At SBC’s annual meeting, sobering report, possible change in representation top agenda

Southern Baptists may consider recommendation to require affiliated churches to adhere to confessional statement.

By Robert Dilday

Southern Baptists are heading to Baltimore next week, where they may consider a significant change in how churches qualify for representation in the national denomination, while grappling with a sobering report of declining baptisms and membership.

Several thousand messengers, or representatives, are expected at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, the first held in Baltimore since 1940. That was just prior to an explosion in growth which propelled the SBC to its position as the largest non-Catholic denomination in America.

BaltimoreThis year, however, messengers will gather in the wake of a May 28 report from the convention’s publishing arm that in 2013 the SBC baptized the fewest converts since 1948 and has lost more than 570,000 members since 2006.

LifeWay President Thom Rainer said the numbers indicate that Southern Baptists “are clearly losing our evangelistic effectiveness.”

The convention hopes to reverse that decline through efforts like a widely-touted church planting initiative in the nation’s capital just down Interstate 95 from Baltimore.

Another potential agenda item is a proposal to significantly increase the level of contributions a church must give in order to receive the maximum number of messengers to the annual meeting. Convention leaders say the current low financial requirements haven’t been changed since 1888.

The proposal for the first time also includes a requirement that, to cooperate with the SBC, a church “has not intentionally operated in any manner demonstrating opposition to the doctrine expressed in the convention’s most recently adopted statement of faith.”

The changes, approved by the SBC Executive Committee last February, have prompted both criticism and praise, and the Executive Committee has agreed to review the recommendation the day before the annual meeting convenes on June 10.

A successor will be elected in Baltimore to outgoing president Fred Luter, the first African American to hold the position. Though three men are to be nominated, the odds-on favorite is Ronnie Floyd, pastor of a multi-campus congregation in northwest Arkansas. He’ll be nominated by seminary president Albert Mohler, one of the SBC’s most influential leaders.

The annual meeting concludes June 11.