A Student’s Perspective on the Houston Convention: An Interview

Chris Hlavacek

When Southern Baptists held their annual Convention in Houston last week, Southeastern Seminary students were well-represented. My Southern Baptist Convention course, a church history elective, had over thirty students enrolled in it. Several others students were present at the Annual Meeting, most of whom are either pastors or other church staff or employees at SEBTS who were working at our booth in the exhibit hall.

One of those students was Chris Hlavacek. Chris is a recent M.Div. graduate of SEBTS who is beginning a Ph.D. in Old Testament this fall. He also works on campus as our Chapel and Events Coordinator. As with most of our students in Houston, this was the first Convention Chris has attended. He agreed to let me interview him for Between the Times. What follows is a student’s perspective on the Houston Convention.

Nathan Finn (NAF): I know you pay attention to what’s happening in Southern Baptist life, but this is the first Convention you’ve attended. How would you summarize your first real-life Convention experience?

(Chris Hlavacek) CH: Hopeful and thankful. I walked away with the feeling that our denomination has a passion to take the gospel to the nations. Every leader that spoke contributed to that narrative. Danny Akin’s Convention sermon was the embodiment of that passion. I also really enjoyed the conversation between Matt Chandler and Kevin Ezell at the “9Marks @ 9” meeting on the evangelization of America. What those two men (and their organizations) are doing for church planting is inspiring and hopefully contagious. So I was hopeful about what the Convention ministries are doing for the great commission, and I was thankful for the leadership of those ministries who are taking us in that direction.

NAF: In your opinion, what were some highlights of the Houston Convention?

CH: There were two events that stick out. The first included a conversation between Jonathan Akin, Trevin Wax, Eric Hankins, and Ed Stetzer on Christ-Centered preaching and teaching from the Old Testament. I found this to be an incredibly helpful discussion that had immediate application for pastors. If we are going to preach the intended message of the Bible, then we need to know how to interpret the Old Testament accurately. This conversation highlighted the need for more dialogue on this issue.

The second highlight was hearing Russ Moore speak. Every time I hear him speak I learn how to better connect theology and culture. So a highlight for me was simply listening to him throughout the Convention as he sought to teach Southern Baptists how to think about these issues well.

 NAF: I know I’m frequently surprised by what happens at the Southern Baptist Convention. Were you surprised by anything this year? Or, was it pretty much what you expected? 

CH: I was surprised there was only one robot. Why haven’t more exhibitors caught onto this? Thank you LifeWay for raising the bar. On a serious note, I was pleasantly surprised at the tone of the Convention. I walked away sensing people were passionate about taking the gospel to the nations, and were less concerned with trivial or divisive issues. I am sure that hasn’t always been the case, but it was nice this year to experience a unifying goal.

NAF: As you know, the number of messengers has declined steadily over the past decade or so. Do you think attending the Convention should be a priority for pastors and other leaders?

CH: Yes. I think every church in the Convention should make a commitment to send someone from their congregation. Put it in the annual budget. Plan on doing it every year. Pray for those people as you send them down and have them report back to the congregation when they return. Ideally, pastors would attend regularly, but at the very least they should be sending leaders and lay people from the church to be involved in the Convention. Fred Luter’s Tuesday evening service was powerful. The panel discussions put on by Baptist21, 9Marks, The Gospel Project and others genuinely bear fruit and are a profitable investment for those who attend. I am not surprised that it was poorly attended, but I think it’s worth discussing how to infuse excitement back into the Convention so that more churches will want to send messengers.


Reflections on the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention, Part 2

On Monday, I published the first half of my reflections on the Houston Convention. This is my second and final post on this topic.

4. The ERLC Transition. One of the most important happenings at the Convention this year was the leadership transition at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Richard Land has led that ministry for a quarter-century. Over those years, Land became a key leader among the so-called Religious Right, taking a clear stand on such matters as the sanctity of human life and the importance of biblical/traditional views on sexuality and marriage. He was also a leading proponent of an “accommodationist” understanding of church-state separation. I would argue that Richard Land was the public face of Southern Baptists, particularly to non-religious people who only know us through the media. Of course, Land retired a few weeks ago and Russ Moore of Southern Seminary became the new president of ERLC.

There is little doubt that Russ Moore and Richard Land have far more in common than they do different. In fact, I would suspect that the left-wing journalists who seem elated at Land’s retirement and Moore’s appointment will become less enamored with Moore once they find out that he, too, is pro-life and affirms biblical sexuality and traditional marriage. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Moore has less of an “edge” than Land. Moore is also a champion of several issues that younger Southern Baptists identify with such as adoption and orphan care and combating human sex trafficking. As an added bonus, Moore is one of the best preachers in the SBC. My students were more excited about hearing Moore’s vision for ERLC than they were anything else at the Annual Meeting besides Danny Akin’s Convention sermon.

5. The Resolutions. Messengers passed several interesting resolutions at the Houston Convention. You can read them all at the SBC website. Many of them have attracted attention, and understandably so. For the purposes of this post, I will only mention two resolutions. First, our resolution related to the Boy Scouts, which has garnered the most attention from the press, strikes a good balance by criticizing the BSA’s new membership policy, but without calling for a universal exodus from the Scouts. Though I’ve been vocal in my opposition to the Boy Scouts’ new policy, I believe it would be premature to urge all Southern Baptist churches to pull back from sponsoring Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops.

Second, the resolution recognizing the 125th anniversary of Woman’s Missionary Union, though unmentioned in the press, is noteworthy. No organization has done more to raise missions awareness among Southern Baptist churches than the WMU. We should be thankful for the WMU and their contribution to our Great Commission efforts over the years. Thank you, ladies, for all that you do.

