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Baptists hope to increase their baptisms

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Eleven-year-old Hunter Burney began shivering as he came up out of the water, his white clothing clinging to his skin as he made his way up the slippery steps and out of the baptismal font.

But his father's warm embrace quieted Hunter's chattering teeth and brought a knowing smile to his face as they hugged beside the water, Dad shedding a little moisture of his own.The scene is repeated regularly in any number of LDS meetinghouses - both in the heart of Salt Lake City and in the far corners of the globe, as LDS Church members carry out what they believe to be a God-given mandate to share the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who embrace Mormonism are baptized to, in part, signal their membership in the church.

But this particular baptism didn't happen at an LDS church. On May 24, Hunter Burney became a Southern Baptist - one of the newest members of America's largest Protestant denomination. In a symbolic act of rebirth, he was baptized by immersion - in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - before thousands of worshipers at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn. It's a scene Southern Baptists hope will be repeated millions of times in the coming years, as they share their message of faith with the world.

A half-million baptisms

In fact, if one believer has his way, the Convention will see half a million baptisms in the year 2000 alone.

Paige Patterson, on track to become the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told the SBC news agency Baptist Press, "Should messengers to the churches see fit to choose me to be president of the SBC, my objectives will be twofold. First, I want to give myself to work with our churches and the North American Mission Board to baptize 500,000 people during the year 2000. Second, I want to do all I can to assist the International Mission Board in getting our arms around the globe with a comprehensive program of evangelism and discipleship."

Some 10,000 Southern Baptists will vote on Patterson's nomination on the opening day of their convention, June 9, in the Salt Palace here in Salt Lake City. If he is elected president, Patterson will no doubt follow his stated intentions, putting the denomination on a fast track to increased emphasis on missionary work not only in North America - where most Southern Baptists now live - but worldwide.

And the Convention has handed him the tools with which to do it. At the direction of last year's messengers, church officers consolidated three of the Convention's national agencies - the Home Mission Board, the Radio and Television Commission, and the Brotherhood Commission - into one entity, called the North American Mission Board, with an annual budget of nearly $100 million.

Headquartered in the wooded suburb of Alpharetta, Ga., north of Atlanta, the Mission Board's focus was also directed by convention messengers: spread the Good News of Christ's gospel to every person in North America by 2000.

`Come help us'

According to "SBC Life," the official journal of the Southern Baptist Convention, North American Mission Board President Bob Reccord told Southern Baptists during his inauguration speech last November that he's heard pleas from mission-minded Southern Baptists throughout the United States and Canada to "Come help us.

"By God's grace we're going to help. . . . Whatever it takes to reach North America for Christ, the North American Mission Board will do." As an example of the strength of that commitment, the budget for evangelism in Salt Lake City alone before and during the convention is from $500,000 to $600,000, according to Phil Roberts, director of the Interfaith Witness Division of the North American Mission Board.

The push for greater evangelism comes after more than 10,000 Southern Baptist churches reported no baptisms in 1996. With 40,887 churches, 25 percent of them saw not one new member enter the font. That figure, part of a report issued by Sunday School Board president Jimmy Draper, said 13,000 additional churches reported five or fewer baptisms in the same year, and "suggested it takes 42 Southern Baptists to reach one person for Christ."

With that in mind, the Mission Board has put renewed emphasis on evangelism, encouraging missionary work through a host of new media products as well as an advertising campaign to reach every person in North America within the next 2 1/2 years.

Several types of missionaries

Several types of missionaries share the gospel - 5,000 of them full-time. All but "tent makers" and chaplains receive either full or partial funding from their state convention or fellowship and the Mission Board.

Categories of service include:

- Missionary - "must have a sense of call into mission service, adequate training and experience, and good physical and emotional health."

- Missionary associate - those who "make special contributions to mission work because of special skills, cultural understanding and exceptional experience."

- Apprentice - serves "a two-year, non-renewable term. Intended for candidates who have a seminary degree . . . supervised closely by an experienced missionary or pastor."

- US-2 Missionary - "two-year, non-renewable term for those with a college degree and are age 30 or under. Single men or women and married couples without children are considered."

- Family and Church - "for a spouse whose mate serves as a primary worker . . . . Spouse must have two years of college education."

- Mission pastor - full-time pastor of a young church, or those beginning a church. Male candidates only.

- Mission pastor student - works with mission pastor, not necessary to serve full-time.

- Mission volunteers - "serve for less than one year and include student summer and semester missionaries." Adults, youth and adult groups and high school youth participate. The Convention estimates it has 82,000 such volunteers.

- Tent Maker - "those with a marketable skill who are open to serving in a dual career," using their skills as a way to share the gospel.

- Chaplains - serve in the military, businesses, industries and institutions.

Every Baptist a missionary

While missionary funding provided either in full or in part through the Convention, and specific skill or educational requirements may seem foreign to LDS Church members used to sending their 19-year-old sons and 21-year-old daughters off for two years - and footing the entire bill - a new Southern Baptist program that seeks to spread mission work even farther sounds more than familiar.

For years, leaders of the LDS Church have encouraged their members to share the gospel not only at home with their children, but at work, in social settings and any place else that seems appropriate to do so. The phrase "Every member a missionary" signifies the church's continuing emphasis to members that one of the most important things they can do is share their faith in any way possible. Training on how to accomplish this is provided to local congregations, using personal involvement and prayer as key elements.

The "friendshipping" approach is paying off. Earlier this year, the LDS Church announced it had surpassed the 10 million-member mark, and at least one prominent sociologist has projected that the church will grow to 280 million members by 2080.

This year, Southern Baptists initiated an instruction program called "Praying Your Friends to Christ," part of the Celebrate Jesus 2000 campaign, designed to provide the chance for "every lost person . . . in every countryside, village, town and city an opportunity to accept Jesus as Savior and Lord."

It calls on "every believer and church to prepare and implement strategies of prayer, personal witnessing, proclamation and presentation as a means of reaching this goal."

Another program being offered through the Convention's Sunday School Board is FAITH, a "new emphasis on evangelism and evangelism training" done weekly through the Sunday School. Billed as an evangelism "approach with global impact that begins with one solitary person from a Sunday School class" it focuses on personal training for Southern Baptists who have no plans to serve a formal mission. Members agree to attend 16 training sessions and practice what they learn in home visits.

As part of their convention next week, messengers will have a chance to learn more about the initiative at a luncheon on June 9 at the Salt Palace.

A worldwide effort

For all its focus, those are just a few of several missionary campaign strategies in North America. The International Mission Board, headquartered in Richmond, Va., has its own plans for reaching the rest of the globe. It now supports 4,133 foreign missionaries in 126 nations, in addition to an extensive humanitarian service ministry.

Still, the LDS Church members are the ones Southern Baptists seem to have their eye on when it comes at least one strategy for evangelizing. Roberts told a Baptist publication recently that "the difference between Mormons and evangelical Christians is that Mormons are breeding a culture where the exceptions (among young people) are the ones who stay home (from missionary service). We've bred a culture where the exceptions are those who go (to the mission field). We've got to turn that around."

Tomorrow: How the Convention is using media like never before.