ANAHEIM, Calif. — Forty-seven years after professing his faith in Jesus Christ in a small Craighead County church, Bart Barber, 52, is a front-runner to serve as president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination: the Convention Southern Baptist.
More than 6,000 delegates, known as “messengers,” have traveled to Anaheim for the convention’s annual meeting.
The Natural State contingent numbers more than 200. Many of them, including Barber’s sister, Traci Smith of Jonesboro, will support Barber when votes are cast today.
Barber is one of three announced candidates in the race. The others, Pastor Tom Ascol of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida, and former foreign missionary Robin Hadaway of Oceanside, California, also have connections in Arkansas.
The winner will replace Ed Litton, an Alabama pastor who opted not to seek re-election after serving a one-year term.
“We have three great candidates who would serve Southern Baptists well … They are three godly men,” said Arkansas Baptist State Convention President Larry White.
But Barber is “a candidate who will appeal to a larger number of people,” White added.
Archie Mason, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Jonesboro and a member of the denomination’s executive committee, also supports Barber.
“He’s very conservative; he’s very down to earth. I just think he’s the right person at this point to lead us,” Mason added.
Instead of trying to steer Baptists left or right, Barber says the focus should be on moving forward.
He has adopted a hashtag, #armyofpeacemakers, as a kind of unofficial campaign slogan.
“I would say Southern Baptists are in a healthy place,” he said in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
There is no need for another “Battle for the Bible” like the one that was fought between conservatives and moderate Southern Baptists for much of the 1980s.
“We are conservative. We are already committed to the truth of the Bible and we are already committed to the sufficiency of the Scriptures and the things they teach,” Barber said. “I just want us to be faithful to the position that we have defended.”
Barber was 5 years old when he answered the altar call at Bethabara Baptist Church, 4 miles north of Lake Village. He was 11 years old when he first felt a call to ministry, a call that was confirmed while he attended the church’s summer camp three years later.
While he was still in high school, he was “authorized to preach the Gospel” by the First Baptist Church in Lake Village, according to an account at the time in the church bulletin.
“We say that we recognize that God has called them and we stand behind them with our prayers and encouragement,” he said.
Barber preached his first sermon while in high school and was soon asked to serve as interim pastor at New Hope Baptist Church near Black Oak, according to Smith, his sister.
Barber went to Texas to attend Baylor University, preaching at a small country church on weekends.
Three decades later, he is still preaching.
“This is all we know it to be,” Smith said.
Barber’s current congregation, First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, is located in a town of 3,612 approximately 45 miles northeast of downtown Dallas. He has attracted a wider audience by posting on Twitter.
Barber agreed to enter the race in April after Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater, Fla., dropped out.
With the convention examining his previous handling of sexual abuse allegations, Rice has drawn criticism for previously ordaining a deacon with a history of sexual misconduct. The deacon, a former high school teacher, had admitted to having sex years earlier with an 18-year-old student.
While Barber portrays the convention as mission-focused and doctrinally sound, another candidate has raised concerns that the denomination is veering off its historic course.
Ascol’s campaign theme is “change direction”.
While “no self-respecting Southern Baptist would deny” the inerrancy of Scripture, some Baptists appear to doubt the “sufficiency” of its teachings, Ascol said in an interview.
“Many of the world’s ideologies, world philosophies, [have] become commonplace for us and we have accepted them. It is the air we breathe in our culture today. And I think, unfortunately, they are infiltrated churches as well,” he said.
Since peaking at 16.3 million in 2006, membership in the Southern Baptist Convention has slowly and steadily declined, falling to about 13.7 million in 2021.
Some of the drop is due to demographic changes and some may be due to efforts to remove inactive member lists, Ascol said.
But there are also spiritual factors at play, he said.
“The biggest problem is that we’re not doing a very good job of making disciples,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten a little complacent about the gospel. I think we’ve lost the fear of God.”
Ascol grew up in Beaumont, Texas, and became a Christian when he was 8 or 9 years old. But his parents are from Arkansas and he had an aunt who lived in Arkadelphia.
“When I was a kid, I would go there and stay with them for a week or two every summer and watch the DeGray Dam being built. It’s a fond memory for me,” he said.
The Florida preacher is endorsed by Tom Hatley, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Rogers, and other Arkansas members of the Conservative Baptist Network, an organization that is “committed to the sufficiency of Scripture for all facets of life and the application”.
Ascol will let “the Bible be its guide both in its ministry and in its approach to the convention,” Hatley said.
“I think I’d rather please the Lord by obeying the Bible than be a candidate, like some we’ve had recently, who seem to be more in tune with the awakened crowd and trying to please ungodly society. You can’t get into the world if you’re like the world,” he said.
While Ascol talks about changing direction and Barber stresses the importance of “peacemakers,” Hadaway has her own succinct catchphrase.
“I want people to remember the mission,” he said.
Hadaway was a pastor in the southwestern United States before becoming a foreign missionary, later serving as senior professor of missions at Midwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri.
Evangelism remains his priority, he emphasized.
“There are over a billion… Hindus in the world, Buddhist nations in Southeast Asia. I’ve worked among Muslims in North Africa, and the world needs to hear the Gospel, I would say especially these other religions.”
Hadaway has worked all over the world, but her family has roots in Arkansas.
His paternal grandmother and great-grandmother were from Arkansas, and two of his three children attended Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, he said.
“My kids loved it there,” he added.