Our annual meetings should remain “live”

About every other year, someone suggests conducting denominational meetings virtually. The idea is that the state or national convention meetings would go on as normal but that more people could vote, offer motions and other things that messengers do, while sitting at their computers. The expense of travel, numerous other national meetings that pastors find appealing and the small percentage of Southern Baptists that attend the meetings are behind the idea. The idea has not caught hold because of the complicated aspects of trying to do business and guarantee messenger rights when some or most of messengers are not actually in the room. One day, we may overcome some of these difficulties as technology develops. If we do, I still think the idea sounds better than it would actually be. Some of the main reasons for conducting large face-to-face meetings would be vacated if we opened the door to bathrobe messengers. Consider these.

If voting becomes as easy as a social media post, it could become as ill-considered or trivial. Messengers to the annual meetings are in some way immersed in what’s going on. We talk about our business over dinner, we have handouts in front of us, in some places (Birmingham comes to mind) cell coverage is so horrible that you can’t even distract yourself with business back home. A vote from your couch would rarely be as considered as one in the presence of your fellow messengers. Perhaps it would be like letting anyone with a Twitter account use the platform for voting for U.S. president. That’s how Bugs Bunny moves into the White House. 

Business is essential to the continued ministry of the SBC but it is not nearly the only crucial thing that happens. The reminder that we are joined in cooperation is only real when we are in the same place. It may be that only 10,000 of us make the trip each year, but that number would drop if we could do all our business online. Being in the hall and exhibit area with fellow Southern Baptists is decidedly not the same experience as talking online; it is more polite and more Christian. Only in person am I reminded that we have things in common that are more important than the opinions that divide us. A virtual convention would be a more fractious one.

On a related note, the most-impactful things that happen in our personal ministries are likely the time we spend with others around the table or standing in line. Fellowship with old and new friends from other time zones has always been huge at our meetings. Niche meetings and online discussions can’t replace it.

Side meetings matter. Alumni meetings, late night affinity fellowships, panel discussions on the issues of the day, commissioning events—all would have to happen in some other venue, at additional expense or not at all. I’m guessing some folks attend the convention meeting primarily for these side meetings. These have become more of a draw and more numerous in recent years. It’s pretty hard to get that benefit from a chatroom. 

In most places, particularly medium-sized cities like Birmingham, Nashville and Columbus, the local churches are excited to have 8,000 or so fellow Baptists descend on their “parish,” share the gospel and drop a few million dollars into the local economy. This encouragement can move the work of that state convention or association ahead by a year or more. 

Every year, we win a few friends among those who are not Baptists. The old jest says that a Southern Baptist comes to town with the 10 Commandments and a twenty-dollar bill, and leaves town having broken neither. I doubt either those things are true but we aren’t big business for the “sin” industries, and we aren’t extravagant. Nonetheless, we are mostly kind to hotel staff, convention center folks (who see and hear everything), cab drivers and restaurant staff. We aren’t obnoxious drunks or mindless of those who serve us. Local reporters learn terms like “voluntary cooperation” and notice that we aren’t fixated on Twitter wars when we actually get down to business. They may shake their heads to learn that truly smart and kindly people believe in the Resurrection, but they do learn it. This broad kind of civility and graciousness bears fruit.  

We also share the gospel. Each year, during Crossover events and during commerce with waiters and bus drivers, people profess Christ after a witness by a convention messenger. There will be thousands of people in heaven because Southern Baptists came to town. 

Travel is a pain, and it is often expensive. Some convention cities are more delightful than others. And we’ll likely never again see 40,000 messengers show up for a business meeting. But all our churches are qualified to send messengers, and each of those messengers will have a chance to participate if they come. Our annual meetings are much more than voting. We’ll lose most of that “much more” if we codify long-distance fellowship.  

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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