Some Reflections on the SBC Annual Meeting
Last week, Leah and I spent four days in New Orleans attending the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting and related events. It was a chance to connect with old friends, make some new friends, hear reports from SBC ministries, and participate in the business of the Convention. As an added bonus, this year I took over teaching the SBC Annual Meeting course at Southeastern Seminary. I was thrilled to see sixty-nine SEBTS students attend the meeting in conjunction with that course, most of them for the first time. Several indicated they hope to return to the SBC next year.
What follows are some reflections on the New Orleans Convention, in no particular order. Be sure to check out the Baptist Press coverage of the meeting.
1. The election of Fred Luter as SBC president was without doubt the highlight of the annual meeting. Normally, when a candidate is unopposed, the recording secretary casts a vote on behalf of the candidate. This year, President Bryan Wright and parliamentarian Barry McCarty allowed all messengers the opportunity to stand and raise our ballots for Pastor Luter. Leah took this picture of the crowd; you can see me raising my ballot (I’m the balding chap with the glasses). I agree with Bart Barber that pastors and other church leaders need to make sure their congregations know who Fred Luter is and why his election matters. Denny Burk has compiled a helpful list of various media outlets’ coverage of President Luter’s election. I hope our leadership at every level continues to reflect the increasing multiethnicity of our Convention.
2. The SBC formally adopted the descriptor “Great Commission Baptists” as an official descriptor by a vote of 53–46%. Obviously, it was a close vote. Frankly, prior to the annual meeting I harbored serious doubts the initiative would pass. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m fairly ambivalent about this whole issue. Now that it has passed, I’d urge all parties involved to take a circumspect tone in discussing how this new descriptor will play out. There is no need for doomsday predictions or triumphalist projections. The Southern Baptist Convention will not suffer from a theological downgrade as a result of this new descriptor, nor will the SBC experience a vast church planting movement simply because some folks prefer to downplay our regional roots. I hope we can all agree to be both Southern Baptists and Great Commission Baptists, regardless of which name we choose to put on our church signs and letterhead.
3. The number of registered messengers was significantly higher than Phoenix last year, but still well below the numbers of a decade ago. According to Baptist Press, the unofficial count stands at 7868 total messengers. I don’t see the numbers increasing anytime soon. We live in a world where denominational loyalty is ebbing and pastors are increasingly spending their travel budgets on conferences rather than the SBC annual meeting. Furthermore, the generation that became engaged on account of the Conservative Resurgence is slowly passing from the scene, replaced by those with less motivation to make the annual meeting a priority. I hope I’m wrong on this one, but I suspect in ten years, 7000–8000 messengers will be considered a large Convention meeting.
4. The topic of Calvinism came up—a lot. Fortunately, with a very few exceptions, the talk focused upon unifying Southern Baptists for the sake of gospel advance. In their respective addresses, Bryant Wright and Frank Page publicly urged Southern Baptists to ignore extreme voices and unite for the sake of the gospel. This spirit of unity was also reflected in the resolutions on the sinner’s prayer, which was revised to make it acceptable to the overwhelming majority of the folks in the room, and on cooperation, which argues the BF&M 2000 provides a consensus statement on salvation around which all Southern Baptists can cooperate. Southern Baptists aren’t going to split over Calvinism. As a general rule, those who prefer to call themselves Traditionalists, those who own the Calvinist label, and lots of folks in between can and will work together to make Christ known among all peoples. Those who can’t cooperate will increasingly be marginalized, and rightly so.
5. The magic of the meeting. At the end of the day, the SBC annual meeting is a gigantic business meeting that is punctuated by occasional moments of worship and inspiration. I told my students beforehand that you never know what you’ll hear from the floor of the SBC. Every messenger has a voice, and every year a few of them are eager to vocalize via a microphone. This year, a particular messenger found himself at the microphone, ahem, frequently. I personally heard from literally several dozen Southern Baptists who were amused. I confess I found it very amusing. I doubt this is because of any elitism, though there is undoubtedly some elitism in the SBC. Rather, it’s because what I call “the magic of the meeting” is in the drama of the motions, questions, resolutions, and discussions. Every Convention is blessed with moments of democratic levity, whether it’s one of Wiley Drake’s more colorful motions, a call for a new Christian flag, motions attacking missional megachurch pastors who aren’t even Southern Baptists, or, yes, a messenger who shows up ready and raring to go with an open copy of Robert’s Rules of Order and a pocketful of motions.
6. The beignets at the Cafe Du Monde. We went two different times. On both trips, we were surrounded by a sea of SBC messengers with powder sugar mustaches. See Leah’s picture to the right.
7. Seeing New Orleans Seminary for the first time. On Monday, Leah and I drove over to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and walked around the campus for awhile. Obviously, I’m a great lover of our seminaries, so it was a special time to be on a campus that has trained so many thousands of Southern Baptist pastors, missionaries, and other ministers over the years.
I’m thankful for the chance to attend this year’s SBC annual meeting. It was a historic occasion and, on the whole, a very encouraging few days. For the most part, I think the SBC is moving in a healthy direction. I’m especially encouraged by the renewed commitment among so many Southern Baptists for church health, personal evangelism, church planting, and global missions. I also appreciate the calls for increased investment in the Cooperative Program for the sake of funding Great Commission advance. I’m looking forward to being in Houston for next year’s Convention. I’ll miss the beignets and the Cajun grub, but maybe I can catch a baseball game while I’m in town.