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Southern Baptist Convention opens
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Southern Baptists are facing a membership decline that could shrink the nation's largest Protestant denomination by nearly half in 40 years, its convention president said Tuesday.

The Rev. Johnny Hunt, a megachurch pastor from Woodstock, Ga., told convention members gathered in Louisville that Southern Baptists need to give more to worldwide missions and attract minorities.

"I really do believe we need a revival," Hunt said in a 45-minute address to kick off the two-day convention.

The denomination is declining at a rate that could shrink its membership from 16.2 million to 8.7 million by 2050, Hunt said. Total membership of Southern Baptist churches was 16,228,438 last year, down nearly 38,400 from 2007, according to LifeWay, the convention's research and publishing arm.

Hunt, himself a Native American from the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, said the denomination needs to work harder to court minorities.

"We need to really join with our brothers of ethnicity in this convention," Hunt said.

The Rev. Richard Land, head of the denomination's public policy arm, has said the convention's minority membership, including blacks, Asians and Latinos, had grown to about 18 percent by 2007. That was well below minorities' share of the U.S. population, which is about 34 percent, according to U.S. Census figures.

The convention, which formed in 1845 after a dispute with northern Baptists over slavery, is expected to vote this week on a resolution acknowledging the historical importance of President Barack Obama's electoral victory.

Southern Baptist churches are predominantly located in the rural South, where the greatest population growth has been among blacks and Latinos, said David W. Key, director of Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. Southern Baptist churches have not kept up with this growth, Key said.

"The (white southern) audience that they're targeting is shrinking," Key said.

Key said the convention's population is aging, and he predicted a "tremendous number of church closings" in the future.

Hunt said in his address that despite hard economic times, members must dig deep and continue to give to the convention's Cooperative Program, which supports missions around the world.

"All of us ought to do more," he said.

Giving to that program was down slightly by 0.65 percent for the fiscal year 2007-08 after four straight years of growth. Donations to the program for 2007-08 totaled $204 million.


Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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