Southern Baptists consider restructuring amid decline

Giving to Southern Baptist missions is at a historic low. Church membership fell in 2008, and baptisms are at their lowest level since 1987.

Leaders of the nation's largest Protestant denomination, which was founded in Augusta, hope to reverse course with a proposal to streamline and restructure the Southern Baptist Convention. It's up for a vote today at the start of the Southern Baptists' annual meeting in Louisville, Ky.

Early drafts of the proposal accused the church of having grown into a "bloated bureaucracy." The language was revised, but the document still retains calls to re-examine church structure and more faithfully manage the money given to it.

Giving to the church has fallen, which could eventually stagnate baptisms and membership, said the Rev. Bill Harrell, of Abilene Baptist Church, a former chairman of the convention's executive committee.

Churches such as Berea Baptist in Grovetown are giving less to the Cooperative Program than ever before. The program was created in 1925 to funnel money from churches to Southern Baptist missions worldwide.

Last year, Berea gave just 2 percent of its undesignated offerings to the fund, giving the remainder directly to seminaries and mission agencies. Three or four years ago, Berea Baptist gave 11 percent to the program.

"We're a very small church, and we have to be careful about how we give," said the Rev. Bert Daniel, the church's pastor. "There was a concern that we wouldn't know just how much money was going to missions."

While giving has fallen, the Georgia Baptist Convention still donates more to the program than any other state convention, about $20.1 million in 2008.

It's not clear how the structure of the convention or the Cooperative Program could change because the proposal contains few details, the Rev. Harrell said.

If the proposal is approved, denomination President Johnny Hunt, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., will appoint a task force to study the convention's structure and use of funds. Those findings would be presented at next year's meeting in Orlando, Fla.

"It's not as easy to restructure as people think it will be," the Rev. Harrell said. "The agencies of the Southern Baptist Church are autonomous. The convention can't tell the state what to do, and the state can't tell the church what to do. One thing is clear though, and that's that the SBC could stand a little weight loss."

Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or kelly.jasper@augustachronicle.com.

READ THE DOCUMENT

Read the full text of the restructuring proposal, Toward A Great Commission Resurgence, at www.greatcommissionresurgence.com.

HUCKABEE SPEAKS ON IRAN PROTESTS

LOUISVILLE, Ky. --- God is hearing the voices of protesters in Iran, former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee told Southern Baptist pastors Monday. "God help us if we do not hear their voices" and stand with them, said the former Arkansas governor, who is an ordained Baptist minister.

Mr. Huckabee later said that the U.S. should push for an investigation of the disputed election in Iran and push to allow media outlets into Iran to report on the unrest. In his speech, he repeated his staunch opposition to abortion and gay marriage. After his speech, Mr. Huckabee grabbed a guitar and performed a hymn with a band on stage.

Southern Baptists are gathering in Louisville for their convention, which begins today.

-- Associated Press