(Reuters) - America's largest evangelical denomination, the 16 million-strong Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), is holding its annual meeting in Indianapolis on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Following are some facts and figures about the SBC, a mostly conservative organization whose membership could play a key role in the November presidential election contest between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.
* The SBC was founded in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia, reflecting a regional split with northern Baptists over the issue of slavery in the U.S. South.
It now claims 42,000 churches and about 16 million members in America, making it the second largest Christian denomination in the United States after the Catholic Church.
* While it is heavily concentrated in the U.S. South, the SBC has member churches across America and has 42 state conventions.
* As evangelical Protestants, Southern Baptists put a heavy emphasis on the individual conversion experience including a public immersion in water for baptism.
"Typically church membership is a matter of accepting Jesus as your Savior and Lord and experiencing believer's baptism by immersion," the SBC Web site says.
* Politically and culturally Southern Baptists tend to be conservative. Most do not drink alcohol and in general they oppose abortion and gay rights and vote Republican. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, left the convention in 2000 complaining that it was becoming "too rigid."
While regarded with suspicion by many evangelicals because of his support for stem cell research and failure to support a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage, Republican presidential nominee John McCain attends a Southern Baptist affiliated church in Phoenix.
* At their annual meeting the SBC will pick a new president for a one-year term (which is traditionally extended to two years) from among six contenders to replace the outgoing Frank Page, an affable South Carolina-based pastor who has supported a broadening of the convention's Biblical agenda to embrace issues such as the environment and climate change.
* The SBC is trying to expand its evangelism efforts into America's Hispanic community, an area where it sees "growth" opportunities.
It says it sponsors about 5,000 "home missionaries" in the United States, Canada, Guam and the Caribbean and more than 5,000 "foreign missionaries" in 153 other nations.
* Among the issues to be raised at the annual meeting will be the declining number of yearly baptisms, which is taken to be a key indicator of the denomination's growth.
In 2007, baptisms decreased by 5 percent to 345,941 from 364,826 in 2006. It was the third straight year that the number of baptisms fell and the lowest total since 1987.
(Sources: Southern Baptist Convention, Reuters)