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.

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Getting a Handle on the 2013 SBC Annual Meeting

SBC President Fred Luter

I know that this post will seem pedestrian for some of our readers who are seasoned Southern Baptists. Nevertheless, many of our readers are either students or folks from other ecclesial traditions. If the previous sentence describes you, then know that this post is written primarily with you in mind.

As you may know, the SBC Annual Meeting was held in Houston earlier this week. Every year, our network of churches meets in an annual Convention for two days. That meeting is part business meeting, part worship service, and part connecting with Southern Baptists from other parts of North America. At our Convention we hear reports from our denominational ministries, conduct necessary business (we are a quasi-democratic, non-hierarchical group), and pass resolutions on various topics.

If you want to learn more about the Houston Convention, I would refer you to several resources. Some of you may want to carve out some time to watch portions of the Convention. The Convention was live-streamed and archives of the sessions are available at the Annual Meeting website. You can also find this year’s program and a link to archived sessions from past SBC Annual Meetings. The video archives are the best place to get a handle on this year’s Annual Meeting because you can watch it for yourself.

Those of you who are connected to social media will probably find Twitter to be very helpful. The hashtag for this year’s Convention was #SBC13. While Twitter is by no means any sort of authoritative interpreter of the SBC Annual Meeting, it is probably the best place to get a “play-by-play” sense of the Convention. Many of our well-known pastors and denominational servants were active on Twitter during the SBC, alongside hundreds of “normal” pastors, students, and other observers.

If you like to read blogs, I would point you to a few that you might find helpful. Hopefully, you already known that we posted several video summaries here at Between the Times from Danny Akin, Bruce Ashford, Chuck Lawless, Ryan Hutchinson, and myself. (Look back over our earlier posts this week.) Also, come back next week to hear further reflections from Ed Stetzer, yours truly, and perhaps another guest contributor or two.

I would also point you to SBC Voices, a website that includes both its own blog (with a variety of contributors) and a “SBC Watchlist” that provides links to the “most influential” SBC blogs (including Between the Times). If you spend a few minutes perusing SBC Voices, you can find your way to other blogs that offer insights from every perspective under the sun. Dave Miller, the head honcho at SBC Voices and the immediate past Second Vice President of the SBC, also liveblogged the Convention at SBC Voices.

Outside the SBC realm, several other blogs offered perspectives on this year’s Convention. Christianity Today’s blog Gleanings offered some periodic updates from a centrist evangelical perspective. (By the way, read CT’s interview with Frank Page about his important new book Melissa: A Father’s Lessons from a Daughter’s Suicide.) CNN’s Belief Blog weighed in on some of our resolutions from a mainstream media perspective. World Magazine’s Daily Dispatches blog offered updates from a conservative evangelical perspective. The State of the Union blog at The American Conservative offered some thoughts from a traditionalist conservative perspective.

In terms of traditional journalism, the best place to look is Baptist Press, which always provides the most exhaustive coverage of the SBC. Of course, Baptist Press is our official denominational news organ, so it is “insider baseball.” Associated Baptist Press offers coverage from a moderate Baptist perspective. (As an aside, I found ABP somewhat less caustic in their coverage this year than in recent years.) Religion News Service covered the SBC from a non-sectarian, but generally informed perspective. The Associated Press published several SBC-related articles from a mainstream media perspective that were picked up by numerous other media outlets.

I’ve intentionally not addressed the Convention itself in this post. All I want to do here is point you to resources. Next week, after I’ve had a weekend to rest and reflect a bit, I’ll offer my personal thoughts on such topics as our resolutions, the transition at ERLC, the numeric decline in messengers, Danny Akin’s Convention sermon, and the Calvinism discussion.

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