6. The Calvinism Discussion. There was a tremendous spirit of unity in Houston among Southern Baptists with varying views of the “doctrines of grace.” The Executive Committee hosted well-attended panel discussion with members of the Calvinism Advisory Committee on Monday. By all accounts, the Committee’s published statement has been well-received by almost everyone. The comments made from the Convention platform were uniformly gracious and helpful. (This has not always been the case at previous Conventions.) We should be grateful to EC president Frank Page for his statesmanlike leadership in this discussion and to David Dockery and the rest of the Calvinism Advisory Committee for their willingness to lead by example on this issue.

Perhaps more remarkable, the “chatter” about Calvinism in the Convention hall, the exhibit booths, and in various meetings was generally very encouraging. Virtually everyone seems eager to move forward in a spirit of Great Commission cooperation. The only unfortunate moment was the surreal Baptist 21 interview with Louisiana College president Joe Aguillard. By and large, however, it seems that most engaged Southern Baptists agree with my argument that Calvinism is, and should remain, a tertiary matter in the wider denomination. Join me in praying that this sense of unity and good will becomes more pervasive among all of our state conventions as well.

7. SEBTS Students. For the second year, I taught the Southern Baptist Convention course for Southeastern Seminary. Over thirty SEBTS students enrolled in the course and attended the Convention; for almost all of them, it was their first SBC Annual Meeting. They had the chance to hear from new ERLC president Russ Moore on Tuesday night and meet with IMB vice president Clyde Meador on Wednesday afternoon. Many of the students told me they enjoyed being at the Convention, learning more about our various ministries and emphases, and meeting other Southern Baptists from hither and yon. They are excited to be Southern Baptists. And if they are our future, then I’m even more excited than they are to be a part of the people of God called Southern Baptist.

Reflections on the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention, Part 1

Danny Akin preaching the Convention sermon

Last week, Southern Baptists held their annual Convention in Houston, Texas. In general, I think it was a very good gathering. I returned to Wake Forest very hopeful about the direction Southern Baptists are heading, with one important exception (see below).

Every year, I try to offer some reflections on the SBC Annual Meeting from the perspective of one who is a scholar of Baptist Studies in general and a student of Southern Baptist life in particular. This will be the first of two posts to that end. What follows are my thoughts on the Convention. I will not offer any sort of systematic summary, but rather will focus on some of the happenings and themes that I wish to emphasize.

1. Declining Attendance. I will begin with the one negative, at least from my perspective. According to Baptist Press, approximately 5100 messengers were present for the Houston Convention. While I was not expecting 10,000 messengers, I’m quite surprised the attendance was so low. Consider the messenger counts (approximate) since 2005:

  • Nashville (2005) – 11,500
  • Greensboro (2006) – 11,500
  • San Antonio (2007) – 8600
  • Indianapolis (2008) – 7200
  • Louisville (2009) – 8700
  • Orlando (2010) – 11,000
  • Phoenix (2011) – 4800
  • New Orleans (2012) – 7800
  • Houston (2013) – 5100

We are clearly in the midst of a participation free-fall. From 2005–2007, we averaged 10,500 messengers. This is down considerably from the hottest days of The Controversy in the 1980s and 1990s, but still solid average attendance. From 2008–2010, we averaged just under 9,000 messengers. Keep in mind Orlando was especially well-attended because of the debate concerning the Great Commission Resurgence. From 2011–2013, we averaged 5900 messengers. Keep in mind that New Orleans was generally well-attended because of Fred Luter’s nomination for Convention president.

I will not take the time in this post to tease out the possible reasons for this trend or to offer any possible solutions. (Feel free to offers some in the comments, so long as you play nicely.) I simply want to point out what many observers already know: the number of meaningfully engaged Southern Baptists is shrinking at an even faster rate than our gradually declining membership numbers. We are on pace to average only 3000–3500 messengers in the next three or four years.

2. The Convention Sermon. If you will allow me to be a Southeastern “homer” for just a minute, one of the biggest highlights for me was hearing Danny Akin preach the Convention sermon. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; many of our finest preachers never have the chance to preach the Convention sermon. Akin preached a powerful message titled “Will Southern Baptists be Great Commission Baptists?” We posted the manuscript and video last week at Between the Times. I hope you’ve taken the time to read the manuscript or, even better, watch the sermon. A transcript will also be published in the SBC Annual from the Houston Convention.

Those of us who are part of the SEBTS family have heard Akin sound many of his sermon’s themes over the past seven or eight years, but it was a great encouragement to hear him make his case before the entire Convention. The response I heard was very positive, especially from everyday Southern Baptists who don’t pay much attention to social media. My prayer is that we will heed Akin’s words so that Great Commission Baptists isn’t just an alternate descriptor for a few of us, but is the vision owned by all Southern Baptists.

3. LifeWay and the North American Mission Board. I am supremely impressed with the leadership of Thom Rainer (LifeWay) and Kevin Ezell (NAMB). These men lead strategic ministries that are heading in a healthy direction. I’m especially encouraged when I hear younger Southern Baptists in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who are energized by initiatives and emphases such as The Gospel Project, Ministry Grid, Disaster Relief, and Send North America. Several younger messengers told me that the highlight of their Convention experience was attending the Send North America luncheon.

It wasn’t that long ago that many of my generational peers were suggesting that LifeWay was specializing in curricula and products that a decreasing number of churches cared about. I don’t hear that complaint much there days. And then there is NAMB. I’m delighted that NAMB has gone from being a mostly dysfunctional ministry just a few years ago to being the denominational ministry that tends to elicit the most excitement from younger ministers (and many older ones, too).

On Wednesday morning, I will publish a second post with my reflections on the Houston Convention.

(Image credit)