Southern Baptists: beyond the stained-glass windows – profile of the Southern Baptists religion

James C. Hefley

As a dazed Dade County, Fla., family surveyed the rubble of their hurricane-shattered house last August, they were surprised to see a smiling man climb toward. them over the debris. “Go tell your friends there’s free food,” the man called out, “It doesn’t cost anything but a smile. And Jesus loves you.”

The man, Dave Tracy, a Southern Baptist volunteer, had driven all night from South Carolina to lend a helping hand. He wasn’t alone. About 3,000 volunteers arrived from Georgia and additional thousands from other states. The previous day, the Southern Baptist Convention had issued a call for assistance, and its members turned out in force. Some came in 18-wheeler mobile-rescue units, others in RVs equipped with propane gas, electric generators, and mammoth cooking pots.

The rapid mobilization of such a life-saving force is one advantage of being America’s largest Protestant denomination. The Southern Baptists now number more than 15 million in the United States and, in spite of their name, they are no longer just a South- ern denomination; they have spread to every state. as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The largest of the 15 separate Bap- tist bodies in the United States, the Southern Baptists are a branch of the early Baptist movement in America.

The first Baptist church in the United States was rounded in 1639 by Roger Williams, a Boston minister who was banished from the Massachusetts colony for his belief that civil power should not be used to control conscience. Williams invited fellow dissenters-including Jews, Quakers, atheists, and free-thinkers-to join him in the new colony of Rhode Island. Baptists have been sticklers for religious and personal liberty ever since.

Nearly 150 years later, another Baptist, John Leland of Virginia, was instrumental in the adoption of the Bill of Rights, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …. “

The Southern Baptist Convention split from the American Baptist fold in 1845 over the northern abolitionists’ rejection of a Georgia preacher who was a slaveholder. At that time, Southern Baptists numbered about 350,000. Today, 15,365,486 Southern Baptists worship in more than 38,000 U.S. congregations.

Despite its white, southern, and rural heritage, the Southern Baptist Convention is today the most ethnically diverse of all U.S. Protestant denominations, representing Hispanics, blacks, and 101 minority language groups. Its once segregated congregations are now widely integrated. In recent years, even the familiar cleanlined, white-columned Southern Baptist church buildings have conformed to progressive needs.

New mail-like complexes, dubbed “mega-churches” by the media, are springing up in urban areas. These churches offer amenities that go beyond the usual sermons and Sunday school. Second Baptist, Houston, for example, has a glass-wailed aerobics center and a 6 a.m. workout class called “Higher Power.”

Amenities such as gymnasiums and health centers are de rigueur in the growing ranks of Southern Baptist mega-churches that now number more than 50. Southern Baptists have heard and agree with aerobics guru Dr. Kenneth Cooper that people who are fit “are less depressed, less hypochondrical, have an improved self-image, and have a much more positive attitude toward life.” Dr. Cooper is an active member of Prestonwood Baptist Church, Dallas, where Sunday school attendance surpasses 5,000.

One of the most innovative megachurches, Second Baptist in Houston, terms itself, “The Fellowship of Excitement.” The church is both marketsensitive and visitor-friendly. Its guiding light is Pastor H. Edwin Young, 54, who came to Second Baptist in 1978 when the congregation stood at 500 worshippers in a conventional building. Young challenged his congregation to build a state-of-the-art facility costing $34 million. Now members park their cars in lots with such biblical names as “Nazareth” and “Jericho,” and worship in a 6,000-seat octagonal sanctuary larger than a basketball arena, surrounded by a quarter acre of stained glass and a choir “loft” that seats 400. Three nationally telecast Sunday worship services and three Sunday schools are held to accommodate the numbers. Weekly worship attendance now averages 13,000, including about 1,800 single adults. Young, who calls himself “an ole Bible man and a risk taker,” says, “We had to break down the stained glass barriers so hurting people will come.”

