Why I am (still) a Southern Baptist
Last week I attended the Southern Baptist Convention in Houston, Texas. I was there along with just over 5,000 other “messengers.” Much has been said, and I can tell you that much was being discussed during the convention, about these low numbers; especially in a state like Texas and a city like Houston. The days of attendance figures easily above 10,000 people and pushing 20,000+ are over it seems. This has fueled the fire fanned by some that declare denominations to be outdated and obsolete. It seems that “networks” and non-denominational movements are what everyone is talking about and what’s “in.”
I have been a Southern Baptist my whole life, at least as far as I have always been a member of and attended a Southern Baptist Church. I was educated in a state Baptist university, and have two graduate degrees from two SBC seminaries. But honestly, I did not really engage in matters on a denominational level until my first convention in Orlando in 2010. With that said, I have two brief observations about my denomination and it’s annual meeting.
One – while denominations may, in general, be struggling to grow and find relevancy with a new generation, I feel very good about the Southern Baptist Convention. I have seen a concerted effort in recent years by the SBC to reach out to young leaders and provide a place at the table for them. I see engagement of new and young leaders, particularly in the area of church planting. In a recent conference I attended in Atlanta for multiplying churches, the “young hairs” outnumbered the “gray hairs” in the room. This is extremely exciting and encouraging.
The SBC as a denomination is extremely relevant and, I believe, can be very attractive to a new generation for five reasons:
- Theological Integrity – in a world where churches are all over the map theologically, it is refreshing to know that you can walk into any SBC church and know what you are getting in terms of biblical doctrine.
- Individual Church Autonomy – non-denominational churches seem to get all the cool press while denominational churches get marginalized. SBC churches provide the best of both worlds. Our autonomy means we function just like an independent, non-denomination church. Nobody dictates style, music, structure, etc. BUT SBC churches voluntarily choose to affiliate with a powerful network of 44,000+ churches for the following purposes…
- International Missionary Work – I get pumped up when talking about the Great Commission. Taking Jesus to the world fires my engines. It also fires the engines of people across the generations. The SBC has one of the largest, most effective international mission agencies in the history of Christianity. If you are serious about the Great Commission, why not network with the best?
- North American Mission Work – The United States is the fourth largest lost nation in the world. Once again we are talking about the Great Commission. The SBC has one of the most extensive mission agencies with over 5,000 missionaries to North America. Serious about lostness in North America? The SBC network is the obvious choice.
- Disaster Relief – floods, tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes. We have all been touched by the devastation of natural evil on some level. The next generation is said to be energized by human relief efforts. The SBC has the third largest disaster relief agency in the world behind the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
The above is a highly compelling case for the SBC and its relevance to the next generation of evangelical leaders. That said, here is my second observation about my denomination and its annual meeting.
Two – the annual meeting is archaic in structure and in desperate need of an overhaul. Not only are the numbers at the annual meeting in free fall (which should say something in and of itself) but the actual number of people in the hall when votes are taken is dismal. At one reported vote tally, there were only 600+ ballots counted out of 5,000+ messengers. So there is a reason that even those people who come to the convention don’t take an engaged interest in the events of business taking place in the hall. My pastor, Dr. Ronnie Floyd, has written an excellent article on his blog comparing the recent Wal-Mart Shareholder’s Meeting to this year’s SBC Annual Meeting. You should check it out.
I am not claiming to have the answers here. But I can tell you that I was very bored at times myself, and I can see why many people don’t want to engage in what is probably an outdated structure for our annual meeting. Those leading our convention need to engage this issue immediately and work a solution for the future. With the next two meetings coming in Baltimore, Maryland, and then Columbus,Ohio, I don’t think attendance figures will trend positive. I love the networking aspect of the convention and seeing lots of friends. There is value in this, but there should also be high value in gathering our network together once a year to celebrate and take care of serious business in an engaging way.
We need to re-invent the culture of our annual meeting. And I suspect the next generation of leaders would be key in helping us visioneering this to reality.
So in summary, I feel great about my denomination and about being (still) a Southern Baptist. But I feel burdened about the two days a year we gather to take care of business.