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

At the same time, protesters are expected outside the Orlando, Fla., meeting Tuesday and Wednesday to criticize two key stances of the denomination outlined 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 SBC president Paige Patterson, of the proposed changes in the language in the Baptist Faith and Message. Patterson is expected to be succeeded by James Merritt, a Snellville, Ga., pastor, the only name that has surfaced for the presidential election, and the immediate past chairman of the SBC Executive Committee.

Beyond the rather consistent conservative statements Southern Baptists 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 conservative resurgence who sought uniformity in theology, said he's now working to ensure the diversity of those attending the annual meetings and leading the denomination.

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

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

On race, the denomination, which five years ago passed a pathbreaking resolution on racial reconciliation, now may change its statement of faith to list racism first among issues Christians should oppose.

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

As for young people, Patterson said he encouraged youthful involvement in the meeting because its weekday schedule prevents some working adults from attending.

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

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

Mark Croston, a Suffolk, Va., pastor, said as a board member of the African-American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention, he has been among those pressing the denomination's leaders to make "genuine attempts" to turn the words of the 1995 resolution into action. With the denomination already placing more African-Americans in top positions on divisional boards, he thinks Patterson's prediction about a minority president may come true.

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

Young people who have been appointed to serve on denominational committees say they're honored to hold leadership positions at a meeting that also will feature youth rallies about leadership and the "True Love Waits" sexual-abstinence campaign.

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

Usry and Jonathan McDonald, another 18-year-old appointed to the credentials committee, said they agree with the proposed changes in the Baptist 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 statement of faith, which also would include opposition to abortion and pornography and support of salvation as only being possible through personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Soulforce, an independent organization supporting greater inclusion of gays and lesbians in all churches, plans to protest with about 200 people outside the Orange County Convention Center in opposition to the proposed 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 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which met in May in Cleveland.

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

Tim Wilkins, director of Cross Ministry in Raleigh, N.C., an affiliate of the "ex-gay" ministry Exodus International, said he expects about 50 to 75 people to stage a counter-demonstration.

Southern Baptist leaders, who defend their position against homosexuality, plan to be cordial about the protests, said SBC spokesman Herb Hollinger. He called the plans "the largest organized protest" he could recall at an annual meeting.

"Some of our people will be out there with cups of cold water and hopefully warm hearts and big smiles," he said.

Alliance of Baptists executive director Stan Hastey, who leads a progressive group of Baptists that welcomes women clergy and homosexuals, may not agree with the proposed changes regarding the Baptist Faith and Message either. But he said he applauds the denomination on its greater openness to other kinds of diversity.

"There are lots of conservative young people and lots of conservative folk in all kinds of ethnic groups as well," he said. "From the standpoint of pure public relations, it makes a lot of sense what they're doing."

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