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Alaska messengers affirm EKG, address declining membership

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (BP)–A thinning out of Alaska’s already widely scattered Baptists was cause for concern at the 57th annual convention of the Alaska Baptist Convention (ABC), Aug. 6-7 at South Anchorage Baptist Church. One hundred and fifty-seven messengers representing 37 churches and four missions attended. In 2001, the ABC reported a total of 74 churches and 26 missions.

David Baldwin, the convention’s executive director, pointed to a drop in total membership from 19,292 in 1998 to 16,848 in 2002, with a concurrent drop in baptisms from 792 to 514. Annual Church Profile (ACP) results showed a peak of 10,591 resident members in 2000, down to 8,788 in 2001.

ACP results were down across the board, Baldwin said, due in part to some churches failing to turn in their reports. Baldwin emphasized the value of the ACP as a tool for evaluation and for preserving a church’s status as a nonprofit organization.

Baldwin later said in an interview that the reduction in membership totals resulted in part from several of the larger churches “cleaning up” their membership rolls. Some of the churches report only resident members, he said.

Baldwin, a 21-year veteran of work in Alaska who became executive director in 2000, in his address to messengers, described in Sunday School and training programs as lacking in the state, while evangelism is inconsistent. Some churches depend too much on outside funding, he said, and “leadership training is needed all over the state.”

Baldwin was encouraged, however, by consistent growth in Cooperative Program giving by the churches. The convention is on track to its third consecutive year of exceeding budget expectations, he said.

Baldwin outlined his vision of a three-year growth emphasis to be called “Light Up Alaska.” The emphasis will focus on missions and prayer in 2003, church development in 2004 and major evangelism efforts in 2005.

More than half of Alaska’s churches and missions average less than 50 in attendance, Baldwin said, and about 80 percent average less than 100. “We are a convention of small churches,” he said, “but there are no small places in God’s service.”

Although the oldest Baptist churches in Alaska were not established until the 1940s, a heavy reliance on tradition still prevents some churches from embracing needed changes, but Baldwin challenged messengers to remember that “everything now in place was originally a great idea … revolutionary … a challenge to the status quo.”

“We must learn to challenge the process without challenging the authority of those who founded the process,” he said.

State evangelism and church development director Jimmy Stewart said Alaska churches must deal with continually transitioning communities as military families and others move frequently, making growth difficult.

Even so, Stewart challenged messengers to seek growth through prayer, discipleship and evangelism. Southern Baptists make up only 1.4 percent of Alaska’s population, Stewart said. He encouraged those present to seek “a bigger piece of the pie” and work toward reaching 10 percent of the state’s residents, a membership goal of 63,000 persons.

The bottom line is changed lives, Stewart said. “If we don’t see changed lives, we haven’t accomplished anything.”

Terry Hill, pastor of Rabbit Creek Baptist Church in Anchorage, in the convention sermon, urged faithfulness in the midst of crisis. Using the apostle Paul’s shipwreck described in Acts 27 as a text, Hill said people in crisis are prone to drift, to discard important values, and to despair. Instead, Hill said, believers should drop anchor and trust in God’s presence, God’s plan and God’s promises.

In any situation, Hill said, “one plus God is a majority.”

In his president’s message, Jack Green also pleaded for greater outreach efforts on the part of both pastors and laypeople. “We stand in the door of the church and say, ‘Come on in,'” he said, “when we should be going out and bringing them in.”

Southern Baptists got off to a late start in Alaska because of an early agreement apportioning missionary work in the state among various denominations, he said, but that is no longer a detriment.

Green, a layperson, encouraged pastors to set good examples for lay members. “The sheep follow the shepherd … [T]hey are dumb but not stupid,” he said, quoting chaplain Aubrey Halsell, who started the first Southern Baptist Church in Alaska, as saying that “when there’s fire in the pulpit, there will be smoke in the pews.”

Talmage Williams, on-site coordinator for the North Carolina Baptist State Convention partnership with Alaska Baptists, reported that almost 1,300 Tarheel Baptists volunteered in Alaska during 2002, the third year of a five-year partnership.

Williams cited a number of ways in which volunteers have assisted Alaska Baptists through direct ministries, construction projects and leadership training. “Whatever North Carolina Baptists do, the focus is always on congregations and people,” he said. “If the churches are not stronger when we leave, then we’ve failed.”

In convention business, messengers overwhelmingly approved a resolution supporting Empowering Kingdom Growth, a new initiative within the Southern Baptist Convention approved by messengers to the 2002 annual meeting in St. Louis. EKG calls for SBC leaders and churches to “seek first the King and his kingdom.”

Messengers adopted a 2003 budget of $1.9 million, of which $677,903, or 35.5 percent is expected to come from giving by Alaska Baptist churches, up from $652,000 in 2002. The North American Mission Board (NAMB) is to provide more than $1.1 million, or 59.2 percent, of the ABC budget. Sixteen appointed NAMB missionaries serve in Alaska, along with 13 Mission Service Corps volunteers. LifeWay Christian Resources will furnish another $51,500, or 2.7 percent of the budget.

The ABC forwards 33 percent of its in-state contributions to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Cooperative Program.

Messengers also approved minor changes to the convention’s constitution and bylaws, and elected former first vice president Leon May as the convention president. May, pastor of Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Anchorage, is the third African American elected to lead the ABC.

Outgoing president Green was eligible for another term but declined to run again, as did second vice president Scott Coffman.

Messengers elected John Mortensen, pastor of Montana Creek Baptist Church in Talkeetna, as first vice president, and Mark Goodman, pastor of Immanuel Baptist church in Anchorage, as second vice president. The ABC constitution requires that all vice presidential candidates be nominated together, with voting to take place in a following session. The candidate receiving the most votes is declared first vice president, while the person receiving the second-highest total becomes second vice president.

Although Mortensen and Goodman were the only candidates nominated, pastor David George of First Baptist Church of Eagle River and two messengers from First Baptist Church of Kenai questioned Goodman regarding his church’s support for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and its percentage of giving to the SBC.

When the votes were cast, Mortensen edged Goodman by a total of 55 votes to 52 votes.

Judy Zach, of University Baptist Church in Fairbanks, was re-elected as recording secretary.

In an auxiliary meeting, Linda Hoffman, of Fairview Loop Baptist Church in Wasilla, was elected to a fourth term as Woman’s Missionary Union president.

The 2003 annual meeting of the ABC will be Sept. 30-Oct. 1 at Moose Creek Baptist Church in North Pole.

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  • Tony W. Cartledge