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New Southern Baptist president pledges to unite

ERIC GORSKI
AP Religion Writer
Johnny Hunt, a native American from Woodstock, Ga, was elected June 10 as president of the 16.4 million member Southern Baptist Convention in the 151st session of its two-day annual meeting. Hunt, pastor of the nearly 17,000-member First Baptist Church in Woodstock, was elected president when he received 52. 95 percent of the vote over five other nominees at the meeting in the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.
BP Photo | Baptist Press/BPNews.net

INDIANAPOLIS – Within an hour of being elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Johnny Hunt was talking about “turning the tide,” acknowledging the reality that a denomination that cares so much about winning souls is losing too many.

By choosing the 55-year-old megachurch pastor from Woodstock, Ga., Southern Baptists picked the best-known name in an unusually large field of six candidates.

Hunt is described as a theological conservative more concerned about revival than fighting about doctrine. His goals likely will be welcomed as a growing number of Baptists acknowledge that steps must be taken to halt disturbing trends in membership and baptisms.

“Southern Baptists wanted a peacemaker,” said Malcolm Yarnell, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. “Johnny is not going to be the type that brings divisions. He tends to avoid big theological controversies. He’s not the type to point a finger at somebody. He’s more likely to point a finger at himself and exhort the rest of us.”

After five decades of declining growth, the SBC reported a membership decrease of about 40,000 people from 2006 to 2007. Seven out of the last eight years, baptisms have decreased – a more important statistic to many Southern Baptists than membership.

Increasingly, Southern Baptists are blaming themselves rather than politicians or secular culture. One of Hunt’s predecessors as SBC president, the Rev. Jimmy Draper, preached that “the problem lies with us” and described the denomination as being in a free-fall.

“Evangelicals as a whole really are obsessed with bringing people to faith in Christ,” said Ed Stetzer, director of research for LifeWay, the SBC’s research and publishing arm. “When you say we’re not really reaching people, that really gets to the heart of what matters to them.”

Hunt succeeds the Rev. Frank Page, of Taylors, S.C., who was credited for being a stabilizing force. He sought to build consensus and bring a softer image to a denomination many outsiders associate with incendiary rhetoric and boycotts. He himself was an outsider championed by reform-minded Baptist bloggers, and his election two years ago came as a surprise.

The ease of Hunt’s election – he won about 53 percent of the vote on the first ballot – was surprising; with the large field, a runoff was expected. Hunt’s closest competitor was fellow Georgia pastor Rev. Frank Cox, who received about 22 percent of the vote.

The Rev. Benjamin Cole, an associate pastor in Enid, Okla., who championed Page’s election, called Hunt a “passionate catalyst.”

“Twenty-eight years ago he started mentoring young pastors, and he is their hero,” Cole said. “I don’t think there’s any question he genuinely loves Southern Baptists and the world around him and wants to connect them in a way that brings them together.”

At a news conference, Hunt called for radical change and leadership to “turn the tide in our denomination.”

He said he would try to unite Baptist around common causes, get younger pastors more involved and hear from a wider range of leaders.

Hunt also spoke of his roots as a Lumbee Indian, a North Carolina-based tribe. It’s a biographical detail that might help the overwhelmingly white denomination reach more minorities.

While acknowledging the challenges ahead, Hunt also pointed out that the denomination has grown over the past five decades and stands 16.2 million strong.

“We have a larger army,” he said. “We ought to be taking more territory.”