NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The annual meeting of Southern Baptist Convention (search) will help kick off what may be the denomination's most ambitious outreach effort ever — baptizing 1 million new members in a year.
Headquartered in Nashville, the 16.3 million-member faith is the second-largest denomination in the United States, behind the Roman Catholic Church (search). Yet the number of new member baptisms has declined in each of the past five years.
"We have been playing it too close to the church," said President Bobby Welch, who will speak at the opening of the two-day convention Tuesday following a satellite address by President Bush. "Southern Baptists have to reconnect themselves with the communities and the needs of the people in the communities."
Welch said complacency among Southern Baptists is a big part of the reason for the slide, and it's an issue he plans to address in his speech to an expected crowd of about 9,000.
After he was elected president last year, the 62-year-old Welch began preparing for the baptism initiative with a bus tour of the United States and Canada to show "the convention is concerned about being involved in everybody's life."
Out of that tour came the baptismal theme for this year's convention, "Everyone Can."
Welch, who is pastor of the First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., said church leaders at the convention will be given six main points that deal with training members how to do "lifestyle witnessing and then disciple those who are won into the local churches."
The official start date for baptizing 1 million will be Oct. 30, with the effort concluding on Sept. 30 of next year.
"All that's been going on has been the buildup and preparation for this," Welch said.
Southern Baptists believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and adhere strictly to conservative beliefs. At last year's convention, the Southern Baptists quit the Baptist World Alliance (search), citing what they saw as the group's liberal drift. The last straw came in 2003 when the alliance accepted as members a breakaway group of moderate Southern Baptists.
One resolution that will likely be presented this year urges churches to investigate their local school districts to determine if they promote homosexuality, and remove their children from such schools if they do. A similar resolution failed last year.