Houston’s Fellowship of Excitement is a front runner in reaching a generation of urbanites who have no preference among denominations. Here acquaintances ripen into friendships and sometimes marriage. Bible study classes bear such titles as “Home Improvement” (for young married and engaged couples) and “Winner’s Circle” (helping harried adults deal with pressure). Weekdays and evenings, members may attend study groups such as “Phobics Anonymous” or “Voter Education.” In addition to the health facilities, there’s a dinner theater, an employment bureau, a bookstore, and a restaurant where “saints” can enjoy 1ow-cal food and “sinners” can add “all the fixings.”

Although size has advantages, the backbone of the Southern Baptist Convention remains the smaller and medium-size churches whose average resident membership is 286. They, too, have expanded their ministries. A growing number of churches, small and large, operate crisis pregnancy centers, such as The Women’s Crisis Center at Central Baptist Church, Oak Ridge, Tenn., started by a pastor’s wife whose daughter had been raped. In another project, women in the arts and crafts group of Hopewell Baptist Church, Tuscaloosa, Ala., devote one meeting a month to rolling bandages made from castaway sheets. The “holy rollers,” as they call themselves, mail the bandages to a Baptist hospital in West Africa.

Under the Baptists’ traditionally democratic structure, individual churches have wide-ranging freedom in planning their own programs, structuring budgets, naming their churches, and choosing pastors. Eighteen South.ern Baptist churches have “called”‘ women as pastors, even though most Southern Baptists do not consider the practice to be “biblical.”

The convention is even democratic in its finances. Instead of financial quotas being levied on churches from above, each Southern Baptist congregation is allowed to vote on the amount of its budget sent to the central “Cooperative Program” to support causes on state and national levels. Each church also designates “messengers” to attend the national convention that determines overall denominational policies.

In recent years, Baptists have been flexing their political muscles on subjects important to their denomination. In 1992, the national convention spoke out against abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, and television immorality and applauded “Lord’s Day” observance, religious liberty, and mission efforts in Eastern Europe.

Convention-passed resolutions are not binding on individual churches or their members; however, in 1992, the standards of individual churches so disturbed the convention that “messengers” voted to withdraw fellowship from two churches that affirmed the homosexual lifestyle. Those churches are no longer operating within the Southern Baptist fold. After a decadelong struggle within the Southern Baptist Convention between conservative and moderate forces, the conservatives are clearly in control. In 1987, the national convention affirmed by a majority that most Southern Baptists believe in the direct creation of mankind, the personal reality of Adam and Eve, the stated authorship of Bible books, and the accuracy of the Bible’s miracle accounts and other historical passages. Most Baptists believe these views helped spur the denomination’s growth. At least one study comparing Southern Baptist growth to that of other denominations showed that churches led by pastors who held that “miracles didn’t happen as the Bible says they did,” had fewer converts than churches whose pastors taught that the Bible is without error. Whatever the reasons for their growth, Baptists are pleased with membership statistics that show baptisms increasing for four of the last five years.

On the national level, Southern Baptists’ views are advanced by the Christian Life Commission, which publishes brochures, friend-of-thecourt briefs, newsletters, and videos. Meanwhile, at the grass roots, and usually out of the spotlight, 9,000 Southern Baptist missionaries carry on their traditional work in 127 countries and across the United States, and 100,000 Southern Baptist volunteers donate their time and skills without pay. Dentists Ryle Radke and Jack Evans traveled to Thailand to give free dental care to people who had never seen a dentist. A medical team led by John Anderson, a Dallas physician, carried inoculations for measles, mumps, diphtheria, and tuberculosis to 50,000 children in the republic of Kazakhstan of the former Soviet Union. In the slums of Lima,. Peru, missionaries Beryl and Linda Boswell raised money for medicine and surgical tools so that nine-year-old David Valverde could have heart surgery. A Brazilian surgeon, in Lima for a conference, did the life-saving operation on the boy without charge. The boy’s mother told a TV interviewer, “My son’s recovery was a miracle.”

Ed Young, elected Southern Baptist Convention president in 1992, says he can’t see why Southern Baptists shouldn’t be baptizing a million new converts a year by the end of this century. Morris Chapman, president of the Convention’s Executive Committee, told fellow Southern Baptists, “We are a denomination of destiny. Southern Baptists are bursting into the future the way the sun bursts on the horizon in the morning.”

COPYRIGHT 1993 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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