ORLANDO, Fla. (RNS)--At their upcoming annual meeting, delegates to theSouthern Baptist Convention will consider revisions to their statementof faith to firmly underscore the conservative direction of the nation'slargest Protestant denomination.

At the same time, protesters are expected outside the Orlando, Fla.,meeting Tuesday and Wednesday to criticize two key stances of the denominationoutlined in the document--its opposition to homosexuality and its belief that women are not qualified by Scripture to be pastors.

"It is a triumph for biblical Christianity," said outgoing SBCpresident Paige Patterson, of the proposed changes in the language inthe Baptist Faith and Message. Patterson is expected to be succeeded byJames Merritt, a Snellville, Ga., pastor, the only name that hassurfaced for the presidential election, and the immediate past chairmanof the SBC Executive Committee.

Beyond the rather consistent conservative statements SouthernBaptists are making, there is a move afoot within the 15.9-million-member denomination to broaden the age and color of its leadership.

Patterson, one of the architects of the two-decades-old conservativeresurgence who sought uniformity in theology, said he's now working toensure the diversity of those attending the annual meetings and leadingthe denomination.

He predicts there could be a president who is a racial or ethnicminority within the next five years. He's included more young people andminorities on convention committees. And he's asked churches to includeteens among their delegates attending this year's annual meeting.

Patterson, in a recent interview, said the moves relate both toprinciples and practicalities.

On race, the denomination, which five years ago passed apathbreaking resolution on racial reconciliation, now may change itsstatement of faith to list racism first among issues Christians shouldoppose.

"We had our beginning on the wrong leg and for many years continuedwith a wrong perspective on racism, so I think that's why it was soimportant that we state where we were doctrinally on that issue now,"Patterson said.

As for young people, Patterson said he encouraged youthfulinvolvement in the meeting because its weekday schedule prevents someworking adults from attending.

"What happens if you're not careful, you end up with a convention ofthe elderly, and maybe pastors, and so I just feel that we need to startinvolving our young people," he said. "I...started going when I was 9years old and haven't missed one since."

Patterson's emphasis on diversity has been welcomed by people in thecircles he's hoping to attract.

Mark Croston, a Suffolk, Va., pastor, said as a board member of theAfrican-American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention, he hasbeen among those pressing the denomination's leaders to make "genuineattempts" to turn the words of the 1995 resolution into action. With thedenomination already placing more African-Americans in top positions ondivisional boards, he thinks Patterson's prediction about a minoritypresident may come true.

"If in this conservative resurgence we say that we want to believethe Bible true to every portion of what the Bible says, thenpart of that truth is being able to accept one another as brothers,"Croston said.

Young people who have been appointed to serve on denominationalcommittees say they're honored to hold leadership positions at a meetingthat also will feature youth rallies about leadership and the "True LoveWaits" sexual-abstinence campaign.

"There are so many strong Christian leaders that are there andspeak," said Joy Usry, 18, of Claxton, Ga., who will count votes alongwith other members of the tellers committee. "It really encourages youto see so many adults...that really care about the Lord."

Usry and Jonathan McDonald, another 18-year-old appointed to thecredentials committee, said they agree with the proposed changes in theBaptist Faith and Message opposing homosexuality and women pastors.

"Praise the Lord that they're going to put that in," said McDonald,of Wake Forest, N.C.

Others aren't so happy about the proposals regarding the statementof faith, which also would include opposition to abortion andpornography and support of salvation as only being possible throughpersonal faith in Jesus Christ.

Soulforce, an independent organization supporting greater inclusionof gays and lesbians in all churches, plans to protest with about 200people outside the Orange County Convention Center in opposition to theproposed statements on homosexuality and women clergy.

"They have refused to accept us as brothers and sisters in Christ,"said Mel White, co-founder of the group that also protested at theGeneral Conference of the United Methodist Church, which met in May inCleveland.

White said his group also will criticize the stand on women clergybecause "all our oppressions are interlinked."

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