Attendance at the Southern Baptist Convention has been trending down for years. Pundits and prognosticators have been opining for almost a decade. Even when the annual meeting was held last in Texas the registration was low. Having the convention in the heart of the South does not guarantee a boost in participants. A major reason cited by some analysists is the generational shift. Denominationalism in general is in decline.
Identity as a “Baptist” is waning among millennials, so is there a future for annual meetings?
Like it or not, the Southern Baptist Convention is a legal entity. Because ministry operates under statutory regulations, it is incumbent upon the organization to have a meeting. I prefer to think of it as a “shareholders” meeting. The convention officially exists only two days a year. The members of the convention constitute the decision-making body for the ministry. In the corporate environment, the Executive Committee was created to handle business for the SBC between annual meetings. If you are burdened for the unreached peoples of the world as a Southern Baptist, you should take your part seriously by hearing reports and voting on funding. As controversial as secular politics may be, unless you attend and voice your convictions at the SBC then you have no right to criticize the actions of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Everything we do as Southern Baptists is filtered through the event we call the convention.
Everything we do as Southern Baptists is filtered through the event we call the convention.
This year I served as chair of the committee on nominations, which was nominated by the committee on committees the previous year. The committee on nominations was elected by the messengers to fill the vacancies on the various entities. While the Southern Baptist Convention has significant governance rights over its entities, their policies and day-to-day operations are controlled by boards of trustees. The messengers of the convention elect these trustee boards. The messengers cannot instruct the trustees to take a specific course of action. The trustees are not under the direction of the messengers. To impact a board of trustees, messengers can elect a president with a committed philosophical or theological platform. The president’s appointment of the committee on committees indirectly results in the selection of trustees. If you want to influence an entity, you vote for a president who shares your convictions. One president cannot change the direction of an entity. It takes several consecutive elections of presidents with the same agenda to accomplish the results. This is how the Conservative Resurgence was successful in saving the SBC for biblical inerrancy.
Issues are more nuanced today than 25-30 years ago. Calvinism versus Traditionalism or Cultural Warfare versus Kingdom Engagement all fit within the framework of the Baptist Faith and Message statement. Nevertheless, the preferred agenda of the president or his confidants will surface at the trustee level. Entities will reflect a trend of elected presidents over a period of time.
Institutions are necessary to accomplish gospel advance on a wider scale. It takes all of us pooling our resources to do the work of God 24/7 locally and globally. If the SBC is abandoned, the churches would eventually re-invent the wheel and create a similar type of collaborative effort. Still, I believe our current convention structure is still the most effective means for us to work together and advance the kingdom of God. Thus, our annual gatherings remain a necessary time of decision-making and celebration.
I have used the analogy of a kindergarten class on a field trip to describe the convention. Let’s all stay together and keep moving forward. Every once in a while someone will throw a tantrum. Let’s try to calm them down or put them in time out but don’t leave the field trip. We have too much to accomplish along the way. Won’t you join me?