NEW ORLEANS -- (RNS) Southern Baptists, trying to elevate their image as afamily-friendly denomination, pledged at their annual meeting tocontinue new work to foster efforts to support marriage and reducedivorce.

The two-day session ended Wednesday (June 13).

After hearing a report from the denomination's new Council on FamilyLife and passing a resolution affirming the covenant marriage movement,members of the 15.9-million-member denomination heard a message aboutthe state of the family from Focus on the Family President James Dobson.

"The family is disintegrating," said Dobson citing recent Censusstatistics which show that nuclear families make up less than 25 percentof the population. "It is falling apart right before our eyes."

A total of 9,554 messengers, or delegates, gathered at the LouisianaSuperdome to address the family issue, pass resolutions on a variety ofsocial and political issues, and encourage continuing evangelisticefforts within the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

Delegates heard a report from the new Council on Family Life, whichplans to develop strategies over the next year to counter increasingdivorce and cohabitation rates.

The Rev. Tom Elliff, chairman of the council and formerdenominational president, said he's concerned about the rate of divorcethat is high among Baptists as well as the general population.

"Across the nation, not only in Southern Baptist churches but in allchurches we have put aside what I would call authentic Christian faithand substituted it with what I would call synthetic religion," Elliffsaid.

"People like it because it doesn't call for strong commitment tobiblical principles. You can just hear your own truth, you just set yourown rules. God is who you think him to be."Dobson, who has met with Southern Baptist officials about thecouncil's plans, congratulated Baptists for forming the council but saidlay people and clergy need to make sacrifices to spend more time withtheir children.

"Does building your church outrank the spiritual welfare of your ownchildren?" asked Dobson, who appeared via satellite feed afterexperiencing mechanical problems on a private plane en route to theconvention that forced him to return to Colorado, where his ministry isbased.

Although an unusually large crowd was present at the end of theconvention to hear Dobson, the gathering had one of the lowest overallregistration rates in recent years, the second lowest after the 1998meeting in Salt Lake City, far from the denomination's Southernstrongholds.

Southern Baptist Convention President James Merritt, who wasre-elected to a second term during the meeting, said he expected therewould have been more in attendance had it not been for Tropical StormAllison, which hit parts of Texas and Louisiana days before the annualmeeting.

But Lee Porter, longtime recording secretary for the denomination,said the registration has dropped from the tens of thousands thatattended in the 1980s -- in the midst of conservative-moderate fights.Since 1996, the convention registration has totaled less than 15,000.

"This is basically the trend we've been in for the last four or fiveyears," he said.

Some have stopped attending because they go to other meetings,including those of moderate Baptist groups such as the CooperativeBaptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists.

In other business, Southern Baptists:
-- Made history when Fred Luter Jr., a New Orleans pastor, becamethe first African-American to preach the convention sermon.
-- Passed resolutions opposing human cloning, euthanasia, genocide inSudan and discrimination against military chaplains.
-- Were the target of a protest by the pro-gay and interdenominational group Soulforce, that ended with nearly a third of the protesters being arrested for a short time before authorities released them and dropped the charges against them.
-- Heard a report from the SBC Drug Task Force, which is encouraging the production of books, seminars and other resources in addition to the creation of Christian halfway houses by local churches to curb illicit drug use.