Hope for Tomorrow: Are annual meetings still relevant for the SBC?
by KEVIN BUMGARNER
Executive Editor

Article Date: Jun 27, 2014

“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” James 1:5

 
Why could Southern Baptists get only 5,294 messengers to attend this year’s annual meeting in Baltimore?
 
We had a controversy surrounding a California Baptist pastor’s statement that he believes homosexuality is no longer a sin, an SBC seminary admitting a Muslim student in violation of its own policy, and a continued decline in the number of people being baptized that has set off warning bells and calls for action.
 
Wouldn’t you think such issues, among others, would motivate those who consider themselves to be good Southern Baptists to make the trek to Maryland to help take care of business and make sure their voice is heard?
 
Apparently, 288 of you did. That’s the number of registered messengers from Florida, the seventh most of any state.
 
Record attendance for an SBC annual meeting was set in 1985, when 45,519 messengers descended on Dallas in the midst of a 10-year leadership struggle that led to what many of us affectionately call the “conservative resurgence” of our denomination.
 
But today, we live in a different world. The issues are different. The way we communicate is different. Competition for our time and travel dollar is different and, it cannot be denied, our priorities appear to be different.
 
Today, many of us who hold positions of leadership within our local Southern Baptist churches have decided to leave our Convention business to the “professionals.” Of course, many of those with whom we serve would consider us the professionals, so it’s not exactly clear who we’re leaving to run the show and make decisions that set the direction for the largest protestant denomination in America.
 
It’s not that those who used to be regular SBC annual meeting attendees are sitting on the sidelines professionally; in fact, many of you appear to be redirecting your time and money to an ever-increasing number of seminars and meetings that are more relevant to the problems you need to solve in your congregation.
 
There are now more than 13,000 trade shows and events every year in the United States and Canada alone, and promoters of those shows have discovered that evangelical Christians have travel and training dollars to spend just like everybody else. So, sometimes the decision you have to make is whether to attend a conference in leadership development that could help you get your church body over a big hurdle, or go to Baltimore and take care of denominational business. Your budget simply doesn’t allow you to consider both as options.
 
And, as more millennials move into positions of influence, they are exerting their authority differently than past generations. It is no secret that millennials will be most engaged in things where they can get involved at the grassroots level, make an immediate impact and decide on their level of ongoing commitment. To many of them, that does not make an SBC annual meeting sound like the most effective use of their time.
 
And then there is the impact that technology has had in the way communication is shared, and the way someone’s influence is put into play.
In 1985, Southern Baptists had to be in Dallas if they wanted their impact felt at the annual meeting. Today, you still have to attend the meeting if you want to be a voting messenger, but any number of social media platforms allows you to spread your influence in real time, especially if you’re watching the live-streaming annual meeting video.
 
In this new day, when the rules for engagement are changing, the result is not always what we might hope for as we strive to continue to be a denomination known for its literal interpretation of God’s Word and focused on our responsibility to share the Good News with a world in desperate need.
 
We did not, for instance, rebuke New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, Calif., after Pastor Danny Cortez said he no longer believes the Bible teaches homosexuality is a sin.
 
The Convention's Order of Business Committee said a motion to discipline the church was not in order, so no action was taken.
 
“I am confident that the Southern Baptist Convention will act in accordance with its own convictions, confession of faith and constitution when messengers to the Convention gather next week in Baltimore,” Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said prior to the meeting. His comments led some people to think that some kind of action would be taken.
 
But in a blog he posted after the meeting, Mohler said—based on the lack of clarity regarding New Heart Community Church’s official relationship with the SBC—he understood why nothing was done.
 
The other potentially big controversy at the meeting involved Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s decision to admit a Muslim into its doctoral program in archeology. During his report at the annual meeting, President Paige Patterson apologized for violating his school’s own policy, but made no public announcement about cutting short the student’s tenure in the program.
 
So where do we go from here?
 
That is the question of the hour. More than whether the Convention has the authority to discipline a local church, or if seminary presidents should be allowed to stray from their own policies and bylaws, we need to decide whether our annual conventions are really important in this day and age.
 
In a post-denominational era where churches vote with their dollars and more people want to have direct participation, the annual meeting concept may be forever past its prime.
 
Either way, we should, as a denomination, have a healthy conversation about this part of our future, where everyone feels heard before we simply make it appear to those who are still watching that we are not even able to control the destiny of our own governance.
 
What do you think?
 
Are you satisfied with the format and work set before messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meetings? What, if anything, needs to change? Share your thoughts by contacting me by email at kbumgarner@goFBW.com, phone at 904.596.3171, on Twitter @FBW_editor, and on Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn under my given name.

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