When Southern Baptists meet in Birmingham, Alabama June 11-12 for their annual meeting they'll have no shortage of challenges.
The country's largest Protestant denomination finds its membership dipping below 15 million for the first time in 30 years.
A Houston Chronicle investigative report on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches has thrust its policies into the national spotlight and the denomination is also grappling with initiatives to combat racism and include women in more positions of church leadership while adhering to its traditional complementarian theology.
CBN News spoke with Pastor J.D. Greear, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), this week about his views on the meeting, and the future of Southern Baptists.
"There's really only one way that we see the church going forward and it's putting the Gospel above all and pushing evangelism as the task," he said.
Greear literally practices what he preaches at Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina. Summit encourages its 11,000 attendees to simply evangelize one person – their "one" – and it seems to work. Under Greear's leadership, Summit has planted 53 churches in the US and 245 overseas.
Putting the Gospel first is also the focus of Greear's new book, Above All.
It's a strategy he believes will inform and improve the way Southern Baptists view some of their thorniest issues, including abuse.
Greear makes the case that dealing with sexual abuse in the church is a Gospel issue. "What does it say about our Gospel when we refuse to either deal with or create the structures necessary to prevent preying on the vulnerable, to prevent abuse?" he asks.
Greear thinks addressing abuse could impact church attendance. He says churches must deal with it if they want to encourage people to attend church and feel safe.
It's an idea supported by recent Lifeway research, which showed that one in ten younger Protestants have left their church because they felt that sexual misconduct was not taken seriously.
Greear also maintains that believers shouldn't be surprised to find abuse in their house of worship.
"Jesus told us that there would be shepherds that would come in and masquerade as being shepherds and end up abusing the sheep," he said. "Of all people we should have known that this was a potential and that this would be a problem in the church."
The Lifeway research shows that one in three Protestant church-goers believe that #churchtoo has only just begun and that more church abuse cases are looming on the horizon.
Greear says he welcomes the spotlight but admits he cringed just a few months ago when the Houston Chronicle published its series on abuse in Southern Baptist churches.
"When I first heard about the Houston Chronicle investigation, my gut response was to pray, 'Lord, protect our reputation, help the Gospel not go backward. And help people not to skew the information.' And it was one of those moments when I felt the Spirit of God say to me, 'That's not what I want you to be praying. I'll guard your reputation. I want you to be willing to do whatever it takes to provide safety, a more safe environment for victims and the vulnerable.'"
Last summer, Greear appointed a task force on abuse to advise on sexual abuse, domestic violence, and other related topics.
In Birmingham, he'll be advocating for a new "Credentials Committee" that would evaluate claims of church misconduct, including abuse.
The task force is also considering abuse training and curriculum and the possibility of a clergy sex offender database. Abuse advocates will rally in support of these measures on the first day of the meeting.
Rally organizer Ashley Easter says advocates are committed for the long haul. "We will not stop until the Southern Baptist Convention becomes a safe place for survivors of abuse, and as of now it is not a safe place," she said.
Diversity and the SBC
Greear is also pushing for greater diversity in the SBC. He recently appointed 126 people to SBC committees and says almost half were people of color.
He points out that the diverse appointments are not for the purpose of a photo opportunity, but to reflect the SBC. People of color make up 20 percent of SBC membership and non-white pastors planted close to two-thirds of SBC churches last year.
"We need their perspective," Greear said. "The US is changing and in order for us to effectively reach the next generation they've got wisdom that comes out of their community and their experience that we need to heed."
Greear says he hopes that such appointments will also help with issues of abuse.
"I sometimes wonder if some of the problems we're having dealing with sexual abuse and how we respond to it -would some of those crises have been avoided or at least mitigated if you had people around the seats, the seats of power, that knew what it was like to grow up marginalized or grow up silenced?" he said.
National Politics and the SBC
Last year, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the annual meeting. This year, no such high-profile political leader will speak.
When it comes to politics, Greear says he wants Southern Baptists to know that putting the Gospel first means they should be able to charitably disagree about their views.
"It's ok for different Christians to come to different conclusions," he said. "We can agree on the core issues: life, religious liberty, empowerment of the poor, the equality of races, the sanctity of marriage. We can agree on those things and even come to different conclusions about which particular candidate will be better for the country at this time."
Greear argues that even Jesus' disciples had different political beliefs but kept the Gospel as their first priority – and that made all the difference.