Southern Baptists work to increase membership

Resolutions passed to appeal to minorities

Several headlines were borne out of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix last month.


There was the news of a resolution advocating a "path to legal status" for undocumented immigrants living in the country.

There was also the plan, which Baptists adopted, to increase the ethnic diversity of church leadership.
The same week, Baptists voted Fred Luter Jr., to the post of first vice president, the highest position ever held by a black pastor.

Local pastors say any one of the decisions could prove to be historic for the nation's largest Protestant denomination, which was founded in Augusta.

"It's too soon to know what will change, but I am proud to see they've taken these steps," said the Rev. Max Guzman , the pastor of Iglesia Bautista Cristo Vive , a new Spanish-speaking church in North Augusta that's supported by local Baptists.

"Southern Baptists are realizing that this country is changing," Guzman said. "They've stood up in front of everybody and said, 'Let's address it.' That should be celebrated."

Cristo Vive, or "Christ Lives" in English, is the only Spanish-speaking Southern Baptist church in the area, Guzman said.

On Sundays, he regularly ministers to a crowd of 40. The services, conducted entirely in Spanish, draw immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Cuba.

As a minister, Guzman said he's called to care for anyone, regardless of immigration status.

"How can we be believers, how can we fulfill the Great Commission, if we say we don't want to tend to this or that group?" Guzman asked.

His position mirrors that of the new resolution on immigration reform, which calls churches to share the Gospel "regardless of country of origin or immigration status."

The resolution, however, does not stop there. It calls on the government to secure borders and hold employers responsible while creating a just and compassionate path to legal status. The measure calls for appropriate measures of restitution, such as fines or probation, for undocumented immigrants already in America.

The resolution was the most heavily debated of the meeting in Phoenix, where more than 4,000 representatives of churches across the country gathered.

The "messengers," as they're called, took care to add an amendment that clarified the resolution shouldn't be construed as support for amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

"The Southern Baptist Convention is not for amnesty as we have some people suggesting," said the Rev. Bill Harrell of Abilene Baptist Church in Augusta.

The pastor is the former chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, the group charged with studying how "ethnic churches and ethnic church leaders" could be more active in the SBC.

The committee found that, over the years, South­ern Baptists have adopted several such resolutions to increase minority participation. There have been at least 11 since 1961, including the 1995 measure that apologized for past defenses of slavery.

In Phoenix, Baptist leaders declared previous efforts insufficient, as Baptist membership further declines and the country grows increasingly diverse.

In late June, new Census figures revealed that, for the first time, white babies were in the minority of those being born in the United States.

Preliminary 2010 Census data shows Georgia was one of 12 states with white populations below 50 percent among children under the age of 5. South Carolina is one of seven states expected to join states with minority white babies in the next decade.

In the Southern Baptist Convention, baptisms are at their lowest level in 60 years, according to LifeWay Christian Resources.

Membership has fallen for the fourth straight year, even as the number of Southern Baptist Churches has grown, according to the 2010 Annual Church Profile.

Recent efforts to welcome diversity into the convention might help long-term membership trends, but they shouldn't be interpreted as strategy to boost Baptist popularity with those groups, said the Rev. Collie Foster. The Army chaplain at Fort Gordon attended the annual meeting as a representative of his church, West Acres Baptist, and military office.

"I don't think that's why we're doing this," Foster said.

"In Phoenix, I saw a large number of Hispanic leaders, African-American leaders," he said. "The resolutions are there because they come out of the things we already value, the things we're already doing."

The immigration issue, he said, drew a lot of press to the convention, and not all of it was positive.
"The convention as a whole got some negative publicity out of this when it's meant to be a positive step forward," Foster said. "But it's not surprising, because it was an issue even on the floor of the convention. It's a sore spot for some people."

Though opinions will differ on issues as complicated as immigration, there was one takeaway Baptists seemed to agree on, Foster said.

"We'll be there for them," he said. "In jail, out of jail, illegal or legal, we'll minister to them."
And that's exactly what gives Guzman hope.

"The government is right to make and enforce their laws," he said. "But as a minister, the Biblical call is to take care of the immigrants, because they're among us. I don't care who is in front of me. I'm going to share the same exact message of hope."

Southern Baptist Convention by the numbers

16,136,044: Southern Baptist membership in 2010, a decline of 0.15 percent from the previous year

332,321: Baptisms in 2010, a decline of nearly 5 percent from 2009

45,727: The number of Southern Baptist churches in 2010, an increase of 1.59 percent over 2009

29,672: The number of new baptisms in Georgia in 2010

1,401,278: Southern Baptists in Georgia in 2010

16,327: The number of new baptisms in South Carolina in 2010

719,958: Southern Baptists in South Carolina in 2010

Source: LifeWay Christian Resources Annual Church Profile



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