The nation's largest Protestant denomination does not appear to be changing a 27-year-old conservative direction steered by powerful leaders. But the Southern Baptist Convention's new president is promising broader participation from the ranks of its 42,000 churches.

Frank Page won a surprise first-ballot victory over two better-known candidates at the SBC's annual meeting, held June 13 and 14 in Greensboro, North Carolina. 

"I'm not talking about broadening the tent theologically, simply numerically," said Page, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, South Carolina. "There's a huge number of people who have been kind of kept out because they're not in a big enough church or whatever."

Observers credited Page's surprising victory to his church's support of the Cooperative Program. The voluntary giving plan supports the SBC's six seminaries, along with agencies such as the North American Mission Board (namb) and the International Mission Board (IMB).

Page's church gave the program 12.4 percent of its undesignated receipts last year. Two Rivers Baptist in Nashville, pastored by presidential candidate Jerry Sutton, gave 1.8 percent. Candidate Ronnie Floyd's First Baptist of Springdale, Arkansas, contributed 0.27 percent.

"I think it turned out to be a Cooperative Program affirmation convention," said Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. "That's not all bad."

Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, called the outcome of the first contested race in 12 years historic, with a broad-based coalition carrying a low-profile pastor to victory.

"I think this is a transitional moment in the history of the SBC," George told CT, "partly because it represents a transition from the era of conflict and controversy to something that hopefully can be more constructive."

Calvinism also came under the convention spotlight. In a pre-convention conference, advocate Al Mohler—president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky—publicly debated the issue with Patterson. Patterson does not believe Scripture supports the Calvinist understanding of election.

In 2000, new SBC president Page wrote Trouble with the Tulip: A Closer Examination of the Five Points of Calvinism. Some have interpreted Page's election as a backlash against the growing influence of Calvinism. However, Page rebuts that idea.

"It is not a blow to [Calvinists]," Page told CT. "I do not believe [Calvinism] is grounds for breaking fellowship nor [barring] participation in leadership."

The president of the SBC appoints trustees to seminaries and agencies. Conservatives have used this power to steer the denomination's theological direction. Page said his only requirements for committee appointments will be a sweet spirit and a strong belief in evangelism, the Bible, and the Cooperative Program.

Other turmoil brewed beneath the surface of the relatively calm convention, which featured an address by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

IMB trustee Wade Burleson called on the SBC to investigate alleged heavy-handed methods from fellow trustees (CT, March 2006, p. 21). But convention delegates referred his motion back to the agency. Trustees of the namb are also searching for a replacement for former president Bob Reccord, who resigned in April.

Page commands limited authority over either agency, so his leading task may be persuading churches to increase Cooperative Program gifts. Contributions have dwindled from a per-church average of 10.2 percent in 1988-1989 to 6.6 percent in 2004-2005.

Patterson says SBC churches, like many churches in other denominations, are bypassing central agencies to spend more of their money on mission projects in which they are directly involved.

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Weblog covered mainstream news from the SBC convention as it occurred.

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