NEW ORLEANS -- (RNS) Southern Baptists, trying to elevate their image as a family-friendly denomination, pledged at their annual meeting to continue new work to foster efforts to support marriage and reduce divorce.

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

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

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

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

Delegates heard a report from the new Council on Family Life, which plans to develop strategies over the next year to counter increasing divorce and cohabitation rates.

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

"Across the nation, not only in Southern Baptist churches but in all churches we have put aside what I would call authentic Christian faith and substituted it with what I would call synthetic religion," Elliff said.

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

"Does building your church outrank the spiritual welfare of your own children?" asked Dobson, who appeared via satellite feed after experiencing mechanical problems on a private plane en route to the convention that forced him to return to Colorado, where his ministry is based.

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

Southern Baptist Convention President James Merritt, who was re-elected to a second term during the meeting, said he expected there would have been more in attendance had it not been for Tropical Storm Allison, which hit parts of Texas and Louisiana days before the annual meeting.

But Lee Porter, longtime recording secretary for the denomination, said the registration has dropped from the tens of thousands that attended 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 five years," he said.

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

In other business, Southern Baptists:
-- Made history when Fred Luter Jr., a New Orleans pastor, became the first African-American to preach the convention sermon.
-- Passed resolutions opposing human cloning, euthanasia, genocide in Sudan 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.
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