Focused on mission, Southern Baptists say

Event not seen as place to solve issues

Posted: June 11, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

DALLAS -- Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines called last month for Southern Baptists to pray for unity in the 21 days leading up to their annual gathering.

The call from Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, came amid a wave of revelations about sexual misconduct, abuse and harassment involving several of the denomination's high-ranking leaders.

The allegations have led to division among many Southern Baptists going into this year's gathering. One of the allegations also led Paige Patterson, a two-term president of the convention and one of the leaders of the group's conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, to withdraw from giving the keynote sermon at the annual meeting, which will be held Tuesday and Wednesday at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas.

Arkansas Baptist State Convention President Greg Sykes said members of the denomination in Arkansas consider the Southern Baptist gathering a "big family reunion," adding that the annual meeting is not where resolution of such issues takes place.

For the Arkansas denomination, Sykes said, the national meeting is about the progress of the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board.

The pastor of First Baptist Church in Russellville said concerns about Patterson -- who was fired May 30 as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary because of his mishandling of a rape allegation -- were handled by the seminary's board of trustees.

"A lot of these national issues, the convention is not the place where they get handled best," said Sykes, who said he was following Gaines' call to pray for unity and peace. "We're kind of living in a sound bite era, social-media-driven time. ... So I think there's going to be some awkward moments, because people are going to go down there looking for some catharsis and resolution."

That doesn't mean the state convention is ignoring the sexual misconduct, abuse and harassment issues that face some of the denomination's leaders, said Andrea Lennon, women's ministry specialist for the state convention.

"I want to make a very clear statement on abuse, assault, domestic violence, and wrong counsel given to women or anyone else in the church," Lennon said. "It is wrong. It is not OK. It must stop."

"Sin, that which we commit and that which is committed against us, has the same effect," Lennon added. "It brings shame, guilt, and causes us to run and hide. Churches today need to deal honestly with sinful issues."

Greg Addison, associate executive director of the state convention, said the most important aspect of the national convention's annual meeting is building support for cooperative mission efforts to send missionaries across North America and around the world.

"There are always issues that arise, resolutions, and elections, but Arkansas Baptists are deeply committed to staying focused on our gospel mission," Addison said.

Those mission efforts are coordinated through the International Mission Board, which supports U.S. missionaries who go abroad to provide help in other countries, and the North American Mission Board, which focuses on mission work in the United States and Canada.

As of December, the International Mission Board was supporting more than 3,500 career and short-term missionaries abroad. Southern Baptists give to the state convention through the Arkansas Baptist Cooperative Program, which funds mission work in Arkansas, the nation and abroad.

John McCallum, pastor of First Baptist Church in Hot Springs, said his church partners with Garage Church, one of the many he said was established by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. Garage Church engages in outreach to those living in poverty and the incarcerated, and it leads self-reliance and anger-management classes that McCallum said are focused on "getting ahead in a getting-by world."

"We're much more focused on trying to extend God's kingdom and God's love right here in Arkansas across racial lines and income lines," McCallum said.

McCallum, who last attended the Southern Baptist Convention in 1988, said his connection to the Southern Baptist denomination lies in its mission programs. His church currently has mission partnerships in Honduras and Senegal, and over the years it has conducted mission work and partnerships in places including Russia, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Japan, India and Nicaragua.

In addition, a foreign missionary whom McCallum brought in from the field is working to develop and establish a network of small churches in Hot Springs in nontraditional settings, such as hotels, for those who wouldn't normally attend a church.

According to Lifeway's annual church profile released June 1, there are 1,420 Southern Baptist churches in Arkansas -- 11 fewer churches than there were from 2015-16. That number doesn't reflect the mission churches and satellite churches that Lifeway doesn't include in its count, and it doesn't reflect the 1,550 that the Arkansas State Baptist Convention has on record, up from 1,334 in 1995, according to its records.

The number of churches in Arkansas as recorded by the state convention changes weekly because of the number of closings among legacy churches -- those that were established fifty years ago or longer. Many have shrinking congregations because of population and cultural shifts. As younger congregants move to larger towns and cities for work, the number of older congregants decreases and economic backslides lead to members joining larger churches with more resources.

State convention records show a loss of 26 such churches in 2017, but Addison said churches affiliated with the state convention are on pace to establish 34 churches this year, known in the faith as church planting.

The other factor in the change is what Addison called the "aggressive" establishment of churches, which then go on to aggressively plant churches as well.

Jarvis Smith, pastor of one of two churches that goes by the name Second Baptist Church in Helena-West Helena, has established four new churches in the past five years -- including one in Marvell housed in the same building as an operating funeral home -- and revived two churches that closed.

Smith emphasized it is vitally important to meet people where they're comfortable, and that means breaking out of what he called "traditional churches."

"Church was never meant to be inside four walls and to be contained there," Smith said. "Even though we go there to worship, the church has to be a fluid body of people who go anywhere and everywhere, and engage people where they are."

State Desk on 06/11/2018