Southern Baptists in Louisville: Listening for a call. Maybe.

ear_guards_ear_plugs_33691Earplugs are available at the Believers Church, in case the band plays too loud.

The seven-year-old congregation, which attracts about 150 worshippers weekly, meets in a rented building, a former gymnastics studio at 213 E. Springbrook Drive, using an intentionally broad-brush name.

At first glance, you’d never guess this is a Southern Baptist congregation. That’s by design, according to Lead Pastor Mike Friday.

“We’re not running from who we are, but at the same time, Southern Baptists are not all the same,” he said in a phone conversation this week. “We don’t push the denomination. We push Jesus.”

He insisted that it doesn’t take long for visitors to discover the Southern Baptist connection, and he discusses it in the required membership class. But while he values the cooperation of the denomination, his time is limited, with him being the one full-time staff member.

“It’s not a lack of interest (in the denomination) as such,” he said, “but it’s hard to give that time.”

Even so, when Friday and his wife launched the church in 2002, they gave it a name and took an approach to ministry that would fly under the radar of people who may have been soured on church in the past. The phrase “Southern Baptist” is nowhere to be found on any of the church’s signs or on its Web site.

“There have been a lot of people hurt in the past from various denominations, unintentionally,” he explained. “We wanted to take out that hurdle for someone looking to get back in.”

The church has been growing, he said, with new members joining regularly since moving to its new location last November. That fact alone makes the Believers Church unusual among the 42,000 Southern Baptist congregations in the U.S.

Membership is shrinking in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which claims more than 16 million members. The number of baptisms has sunk to a 20-year low. Giving is down. More than a few leaders wonder about the overall health of the SBC.

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently wrote that Southern Baptists “are fractured and factionalizing. … We have tragically devolved into ‘a giant movement now in decline,’” quoting a professor at his school.

These concerns will be high on the agenda next week during the annual denominational meeting, the literal Southern Baptist Convention, when thousands of SBC leaders and “messengers,” delegates from congregations, area associations and state conventions, gather in Louisville, Ky.

In advance of the convention, Johnny Hunt, a pastor from Woodstock, Ga., who is completing his first one-year term as SBC president, published a 10-point declaration titled “Great Commission Resurgence” in April. (The title refers to the last words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, directing his followers to “go into all the world, making disciples.”)

The document mostly reaffirms historic Southern Baptist beliefs and values, particularly their concern for evangelism. But it also addresses some thorny issues, such as the denomination’s racist past. Hunt would like to see the convention vote to adopt the document next week and set up a task force to study how to implement it. So far, more than 3,700 church members, including seminary presidents and past SBC presidents, have signed in support.

But one section, which calls for an examination of the structure and workings of the denomination “at every level,” set off alarm bells among other leaders. Some read it as an implied but unjust criticism of state conventions and other organizations. Others wonder if it opens the door to merging two of the SBC’s most important institutions, the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board.

In a rare moment of public disagreement among top denominational leaders, Morris Chapman, president of the SBC executive committee, issued a statement to explain why he opposes the resolution as long as it contains the offending section, calling it “distracting” and “divisive.”

Mike Friday of the Believers Church certainly cares about the outcome of the convention. He’s served in Southern Baptist churches more than half his 46 years. He has paid attention, as best he can, to the discussions surrounding the Great Commission Resurgence, which could steer the denomination for a generation.

But he also has a congregation to lead, with studies and sermons to prepare and people to visit. Vacation Bible School starts on Monday. And no doubt someone will need to check the supply of earplugs.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 20 June 2009.