in a lawsuit of sexual abuse.

Frank Page resigned as president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee in March because of what he described as a "personal failing." Florida pastor Stephen Rummage, a chairman of the executive committee, said in a released statement that Page resigned because of a "morally inappropriate relationship in the recent past."

Concern about the denomination's leadership comes as Southern Baptists continue to see a drop in their numbers.

Lifeway's annual church profile shows Southern Baptist membership has dropped for a 12th consecutive year, to just more than 15 million members. The more than 211,000-member decrease from 2016-17 represents nearly 1.4 percent of the denomination and is part of an overall decline of more than 1.2 million since 2007.

The number of Southern Baptist churches continues to climb for the 19th year, with more than 250 more churches nationwide, but the number of baptisms decreased by more than 26,500. That follows a decline of more than 14,000 baptisms last year.

Addison attributes the steady decline of Southern Baptist membership in part to the growth of the religious "nones," those people who do not adhere to any particular faith. A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that more than a quarter of adults in the United States -- 27 percent -- consider themselves spiritual but not religious, a figure that has grown from the 16 percent who identified as nonreligious in 2006.

Also, Addison said nondenominational churches have grown, taking in large numbers of former Southern Baptists, and members of small churches are migrating to larger churches with more resources. Those also are partly responsible for the decrease in Southern Baptist numbers.

The vote to decide on the convention's next president will be Wednesday when Steve Gaines completes his second consecutive term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Gaines, the pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, will be succeeded by J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., or Ken Hemphill, a longtime leader of the Southern Baptist Convention who is serving in a leadership role at North Greenville University in South Carolina.

State Desk on 06/10/2018

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