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Southern Baptists focus on saving souls in modern world

by Amy Kingsley

A small pier attached to a pale blue seaside cabin ‘— tiny inside the cavernous Greensboro Coliseum exhibition hall ‘— jutted into an expanse of gray carpet as dull and calm as the Dead Sea. All around a mix of modular signage and multimedia trumpeted the wares of various Baptist colleges, seminaries and mission boards. Every two hours, a bell rang and an audience watching nearby plasma screens peeled away to gather around the small cast of students buried in top hats and petticoats.

A narrating longshoreman introduced Ann and Adoniram Judson, missionaries in Burma beset by political imprisonment and tropical fevers. After their exit, a charming Lottie Moon strode onstage twirling a parasol to tell of her mission and eventual starvation in Mainland China.

The presentations were, despite their grim consequences, intended to convince young Baptists to consider the missionary calling. A hand-painted sign above the cabin door advertised the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, an institution in Fort Worth, Texas founded for the training of overseas missionaries.

The old-fashioned presentation focusing on the legacy of mission work distilled the message of the Southern Baptist Convention’s heavily evangelistic 149th annual meeting in Greensboro. That message was bolstered by the surprise presidential victory June 13 of Greensboro native Frank Page, a staunch supporter of the Cooperative Program. Church contributions to the Cooperative Program, an obscure convention mechanism for funding seminaries and overseas missions, had been a contentious topic at the convention.

The focus on evangelism and missionary work was loud and clear. But trying to read the post-election tea leaves for signs of more profound cracks in the ideological unity of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination proved fruitless. The race was contested for the first time in more than a decade. But the points of debate turned on Cooperative Program giving, private prayer languages and a decades-long theological dustup between Arminians and Calvinists. Page dispelled any notion that his election constituted a retreat from the conservative resurgence of 1979.

‘“I would not use the term ‘moderating,”” Page said. ‘“I would say we are broadening the base of support. I consider myself an ironic conservative. I believe in the word of God; I’m just not mad about it.’”

Some of those on the convention floor agreed.

‘“I’m excited with the direction the convention is going with the election of Dr. Page,’” said Gabriel Snyder, a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. ‘“It’s the same goal and the same mission with a broadened base of support.’”

Convention delegates from Southern Baptist churches from across the country, or messengers as they’re called, fretted about the exclusion of those who use a private prayer language (speaking in tongues). Others downplayed the division between Calvinists ‘— who believe in predetermination ‘— and the free-will espousing Arminians. Page prevailed in part by preaching inclusion to all of those who promote the inerrancy of the Bible.

That fealty to inerrancy, which fueled the 1979 conservative resurgence, showed no more sign of flagging than the messengers’ perfect coifs.

Which is not to say that the convention hasn’t been changing. One of the most surprising developments in the Southern Baptist Convention was the emerging clout of pastor bloggers. Wade Burleson, one of the most popular of these bloggers, may have influenced the direction of the election. Page, the underdog against fellow mega church pastors Ronnie Floyd and Jerry Sutton, acknowledged as much during his press conference.

‘“I’m not certain what role blogs played,’” Page said. ‘“There’s a relatively small amount of people who write blogs and a relatively small amount who read them. But I do believe they played a role beyond their numbers.’”

Snyder said he read Burleson’s blog, and the highly visible pastor enjoyed a measure of media celebrity throughout the event.

The Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting officially opened with a morning session on June 13. Attendance was sparse for the first session in which messengers could make motions from the floor of the convention center. Burleson and other messengers motioned for an external investigation into the International Mission Board’s financial dealings. A pastor named William Gay from North Carolina motioned that the convention discontinue using the word ‘“gay’” to describe homosexuals.

(Other messengers responded to Gay’s motion with laughter and it was ultimately ruled ‘“out of order’”).

By Tuesday morning, a template for the proceedings had emerged. Outgoing President Bobby Welch presided over sessions devoted to business reports and resolution adoption punctuated by prayers and plenty of musical worship. Vocals always dominated the mix. Tympanis, strings and horns barely murmured behind the devotional lyrics.

People filtered in until the meeting broke for lunch at noon. When they returned an hour later to elect the president, the number of messengers had swelled from little more than 3,000 to more than 11,000, filling about two-thirds of the Coliseum up to the rafters. Burleson later said that Page, a pastor in Taylors, SC, likely benefited from the drive-in vote.

To vote, messengers punched out numbers from a ballots stapled together in a book. Then they handed the ballots to volunteer pages roaming the aisles with what looked like popcorn buckets.

