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Southern Baptist Deal With Tough Issues, Membership Declines, Without Annual Meeting

The Southern Baptist Convention will not hold its annual meeting as it regularly does each June. But issues its members have long grappled with — including race, membership drops, and the roles of women — continue to be points of concern in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Regarding membership:  The SBC peaked in 2003 with 16,315,050 members. New statistical data released Thursday (June 4) shows 14,525,579 members in 2019, a decline of nearly 1.8 million members in 16 years. Membership is at its lowest level since 1985.

Some of the recent debate in the denomination has focused on the role of women in the church, including whether or not women can preach in Sunday morning worship services.

Much of the debate has focused on how the denomination speaks about race.

Glenn Bracey is an investigator with the Race, Religion, and Justice Project, which is studying Christianity and race in contemporary America.

The project’s researchers found in 2019 that 38 percent of white practicing Christians surveyed say the country “definitely” has a race problem, compared with 78 percent of black practicing Christians and 51 percent of the general population. Thirty-five percent of evangelicals — not broken down by race — gave the same response.

Pastor Dwight McKissic, an African American leader whose Texas church is affiliated with the SBC, said the latest disputes pale in comparison to the “worthwhile fight” about biblical inerrancy — the belief that the Bible is without error — that led to a so-called conservative resurgence in the denomination starting in the late 1970’s.

As the nation has faced recent protests from city to city about racial justice and police brutality, some Southern Baptists have spoken out about those issues.

“Southern Baptists must not only be known to stand for the sanctity of human life, but we must also be known to stand for the dignity of all human life regardless of the color of skin,” said Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC’s Executive Committee as he opened an online prerecorded SBC Advance event on Tuesday. “We may say things through tweets or posts, but real change will only be seen through our conduct toward one another. And none of this will go away with violence, but only by developing relationships with each other, working together and resolving to press forward together in the spirit of Christ, who is the Prince of Peace.”

Asked about the continuing differences among Southern Baptists on race and women’s roles, SBC President J.D. Greear said that he and the leaders of the denomination’s organizations, state conventions and local associations all affirm their statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message.

“This is something to celebrate and there is no drift away from that,” he said. “While the Bible teaches the complementary roles of men and women in creation, it also overturns any ideas of inequality of the sexes or male dominance.”

But, Greear said, if the convention had met in Orlando he would have made a change in a tradition that reflects the denomination’s racial history. Instead of using a gavel named for John A. Broadus, a slaveholder and a founding faculty member of the SBC’s flagship seminary, to open and close the gathering, Greear planned to use a different one, maybe even one named for a woman.

“I was planning on using the Judson gavel or the Annie Armstrong gavel this year in Orlando,” he said. “Adoniram Judson was a missionary that inspired me and I named my son after him. Annie Armstrong demonstrated the missionary spirit that I believe Southern Baptists should be about.”

Adelle Banks

Adelle M. Banks is a senior production editor and national reporter for the Religion News Service, where she has worked since 1995. She previously served as the religion reporter at The Orlando Sentinel as well as a reporter in Providence, Binghamton, and Syracuse, and her work has appeared in USA Today, The Huffington Post, and Jet magazine. Banks won the 2014 Wilbur Award for digital communications and multimedia for her work on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and she has twice been honored by the Religion Newswriters Association.

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