SBC says RAs could rival Scouting

Critics say a decision by the Boy Scouts to drop its ban on gay membership could lead to an exodus among ranks of the Southern Baptist Convention.

By Bob Allen

A decision by the Boy Scouts of America to drop its ban on openly gay Scouts and volunteers could prompt churches to find an alternative in Royal Ambassadors, a Southern Baptist missions education program for boys, according to a Jan. 29 story in Baptist Press.

"Royal Ambassadors espouses many of the same virtues and character-building activities that are found in Boy Scouts but with the added benefit for Southern Baptists that our primary goal is developing boys into men who understand the mission of God and carry the Gospel with them into the world," commented Richard Bodenhamer, a marketing specialist at Woman's Missionary Union, an auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention based in Birmingham, Ala.

The news story also quoted Baptist state newspaper editors extolling virtues of the organization that incorporates Scouting-like activities including camping, earning patches for camp crafts and even an equivalent to the Cub Scouts’ Pinewood Derby. The Royal Ambassador focus, however, is to develop and train future missionaries and missions supporters under a motto of “We are Ambassadors for Christ,” taken from the Bible passage 2 Corinthians 5:20.

Southern Baptist leaders have been vocal in their opposition to a proposal scheduled for consideration next week for the Boy Scouts of America to drop its sexual-orientation policy but allow troops to keep the ban in place if they so choose.

"If that is what the leadership is doing, then I think it will be a sad day in the life of the Boy Scouts of America," Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a former Scout, told Baptist Press.

"This is a tradition that so many of us across the country grew up in,” said Luter, the first African-American SBC president in history. “We were in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts in elementary school, and this organization has always stood for biblical principles -- all the things that grounded our lives as a young kid growing up. To now see this organization that I thought stood on biblical principles about to give in to the politically correct thing is very disappointing."

RA logoFrank Page, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, took part in a conference call Jan. 28 with Boy Scout leaders and urged the organization not to change its policy on homosexuality.

According to Baptist Press, Page told Scout leaders the proposed policy gives an appearance of autonomy by allowing the sponsoring organization to set local policy, but that autonomy would disappear when it comes to national, or even regional, meetings.

"National policy will always trump local autonomy," Page said. "I believe this will be a death blow to Scouting."

A.J. Smith, president of Association of Baptists for Scouting, said lifting the ban on gays might result in a loss of units chartered through Southern Baptist churches.

“Baptists will not respond favorably to this shift in membership standards by the national council, if approved," Smith said. "The Association of Baptists for Scouting will have to give very careful consideration to the matter before coming to a definitive decision on how to respond to the matter."

Royal Ambassadors, also known as RAs, was founded in 1908 by WMU as a companion organization to Girls in Action – also known as GAs. Within seven years, the organization had formed more than 500 chapters with 4,500 members and grew large enough to require the hiring of a full-time convention-wide RA secretary in 1943.

In 1954, WMU turned the program over to the Brotherhood Commission, a Memphis-based SBC agency dissolved in 1997 through a merger that created the North American Mission Board. By 1960, RA enrollment numbered 220,000 boys in 13,000 Southern Baptist churches.

According to Baptist Press, about 3,000 churches across the country today have RA programs, and many have more than one RA group. By comparison, the Boy Scouts of America claims 114 million members and more than 33,000 adult volunteers.

In 2011, NAMB announced a partnership turning day-to-day operation of the Royal Ambassador program to WMU as part of NAMB’s “Send North America” strategy focused on evangelism and church planting.

Royal Ambassadors isn’t the only alternative Scouting organization on the scene. Boys Brigade, a popular Christian youth organization in the UK founded in 1883, predates the Boy Scouts of America by 17 years.

The Seventh-day Adventists claim 30,000 Pathfinders clubs for boys and girls grades 5-10, while Royal Rangers, a program of the Assemblies of God, is used by many Pentecostal churches. AWANA, a nondenominational evangelistic ministry started in Chicago in 1950, claims 12,000 churches in the United States, including many Southern Baptist congregations that use AWANA alongside or instead of RAs and GAs.