Civility reigned in most of the discussions about motions and business reports. President Welch chastised the few messengers who used the microphones to rail against individuals, imploring respect for God-loving men and women.

Attendance declined steadily after Page’s election, and by the day’s final presentation, the bleachers had almost completely emptied of messengers.

‘“Man, I’ve heard of preaching to the choir but this is something else,’” said Richard Land, president of the Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

By the time he spoke, the choir had left.

‘“You are truly soldiers of God,’” he added.

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission handles the Southern Baptists’ political efforts from offices in Nashville, Tenn. and Washington, DC. Land and his commission played no small part in marshalling the values voters in 2004 that helped secure President Bush’s second term in office. His presentation coupled with a sampling of opinion from messengers indicated no wavering on the part of Southern Baptists in their support of the Bush administration. Still, Land, who also serves on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, acknowledged the lack of progress in legislation pertinent to social conservatives.

‘“Do I wish we had been more successful in Washington?’” he asked. ‘“Yes. But this country is changing and it’s changing for the better.’”

Land’s speech was the first in which national politics took the stage at the Southern Baptist Convention. Few messengers remained to hear his message. But the next day’s visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed the bond between the administration and the evangelicals.

The Southern Baptists cheered Rice’s speech, rising several times for a standing ovation. Aside from representatives from the Women’s Missionary Union, an auxiliary of the Southern Baptist Convention, Rice was the only woman to address the audience during the two-day convention. Southern Baptists believe preaching and leading a church are callings reserved for men.

Rice said the United States must lead the world in the fight for democracy and religious freedom. She acknowledged that the wars have proved more difficult to win than administration officials previously predicted, but urged Southern Baptists not to lose sight of the goal.

‘“I know it’s been far more difficult than any of us imagined it would be and I realize how hard it can be to remain hopeful when we hear of death squads and beheadings, and sectarian strife in Iraq,’” she said. ‘“It’s especially hard when we remember our men and women in uniform who made the ultimate sacrifice. As we mourn each and every one of these lives, we affirm the goal of democracy is worth the cost and sacrifice.’”

Snyder, the seminary student, appeared buoyed by Rice’s remarks.

‘“I think it’s important we have a Christian leader,’” he said. ‘“I think it’s wonderful we have leaders like Condoleezza Rice.’”

Snyder said he considered the entire postmodern culture a stumbling block for those preaching the word of God. Such a culture manifested itself outside the Coliseum in a rotating cast of convention protesters. Fred Phelps and family from the Westboro Baptist Church wielded signs Tuesday evening condemning the Baptists for being too accepting of homosexuals. Early Wednesday morning a single protester hoisting an umbrella against the driving rain protested that the convention should be more accepting of same-sex couples.

‘“America does not accept absolute truth,’” Snyder said. ‘“They can accept the falseness of the Da Vinci Code. People don’t know what truth is.’”

David Brumbelow, a senior pastor at a small church in Texas, said most Baptists have supported President Bush and will continue to do so.

‘“We are generally conservative on a number of social issues,’” Brumbelow said. ‘“We’re pro-life and think sex should not happen outside of marriage, whether its heterosexual or homosexual. In general, President Bush has done pretty well on those.’”

Spreading the truth of the Southern Baptists, that the Bible is inerrant and baptism the only way to heaven, was the unequivocal goal of this conference. Slogans like ‘“I’m It’” and ‘“Everybody Can’” were rallying cries for Southern Baptists admonished to take to the streets in evangelism.

Several observers speculated that this would be the year the Southern Baptists proposed an exit strategy from the public schools. But by the final resolution session, the convention had ratified resolutions affirming their engagement with the public schools, condemning alcohol consumption and advocating moderate environmentalism and energy conservation.

With the goal of baptizing 1 million new members by September, the Baptists repeatedly emphasized evangelism and witnessing. As an appropriate cap to the convention, Welch and the other officers unveiled a larger-than-life statue depicting the most successful evangelist of them all ‘— Billy Graham.

Again crowds filled the coliseum, to the backdrop of a white-clad choir occupying a horseshoe behind the stage.

The convention closed with a rousing presentation by the International Missions Board. The largest Protestant denomination in America adjourned dissatisfied with its previous political victories and cultural dominance. Cloistered in the coliseum walls against the rain of Hurricane Alberto and the postmodern world outside, the messengers departed poised to spread their word worldwide.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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