NEWTON, Mass. (AP) – Bobby Welch wore a new Red Sox cap and carried the New Testament in his hip pocket as he set out to evangelize in this staunchly liberal New England city.

Within minutes, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention had demonstrated how quickly regional barriers to his conservative theological message could be cleared.

At the second door he approached, a heavily tattooed young woman spoke with him for several minutes, then prayed with him before bidding a friendly goodbye.

“It’s amazing how absolutely ready people are” to listen, he said.

Though they lack numbers and ideological allies here, the Southern Baptists came to New England on Wednesday and Thursday as part of a barnstorming 25-day, 50-state bus tour that Welch began last Sunday in Florida. His goal: baptizing 1 million people a year around the country.

The 16.3 million-member denomination is the nation’s largest Protestant group, but its leaders say their churches appear to be stagnating. The number of new member baptisms has declined in each of the past four years.

The denomination has just 23,000 members in all of New England; its 10,600 members in Massachusetts are the most in any New England state. Welch, who was elected the Southern Baptists’ president last June, said he is trying to energize churches in the region to better spread the Gospel.

“We’re letting some of our muscle atrophy,” Welch, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla. “I’m trying to get all that muscle to move at the same time.”

The Southern Baptists believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and adhere to conservative theological positions. In June, the Southern Baptists quit the Baptist World Alliance, citing what they saw as the group’s liberal drift. The last straw came in 2003 when the alliance accepted as members a breakaway group of moderate Southern Baptists.

The Southern Baptist name comes with some regional bias in liberal Massachusetts, said the Rev. Mark Acuff, who led a Southern Baptist Church in Hudson for 15 years before leaving in 2000.

“My church would not have hesitated for a minute to change the (Southern Baptist) name,” he said.

Among the misconceptions, he said, was that the denomination was judgmental and anti-intellectual. In fact, the church wanted to serve people of any background and help them know God, he said.

The church has strong appeal because of its emphasis on small Christian communities and a personal relationship with God, said Stephen Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College.

The absence of a large institution between God and believer, as in the Roman Catholic Church, could make the denomination attractive in New England, particularly at a time when the Catholic Church that dominates the region has been wounded by the clergy sex abuse scandal, Pope said.

But Welch said his denomination is not aiming at people who are dissatisfied with their own church. Rather, he said, it wants to reach people who “have nobody, who have nothing, who are trapped.”

Welch’s aggressive evangelical style is not common in New England.

Jenn Muller, the woman Welch met in Newton, said she was surprised by how easily she spoke with Welch. Before she knew it, they were praying together about her nursing career.

But Muller, 28, said the Southern Baptists might have to struggle harder to make inroads in the area than Welch did in getting her to open up. She is a lapsed Catholic, and no one she knows attends any type of church, she said.

If the denomination is looking to do broadly evangelize in the area, she said, “I don’t think it would be the easiest place.”


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