I’ve only attended 4 Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings in my lifetime. The first time was in the 80’s as a youth in Dallas. Next, came New Orleans in 1990 when the conservative resurgence was really gaining traction and succeeding. The third time was a motorcycle ride from Memphis to Nashville in 2005, where I began to meet more theologically like-minded (soteriologically reformed) brothers within the convention. And just this past week I flew to Houston to take part in the annual meeting.
I have been a Southern Baptist since day 1. I have been blessed with Christian parents who modeled a love for the church in regular attendance, giving, and service. My parents still live in the same house where they would host their annual 10th grade class spaghetti luncheon. I’ve lived through the turnover of a church from a 45 year pastorate by a (then) SBC legend, Fred Swank, to a mix of faithful and not-so-faithful pastors. I’ve heard fighting, sat through countless revivals, made a boat-load of rededication decisions, and could still locate the wasp-laden hedges in the courtyard where many of our deacons would “hide” cigarette butts in between services. Yep, I’m pretty steeped in the SBC.
The meeting in Houston in many ways was a reminder of what I love about the SBC, with a smidgeon of what annoys me. Here are some reflections on the meeting, in no particular order of importance…
The theme for this year’s meeting was “Revive us…that we may be one” based on John 13:34-35. For the most part, this seemed to be honored throughout the meeting. Much of this theme seemed to be derived from theological tensions building over the past couple of years between those who espouse a more Calvinistic soteriology (doctrine of salvation) and those who do not. There have been many “straw man” attacks from both sides and ridiculous amounts of vitriol. As a result, a task force was created last year to find some common ground. The task force was made up of SBC leaders on both sides of the issue. The statement they released was a good one and, after a panel discussion on the subject, appears to be consistently felt and genuine.
I, for one, was gladdened by the agreement and friendly spirit of open discussion. Hopefully, we keep having theological discussions and partnered support for missions. It’s telling that our convention has tension over interpretive issues of the Scriptures, as opposed to infighting over the veracity of the Scriptures witness and its inerrancy. The discussion / tension is actually a reminder to be grateful to those who fought battles 30 years ago to help preserve our passion for the true Word of God.
The most glaring possible challenge to unity at the meeting was the attendance. It was a mere 5100+ messengers. I believe that’s the second lowest attendance in the SBC’s history. On one hand, it could be that people didn’t come because there was no real fight brewing (we are kinda the MMA of denominations), so folks just left it alone. On the other hand it could show disinterest. Some of the membership, baptism, and giving numbers support this to some degree.
I had the joy of meeting up with several new and old friends. As well, meeting new friends and partners in ministry is all part of the best of attending the annual meeting of the SBC. One great joy was spending a half hour with a dear friend from that blessed SBC church I grew up in Fort Worth, TX. My dear friend, Mark Bearden, has worked with Life Action ministries for a few decades and was instrumental in my early Christian walk. Mark is 6-7 years older than me. When I was in high school he was in college and poured into my life in a significant way. We prayed for hours together for the revival of our home church. We went on mission trips together and played some softball together, which served to remind us how far we still had to go in sanctification. It was a joy to visit with him.
I spent several hours with dear brothers from 9Marks ministry. I’ve been a part of the 9Marks network since 2008, and it has served me and churches I’ve served, well. I love that ministry and the love they have for the local church, as well as the driving passion to see churches become healthy. I served alongside these brothers, visited with them, worshiped alongside them, and just enjoyed their fellowship.
I ran into several old friends, former members of my doctoral cohort, former professors and the like. Friendship is a gift indeed.
I only use this term because it would grab your attention this far into this post. We could also entitle this the “bless their hearts” category. Yes, there are some interesting folks who show up at these things. Better still, there are interesting folks that actually speak up before thousands with resolutions that nobody cares about. Yet, the diversity in the room is a sweet reminder of the diversity in our local churches and God’s grace has saved us and made the “sheep from other folds” his own children. We are all redeemed freaks to someone.
In early 2004 I wanted out of the SBC. I had visited a church in New England as a prospective pastor and, though all the meetings were quite positive, some SBC entity leaders (from outside the church, but aiding in funding) encouraged the church to reject my candidacy due to my Calvinistic theology. I tried to persuade the powers that be that I had a ton of “mission” miles and their (straw man) concerns were unwarranted…to no avail. I left very discouraged and frustrated, wondering why I should work so hard to be accepted in a denomination that I’d grown up in and knew well.
After a bit of wound-licking I remembered two simple things: Doctrine & Missions. These really are the two things that have kept me “SBC” all these years, particularly the partnership for missions through the Cooperative Program and it’s resulting works, like church planting. We really can do more together than apart! I believe it! I drank the Kool-Aid (at VBS)! With all of our foibles, we have the greatest resources of people and funding on the planet for missions.
I’m grateful that while we have some distinctive doctrinal discussions / debates, our overall purpose for doing so is to better cooperate together for the gospel throughout the world.
So, though the numbers were down at the convention meeting, the spirit was good and there were signs of real health. Our burgeoning theological unity speaks well of greater cooperation for missions. Sure, as autonomous churches we will seek partnerships with other churches that are like-minded with core convictions for church planting, but we will also seek the support, and seek to support, our SBC entities like the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and the International Mission Board (IMB) to see disciples made locally and globally.
You don’t need to apologize for being Southern Baptist (or Great Commission Baptists, or whatever we may call ourselves). At the same time, there’s no reason to wave a banner or denominational flag. Simply be…in cooperation…for the gospel.