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)

On The GCR Declaration, Part 6

This is the final article in a series on the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. As you read, please remember that while Between the Times is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.

Article IX: A Commitment to a More Effective Convention Structure

Judging by the reactions on all sides, you would think this is the only thing in the GCR statement. There are people who have been energized by this article. There are people who have been horrified by this article. There are some who think this is the most important section of the GCR Declaration. There are others who think this section needs to be cut. I have saved my engagement with this article for last, for two reasons. First, it is the article that has generated the most buzz. Second, I want to be absolutely clear about my convictions–and one major concern–related to this section of the GCR Declaration.

Let me begin by saying I think the SBC needs to be reevaluated and possibly restructured. I am not sure that Covenant for a New Century went far enough, though I think it began moving us in the right direction. I also believe that the various autonomous layers of our denomination that cooperate with the SBC (like state conventions) also need to be reevaluated and in some cases possibly restructured. I agree with the GCR Declaration when it says, “Some of our convention structures at all levels need to be streamlined for more faithful stewardship of the funds entrusted to them. We must address with courage and action where there is overlap and duplication of ministries, and where poor stewardship is present”.

Second, I realize that every layer of our denomination is autonomous and that the SBC can only make decisions about the SBC. If President Hunt’s taskforce is approved and if that taskforce recommends a restructuring, such recommendations, if implemented, will only affect the SBC. State conventions and local associations may or may not follow suit. Only a majority vote of the messengers to multiple annual meetings in each layer can bring change to that layer. But that didn’t stop us from pursuing a Conservative Resurgence, did it? I think a Great Commission Resurgence is worth the same effort. If enough churches want to see changes, you can bet that every layer of the denomination will start changing. It’s that simple.

Third, contrary to some of the rhetoric you may have heard, any restructuring would most certainly be about the Great Commission if it was done well and for the right reasons. While the Great Commission was given to the churches, in our polity the local churches have entrusted some of their “Great Commission responsibilities” to different denominational layers on the assumption that those layers would help the churches pursue the task more effectively. To the degree that any of our denominational parachurch ministries are not helping our churches in these responsibilities, they are a Great Commission liability. We have an obligation–for the sake of effective gospel proclamation–to examine everything we do and see if we can do it better.

Fourth, I have no specific recommendations about what any potential restructuring should look like. I leave such decisions to wiser people. But I know there are weak spots. To cite just one example, in our North American church planting in particular there is way too much overlap, as numerous others have already alluded (including President Hunt and Dr. Akin). We have to rethink how we presently do church planting because we don’t do it very well. As one particularly bright (and well-known) younger Southern Baptist said in a recent meeting I attended, “Most of the guys I know believe that ACTS 29 is a resource and NAMB is just a hoop you have to jump through”. I know naming ACTS 29 just sent some readers into cardiac arrest, but rest assured that this young man wasn’t thinking about Calvinism, alcohol, wearing jeans and flip-flops to corporate worship, or cussing in the pulpit when he made that comment. He was thinking about how ineffective our denominational parachurch ministries are when it comes to planting churches. He could have compared NAMB (and many state conventions) to a dozen other church planting agencies and the verdict would have been the same.

Fifth, I think that whatever reevaluation and restructuring may take place applies just as much to me and my institution as it does to you and yours. Let me say loud and clear that if a restructured SBC means I don’t get to be a professor, I will gladly find a local church to serve or will apply for the mission field. God called me to the gospel ministry before he led me to become a professor. And since I hope and pray it is God’s will for us to embrace a more “simple” denominational structure, I trust that if I must go then that is also his will and he will lead me to wherever he wants me to be.

Finally, please know that I am a big fan, in principle, of state conventions and local associations. All state conventions do some things well and some state conventions do most things well. Certain state convention ministries like summer youth camps, Baptist papers, and Christian liberal arts education continue to have a considerable influence on our wider denomination. And who isn’t glad that most state conventions have programs to help connect ministers with open staff positions in local churches? State conventions provide some valuable services. I particularly appreciate some of the smaller state conventions that put a majority of their financial resources into evangelism, church planting, and church revitalization because they are located in what we used to call “pioneer” areas. So rest assured that I do not want to see state conventions go away.

But many state conventions, especially the larger ones that are in regions where the SBC has always been numerically strong, have acquired large bureaucracies as their number of programs has proliferated. Being somewhat familiar with several state conventions, I am convinced that almost all of the “big” conventions (and some of the “smaller” ones) have at least some superfluous programs and initiatives that need to be cut. Some of these programs do little more than perpetuate the bureaucratization of the state conventions.

Let me give one real-life example: no state convention should employ an individual or individuals whose sole job is to figure out how to convince autonomous churches to give more money to the Cooperative Program. I have talked to Southern Baptists in three different states who have told me that the fact such a position even exists in their conventions demonstrates why churches refuse to send a higher percentage of their CP money through the state convention. Two of the brothers who told me this are part of megachurches that greatly irk the state convention bureaucrats because they don’t give the “right amount” to the CP. But for these churches, their choice is a matter of good stewardship.

Thank God for state conventions, but some of them need to go on a diet so that they can get healthier, live longer, and accomplish more for the sake of the kingdom.

As for associations, they have the potential to be the most fruitful layer of our denominational life because they are the layer “closest” to the local church. I know a handful of directors of missions who are some of my heroes because of the way they are serving their churches and advancing the gospel in their respective regions. But as a general rule, since the mid-20th century associations have been little more than the local arm of the bureaucracy. I don’t want to say too much more at the risk that I engage in overgeneralization. Let me just say this: I am sorely disappointed that the very layer that could be the most helpful to our churches is often the layer that is most irrelevant.

Before closing, remember that I said earlier in this article that I did have one major concern about Article IX. I confess it is a very different concern than those voiced by opponents of any type of reevaluation and restructuring. I am very concerned that we will embrace a restructuring and substitute it for the rest of the agenda. I fear we will wake up around 2013 or 2014 and have a “leaner” denomination but will have not grown in our love for God and neighbor, not renewed our commitment to gospel-centeredness, not been honest about some of the problems in our churches, not become more missional, not stopped fighting over secondary and tertiary issues, and not honored our Lord Jesus Christ in the process. I am deathly afraid that five years from now we will be nothing more than a streamlined version of who we are right now. This is what I pray against. I think a restructuring could be of benefit to our denomination, but I do not want to see a restructuring at the expense of the other nine articles. It’s not worth it.

I could say much more, but it’s time to close out this series of articles. I will be in Louisville from Sunday through Thursday. I plan to be at most of the Pastor’s Conference, the Baptist 21 Panel Discussion, the two Nine Marks at Nine events, and of course the Convention itself. I’ll also be in and out of the SEBTS booth a good bit. If you’ve never seen me before, I’m the stocky dude with the bowtie and the beard. I hope you’ll introduce yourself. And even if you don’t, I hope you will join me in praying (and voting!) for a Great Commission Resurgence among the people called Southern online mobile