June 17, 2013
By Jayme Fraser
June 12, 2013
Southern Baptist leaders on Tuesday called for aggressive expansion of the faith by training "Green Berets for Jesus Christ" while reaffirming their stances in a cultural war they say has contributed to the moral decline of the nation and diminishing numbers in the pews.
More than 5,000 members of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, gathered at the George R. Brown Convention Center to start its annual meeting, where its president rallied members around his vision for revival. The issues that could be voted on Wednesday include renouncing the Boy Scouts' new policy to allow openly gay youth, denouncing sexual abuse by priests and expanding training on how to respond to it, as well as whether to collaborate on social ministries with Mormons.
While those proposals stirred heated discussion among members and others outside the denomination, the core message that echoed through Tuesday's presentations matched the convention's theme: Revive us.
President Fred Luter, Jr., a New Orleans pastor re-elected without opposition as the convention's first African-American leader, said declining membership and baptisms inspired his decision to focus on renewal.
Reaching past roots
"Every now and then we need to ask God to mold us and shape us to be who he would have us be," Luter said. "Sometimes we put our spiritual lives on automatic pilot, but we can't be effective like that. We'll see the consequences of the convention in the weeks and months ahead."
Luter and other leaders said they aim to reach past their historical roots in the South to bring their message to states such as New Jersey, where the convention can count only one congregation for every 78,760 residents. According to convention statistics, Texas ranked eleventh among the states, with one member church for every 3,351 residents.
Backing up the call for revival are budget increases for domestic and international missions, as well as expanding encouragement for congregations to plant more churches.
Johnny Hanson, Staff
The annual meeting isn't all seriousness, as Richmond, Va., attendee Loree Becton shows at Tuesday's session. Some church analysts say the focus on increasingly mobilizing an already evangelical denomination is also a response to a weakened ability to influence national policy and culture.
This shift in position, focus and strategy might be best characterized by one-time District of Columbia political aide Russell Moore taking leadership of the denomination's public policy and ethics arm from Houston-born Richard Land, who assumed the role in 1988.
Land looks back
Land led during the conservative resurgence among Southern Baptist leaders. His predecessor, Foy Valentine, in 1973 helped found the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, a position that convention leaders now starkly oppose thanks, in part, to Land.
He attributed his rise to the will of Southern Baptists and the election of evangelical President George W. Bush more than his own authority. Church leaders still called Land an instrumental leader for the convention and the nation.
He led the convention to apologize directly for its pro-segregation and slavery past, but also helped shape national policy as a federal appointee. Land spoke bluntly, unafraid to create enemies in his fight for a moral America.
Johnny Hanson, Staff
A group of women from Houston address prayer requests Tuesday in a room dedicated to prayer at the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting. "He has always been aggressive, loud, out front, attacking anything that disagrees with his understanding of Scripture," said Jimmy Draper, president emeritus of the affiliated LifeWay Christian Resources, in a video tribute.
While Land insisted that his influence has been overstated, he attributed his role as a national evangelical leader, in part, to his upbringing as a Texan who embraced the state's no-compromise spirit and the unrelenting optimism of Houston, a thriving city that improbably grew out of a swamp.
Land displayed his fiery brand of civic-conscious ministry in reflecting on his final year of combating "evils of culture" while leading the ethics division.
"We have endeavored to be God's watchmen on the wall, warning America that the greatest danger to our beloved country is within the walls, not outside the walls," he said in a booming voice that frequently described the church's and nation's challenges in militaristic terms. Eliciting frequent applause, he encouraged active engagement outside congregations.
More of a missionary
Mississippi-born Moore, like Land, is rooted in conservative traditions refined by years in religious academia, but some describe Moore as more of a likable missionary than a cultural warrior.
Moore declined to directly compare himself to his predecessor, but emphasized that even his staunchest opponents on debates like same-sex marriage and abortion are worthy of respect. He said the enemy is non-corporeal evil, not fellow children of God.
"We oppose demons. We don't demonize opponents," Moore said. "I don't think kindness is weakness. I don't think gentleness is capitulation. This is the way Jesus speaks the truth."
He insisted that boycotts and statements of outrage are not effective tools to influence American culture, a position that might be better suited to serve a church hoping to rebuild its authority as the Bible Belt generation which brought it to power disappears.
"We are not here simply to register our outrage and protest. Satan is undisturbed by all that bluster," Moore said, speaking of disturbing cultural trends and calling for calm confidence in God's ultimate victory.
"We are not the losers of history," he declared. "Why on Earth would we be panicked or scared by the Supreme Court?"