LOUISVILLE — Southern Baptists leaders are asking followers to put aside squabbles over political and social issues and look inward at a time when the nation's largest Protestant denomination is hoping to stop declining membership.
Leaders hope that energizing missionary efforts can help, and plan to focus on that at the group's annual meeting in Louisville beginning Tuesday.
"We are not a political organization," Jonathan Merritt, a Baptist pastor from Georgia and son of a former Southern Baptist Convention president, said in an e-mail message. "Too often the evangelical movement has been distracted from our primary purpose by divisive political issues."
The convention has long made headlines for heated debates, dating back to power struggles in the 1970s and 1980s between moderates and conservatives that ended when moderates dropped out of SBC politics in the early 1990s. Over the last decade, the convention has taken positions opposing women pastors and gay rights.
"It's not to negate that we care about those other issues," said Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. "Indeed we rightly have deep convictions about abortion, a growing concern for the poor, a growing concern for healthy marriages and families. But we're convinced the gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to all those things."
Convention president Johnny Hunt has said he hoped the annual meeting would steer away from national issues, like statements concerning the policies of President Barack Obama's administration.
Hunt told the Baptist Press in May that though Obama's agenda gives many Christians "heartburn," he wishes "we would spend more time focusing on our health."
A failure to aggressively attract minorities has hurt Southern Baptist recruitment numbers, said David Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
An important indicator for the health of the denomination is new baptisms, which fell in 2008 for the fourth straight year to 342,198. That's a 1 percent drop and the lowest level since 1987, according to Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention. Total membership of about 16.2 million was flat over the same period, falling by 38,482, or 0.2 percent.
Key said Southern Baptists are starting to realize they're "vulnerable and not immune from the decline (in baptisms and membership) the way they always thought they were. Like a lot of mainline Protestant denominations, all of a sudden they're facing the same stagnation issues."
Even with the emphasis on evangelism, the convention won't escape politics altogether.
Already one resolution proposed by a black Texas pastor, the Rev. Dwight McKissic, is asking the denomination to acknowledge the historical importance of Obama's electoral victory despite the convention's opposition to his policies.
"The odds are overwhelming that there will be a resolution on President Obama," said Akin, chairman of the committee that forwards resolutions to the floor for a vote.
But Akin said the committee, appointed by Hunt, would attempt to steer away from divisive political subjects.
Recent SBC annual meetings have embraced such topics, including a boycott of The Walt Disney Co. for offering domestic partner benefits to gay employees, a definition of gender roles that prohibit women from being pastors while calling for wives to "submit" to husbands, and even disapproval of allowing members who drink to serve in leadership positions.
"I don't think one should expect a lot of flamboyant kind of resolutions (this year) that are just kind of all over the map and addressing all sorts of issues," Akin said.
Hunt has asked members to focus on a mission statement-style document crafted by Akin urging Baptists to put aside differences and focus on rebuilding North American and international missions. The document, "Toward A Great Commission Resurgence" has more than 3,500 signers on a Web site where it is posted.
It also has stirred up internal controversy because of a section that calls for re-examining the national convention structure, including a goal to "maximize our resources" for mission work and eliminate "overlap and duplication of ministries."
Akin argues in the document for "more faithful stewardship of the funds" given by local churches and state conventions to the SBC's Cooperative Program, which supports worldwide missions.
"I do think a lot of folks would like to see more of our monies that are given through the Cooperative Program making their way to the international mission fields," he said.
But dissenters worry that a structural change could weaken the state conventions.
The document will be the "hot topic" at the two-day convention, predicts Wade Burleson, a high-profile Baptist pastor from Enid, Okla.