Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Paige Patterson challenged representatives at the denomination's annual meeting in Atlanta in June to baptize 500,000 Americans next year. Patterson's challenge followed news that SBC membership has dropped 1 percent, the first loss since 1926. With 15.7 million members, the SBC is still the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

Denomination executives are at a loss to explain the decline and have ordered a study. They hope the loss was caused by changes in the methods some churches use to report membership statistics. But membership has grown only slightly in the past ten years.

Patterson attributes the decline in part to the loss of rural churches whose members are migrating to urban areas. Patterson proposes the creation of 160 new SBC churches in six cities over the next three years. Chicago and Phoenix are targeted next year, followed by Boston and Las Vegas in 2001 and Philadelphia and Seattle in 2002. "Brothers and sisters," Patterson said, "if we [are to] reach the cities of our country, it will take more than an affirmation of belief in the inerrancy of the Bible."

WHERE THE PEOPLE ARE: Patterson's emphasis on urban centers, particularly those in the north and west, is a shift from the SBC's traditional rural, Southern strongholds, but that is where the people are, he said. Sixty percent of the U.S. population resides in 50 metropolitan areas.

"We're slow and we're late in coming to the cities," Charles Lyons told CT. Lyons is pastor of Armitage Baptist Church, a multicultural congregation of 1,000 on Chicago's north side. Lyons's impassioned plea before the convention drew enthusiastic response, but he admits plans to purchase expensive property to build new churches ...

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