Thirty years ago, conservative Southern Baptists started a revolution.
Claiming their denominational leaders had abandoned the inerrancy of Scripture, they launched a "conservative resurgence" in 1979 to bring the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) back to its roots.
This year's SBC annual meeting, held June 23-24 in Louisville, featured talk about another revolution. This time, one focused on evangelism through a "Great Commission Resurgence" (GCR) aimed at reversing continuing declines in membership and baptisms.
The new movement is the brainchild of SBC president Johnny Hunt and Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. They fear that without major changes, the SBC will suffer the same fate as mainline denominations with dramatic losses in membership.
"We are saying times have been desperate," Hunt said. "Now I really do sense fellow Southern Baptists are saying we need to get serious."
The conservative resurgence was about theology, known as the "battle for the Bible."
The GCR is more about ecclesiology—how to do church.
To reach more converts, Southern Baptists have to reach out to more ethnic groups and allow churches to experiment more—at least when it comes to worship style. And they must give evangelism top priority when it comes to money, according to Hunt.
Hunt was backed by a group of center-right Baptist leaders, including former SBC president Frank Page. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also backed Hunt, saying Southern Baptists have to do a better job reaching nonbelievers.
"Is there more that we can do?" Mohler said. "There is no need for Southern Baptists to fear that question."
Supporters of the GCR pointed to research showing that, if current trends continue, the SBC will lose half its members by 2050.
"Southern Baptist decline isn't a matter of opinion," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. "It's a matter of math."
The decline is based on a number of factors.
First, Southern Baptists are getting older and having fewer kids. That's a problem, because the denomination is most effective at reaching people under 18.
Southern Baptists are also mostly white, at a time when America is become multiethnic, and have been slow to reach out to new ethic groups.
And they've been reluctant to change the formula that made them great. For more than 50 years, Southern Baptists grew by what Stetzer calls a "methodological consensus." While each SBC church is autonomous, their ecclesiology was remarkable consistent.
They all had choirs, sang hymns, went to Sunday school and night services, and held Vacation Bible School programs. "We all looked the same, we all believed the same things, and we all did church the same way," Stetzer said.
That world has changed, and the SBC hasn't kept up, says Michael Spencer, a Baptist minister and blogger known as the Internet Monk.
"The idea of a teetotaling, suit-wearing, hymn-singing, chicken-eating, gospel-quartet version of the SBC is the Titanic," he said. "Hope everyone is enjoying the music, but I think you might want to consider a seat in a lifeboat."
Not all Southern Baptist buy the GCR plan. They also question whether the denomination is in serious danger.
Will Hall, editor of Baptist Press, says the convention needs a minor course correction, not wholesale changes. He says that Southern Baptists are thriving, despite factors working against them such as the lower birthrate among all Americans.
"I hate to use these terms, but you can't reach people if there isn't a market," he said.