Thursday, June 26, 2008

J.D. Greear persuaded his church to drop the word “Baptist” from its name, sell its historic building in Durham, N.C., and move into a local high school. Mr. Greear preaches in an untucked collared shirt, sport coat and jeans, and signed a statement urging action on climate change.

Eric Hankins preaches in a suit and tie at First Baptist Church in Oxford, Miss., where hymns like “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship” are the norm. Change for Mr. Hankins means adopting a new discipleship curriculum. He questions whether humans cause climate change.

Both men are Southern Baptist pastors in their 30s and lead growing congregations. Both are theologically conservative and engaged in their denomination.

Yet their different approaches are part of an ongoing debate about the future of the 16.2-million-member Southern Baptist Convention (SBC): Is there room for both the guy in the suit and the guy in the jeans? Should pastors shun politics or hand out voters guides? Is saving the environment an issue to champion or a dangerous detour?

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination is at a crossroads. After five decades of growth, membership fell last year and baptisms are dropping at an even faster clip. A growing number of Baptists see the apparent lack of relevance, and they blame not secular America and liberals but themselves for the problem.

The Rev. Johnny Hunt of Woodstock, Ga., elected as the SBC’s new president last week, already has pledged to bring younger leaders to the table. A member of the SBC’s conservative establishment, the 55-year-old Mr. Hunt has been a mentor to the next generation through a pastors school he founded in 1994.

“If we think the only ones leading are like us, then we’re pretty narrow,” Mr. Hunt said. “We’ve tried to push them into our mold instead of letting them use their own creativity.”

Mr. Greear was 28 in 2002 when he became senior pastor of Homestead Heights Baptist Church, a sleepy congregation with a weekly attendance of 390 in Durham, N.C.

The building was too old, too small and in a bad location, so Mr. Greear persuaded the church to sell the building, relocate to a high school and reinvent itself as the Summit Church.

“We did not shed an ounce of Baptist identity,” said Mr. Greear, whose weekly attendance is now 2,400. “The key is doing these things without compromising what you believe God’s message is.”

Mr. Greear rejects the dominant evangelical church form of the past 25 years: fill-in-the-blank sermon outlines and programs designed for spiritual seekers and baby boomers. Summit Church members threw a wedding shower for a family that lost its home in a fire and volunteered to renovate a local elementary school.

“We like our community to say, ‘We may not believe in everything the Summit Church believes, but thank God they’re here because otherwise they’d have to raise our taxes,’” Mr. Greear said.

Mr. Greear describes his style as “humble orthodoxy.” He wants to counter the image of the Southern Baptist preacher as the “angry guy with coifed hair and an out-of-style suit who likes to pick at things.”

That doesn’t mean watering down traditional beliefs. Mr. Greear preaches on sexual purity and on the truth of every word in the Bible. But it also means going in new directions. Earlier this year, he joined other Southern Baptists in signing a statement calling the denomination “too timid” on environmental issues. Climate change is a dire threat that demands action instead of more arguing about man’s role causing it, the statement said.

Mr. Hankins’ more traditional approach is a reflection of both himself and his congregation. A pastor’s son, Mr. Hankins earned a doctorate in theology from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, a traditionalist bastion.

In 2005, he inherited a 140-year-old congregation that meets in a stately red-brick building in Oxford, Miss., so radical change made little sense.

Mr. Hankins, 36, does things Southern Baptist churches have always done: Sunday school, sermons that rely on the Bible. He just tries to do them a little better.

In one recent sermon about simplifying life, Mr. Hankins challenged his flock to take a “technological fast” - no cell phones, Internet, e-mail or television for a day.

Some of Mr. Hankins’ peers experiment with acoustic music common to coffeehouses, a rejection of the slick praise bands common in suburban megachurches. But Mr. Hankins found a hunger among younger members for old hymns like “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship,” written in 1825.

“There’s such an absence of a sense of human contact with my generation,” said Mr. Hankins, whose church has grown from 500 to 800 in weekly attendance. “I do think some of the older stuff brings a sense of orientation to the past.”

Mr. Hankins called the climate change statement “ill-conceived,” and would rather speak out about abortion, AIDS and poverty in the Mississippi Delta.

Although the two men part on climate change, they share a feeling held by many of their contemporaries: reluctance to get too close to political parties.

“We need to let them hear our voices but we must not pin our hopes on them,” Mr. Hankins said. “I’m conservative and Republican but pretty disillusioned with the whole thing right now.”

As different visions have emerged about how Southern Baptists should reach the next generation, conflicts have arisen over where to draw the line between engaging the broader culture and being co-opted by it.

Mr. Greear’s church is affiliated with Acts 29, a network of evangelical leaders who aren’t afraid to be edgy to reach a younger crowd. Last year, a Southern Baptist Acts 29 church in suburban St. Louis clashed with the Missouri Baptist Convention over a church ministry at a local microbrewery.

At the same time, there is consensus that something must be done to stem the flow of Southern Baptist pastors who are either just nominally connected to the denomination or leaving to start independent churches.

Nathan Finn, an assistant professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., said a survey of 30-something Southern Baptist pastors would find more Mr. Hankinses than Mr. Greears, although the Greear model is growing and more common in churches started from scratch.

“There has to be both these approaches,” said Mr. Finn , 29. “What we’re seeing is pastors willing to do what they think is the best thing to reach their particular constituencies. I would bet both of these men would try something different if what they were doing now was hindering their ability to do that.”

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