RALEIGH, N.C. — Blessed with her father's steely blue eyes and arresting stage aura, Anne Graham Lotz stirs thousands of women to sway in prayer as her revival tour "preaches and teaches" its way through the heartland.
Once a Sunday school teacher in Raleigh, the Rev. Billy Graham's daughter has become a symbol of a women's revival movement.
But bowing to the beliefs of the 15-million strong Southern Baptist Convention, she's careful to refer to herself as a "Bible expositor," as opposed to a preacher.
Still, the popularity of Ms. Lotz, and a handful of female evangelical leaders like her, is putting church dictums to the test, as tens of thousands of women from Nashville, Tenn., to Minneapolis flock to their revival tours.
Amid this surge of feminine power, the Southern Baptist Convention - the largest Protestant denomination in America - is poised to formally bar women from the pulpit when it holds its annual meeting next week.
"These female evangelists are coming into their own in a group that's been traditionally ambivalent about women leaders," says Mickey Maudlin, a writer at Christianity Today magazine. "This trend has been evolving for years, but it's now taking that next step."
The popularity of Lotz, who has launched a world revival tour that is filling 25,000-seat arenas, has emerged as one of the biggest challenges to the prohibition of women preachers.
Though she maintains she has no interest in being ordained as a minister, the idea of a powerful woman preaching the Bible has in the past spurred men to literally turn their backs on her. And it irked many male evangelicals that she was named last year by The New York Times as one of five possible candidates to take over her father's mantle.
Lotz is the best known of a growing number of female evangelists across the US. Texas evangelist Beth Moore, whose women's Bible studies course focuses on "magic, romantic, and majestic" Bible interpretation, is also touring extensively.
And Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Kay Arthur encourages practitioners of her nondenominational approach to interpret the Bible for themselves.
Vital in Baptist churches for decades, women's ministries have in many places gone from small midweek meetings to Bible studies that draw thousands. In the past decade, for example, attendance at Lotz's home missionary in Raleigh has gone from 300 to 3,000.
"There's a large and growing contingent of very significant and vital ministries by and for women," says Danny Akin, a dean at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "We're very understanding of teaching ministries of an Anne Graham Lotz or a Beth Moore, and, at the same time, when it comes to leadership positions in local churches and in the home, we see that God still calls men to that."
When the convention meets next week in Orlando, Fla., it is expected to add a clause to the "Baptist Faith and Message" that only men should serve as pastors. The new sentence would read: "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."
The decision would prohibit future ordination and would not affect the status of the roughly 100 Southern Baptist women who currently lead congregations. It comes two years after the convention formally instructed Baptist women to submit graciously to their husbands' leadership.
Patriarchs within the church say their decision to bar women from the pulpit is not a knee-jerk reaction. Instead, they see women in leadership roles as a "novelty" that does not jibe with a strict interpretation of the Bible.
Those beliefs have caused some congregations, such as those affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, to distance themselves from the convention. Other Protestant denominations have allowed women to be ordained as ministers for decades.
Such concessions admit that "culture makes the church, instead of the church the culture," Mr. Akin contends.
Indeed, the decision to put its foot down on a feminist movement many see as threatening Christian lifestyles is not "so much of a backlash as a proactive statement," says Akin.
"It's to state clearly, this is who we are, this is what the Bible teaches and has always taught. We're delighted to take a stand and make known this is where we are and what we believe."
Lotz herself has agreed that "God has closed the door" on ordination for women. She recently told 3,500 women in Raleigh that, "When people have a problem with women in the ministry, they need to take it up with Jesus."
The growth in popularity of women evangelists has risen in an age in which people are less interested in being identified with a specific religious denomination. Age, too, appears to be part of it, as Americans under 40 seem to be more ready to accept women as church leaders.
"If you went to one of her rallies, you'd see singing and preaching, lifting hands, people giving evidence of certain charismatic expressions of spirit that are becoming the new ecumenism, where you're seeing the cooperation of a variety of denominations in a unified action," says Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C., which was established by moderate Baptists.
Mimi Haddad, executive director of Christians for Biblical Equality in Minneapolis argues that fundamentalist women must shape church culture much as their forbears did - in obscurity.
"History has largely forgotten these amazing women leaders in the church," says Ms. Haddad.
And although denominations such as Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Methodists have allowed women to preach from the pulpit, few have attained key church leadership roles, she says.
Throughout the history of Christianity, women have always played roles as de facto pilots, says Wayne Flynt, a history professor at Auburn University in Alabama.
He cites women within the Baptist tradition such as Mrs. Perry, a "dynamo preacher" who turned one Alabama parish upside down in the late 1870s, baptizing church members and forcing out the local preacher. Other examples include Paula, a rich widow who in the second century funded a library to put the Bible into extensive circulation.
"Most women ministers have never argued they were radicals," says Professor Flynt. "They've always argued that they're just called by God. And the result is often a warm religion, a brand of faith that is healing and nurturing. What we're seeing emerge now is a more feminized form of Christianity."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society