INDIANAPOLIS – Going into their annual meeting with a smaller membership count and declining baptisms, Southern Baptists were called to take an honest look at reality.
On the surface level, members of the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Protestant denomination in the country – may pat each other on the back for all the good works they're doing, but outgoing SBC president Frank Page urged them to see themselves as they really are, even though it may hurt.
"I wonder … will we as Southern Baptists recognize the signs of what is happening among us?" Page told thousands of attendants Tuesday.
The 16 million-member denomination went into their 2008 meeting after the April release of LifeWay Christian Resources' Annual Church Profile, which revealed that baptisms fell for the third straight year in 2007 to SBC's lowest level since 1987. Total membership also dropped by 0.24 percent to 16,266,920.
Page, who ends his second annual term as SBC president this week, has predicted that the number of Southern Baptist churches will fall by half by 2030 unless the denomination makes major changes. Amid the falling numbers, Page cautioned Southern Baptists against pointing fingers.
While many are quick to blame the infighting among various groups within the denomination or a failure of the conservative resurgence, Page let the responsibility fall on each person.
"The truth is individuals and churches are the ones who are in decline. And we must deal with reality," Page said at the annual meeting. "We have compared ourselves to the wrong standards, ignoring God's call for repentance and we have been failing to be relevant to a culture that sees us as representatives of death, not as representatives of light.
"I believe God is calling us to see that the problem lies with me," he added. "Yes, there are problems amongst us. I have deep concern about the absolute disintegration of many of our churches … But let's take an honest look at reality. Blame the denomination if you wish, but the problem is 'me.' 'I haven't been winning people to Christ as much as I [ought to].'"
The thousands of attendants applauded in concordance with Page's poignant address.
Robert Thomas, senior pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Salisbury, N.C., said he's more concerned as a Christian than a Southern Baptist. He believes Page's message to "get busy and do what we should be doing" should be directed to Christians overall and not just Southern Baptists.
This year, SBC messengers – representatives of local SBC churches – will consider a 10-year evangelism initiative to mobilize churches to reach the nation for Christ. While introducing the flexible, multifaceted strategy, Page expressed hopes that this week's meeting will be the beginning of "the greatest time of evangelism in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention," according to a column posted on the North American Mission Board (NAMB) Web site. NAMB is the domestic missions agency of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful to see every Southern Baptist church involved in intentional evangelism, soul-winning and yes, baptizing record numbers of persons?" Page posed.
As many Southern Baptists have encouraged in recent years, Page called the denomination to a "Great Commission Resurgence." And that will only occur when Southern Baptists "fall in love" with Jesus, who spoke the Great Commission – to spread his teachings to all the nations of the world.
"I believe then baptisms will begin to increase," Page assured.