Thirty years ago this month, the conservative wing of the Southern Baptist Convention began its battle to regain control of a denomination whose seminaries and agencies, it thought, had swung to the left.
Those theological debates are over, but Baptists are worried that the influence of America’s largest Protestant denomination is waning. When Baptists meet this week for their annual meeting in Louisville, Ky., they will consider an initiative to boost flagging membership and baptism rates.
“In recent days, the economic downturn has caused all of us to re-evaluate our priorities,” Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Johnny Hunt wrote in an open letter to Southern Baptists last month. “What better time than now for us to take a deep spiritual look inside all we do to make sure [God’s] priority is ours.”
Baptisms in SBC churches have been falling for the past four years and are at their lowest annual total (342,198) since 1987, according to the Baptist Press. Membership also dropped 0.2 percent in 2008.
Yet, Mr. Hunt added, the SBC grew 59 percent from 1961 to 1998, while mainline Protestant denominations suffered membership drops ranging from 27 percent to 51 percent during that time.
“Membership and baptism figures are in large part the products of a declining birthrate among whites as well as the suburbanization of America,” he wrote. “If we are to continue to grow, we need to shift our church-planting strategy” to urban areas and minority groups.
But in 1979, theological purity, not growth, was the main issue. At the annual SBC meeting that year in Houston, conservatives elected one of their own, the Rev. Adrian Rogers of Memphis, Tenn., as president. He began putting other conservatives on the committees that controlled seminaries and agencies.
A lot of the pre-election political maneuvering took place in privately leased skyboxes atop the Houston Summit, then the arena for the NBA’s Houston Rockets. Richard Land, now the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was then 32 and a foot soldier in the “conservative resurgence.”
“I was in one of those skyboxes with a toothache,” he said last week. “I was on the ground floor when we decided we’d found a way to turn the convention back to the people. Its president has the power to nominate the Committee on Committees, which picks the trustees of the seminaries who in turn pick the seminary presidents.”
Moderates fought back, castigating the two masterminds behind it all: Texas 14th Court of Appeals Justice Paul Pressler of Houston and Criswell College President Paige Patterson of Dallas.
“Please consider how far the content of Pressler-Pattersonism has distanced itself from Scriptural truth,” Houston businessman John Baugh told the Houston Chronicle in June 1989. Referring to an epithet used by one conservative leader against moderates, he added, “Reducing fellow believers to the level of ‘skunks’ defaces the Creator’s own work.”
Agency after agency began falling under conservative control, Mr. Land said, as their directors were replaced with conservatives, as were the presidents of all six SBC seminaries. “By 1995,” he concluded, “we got them all.”
Today, Judge Pressler is retired and Mr. Patterson is president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, the denomination’s largest theological school.
The SBC hovers at 16.2 million members. A little more than one-third - 6.1 million - regularly attend church, according to Lifeway Christian Resources, which tracks SBC statistics.
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin and Mr. Hunt have drafted a “great commission resurgence” to be voted on when SBC delegates meet Tuesday and Wednesday in Louisville. The document, which had more than 3,900 signatures as of Sunday afternoon at greatcommi ssionresurgence.com, calls Baptists back to 10 core priorities, including biblical inerrancy, preaching the Gospel and building Christian families.
The latter concept, which may spur debate in Louisville, stresses that women’s “unique and primary calling” is motherhood and that husbands are called to be leaders in the home.
One of the more unusual meetings at the convention is Baptist 21, a gathering of 450 people meeting off-site with mostly young leaders as speakers.
“We are re-evaluating things,” said Brandt Waggoner, 25, a speaker and a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “We’re trying to reach our generation and the culture at large. We need a fresh set of ideas on how to address this.”