Talking points rising from the aftermath of the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting usually include an “elephant in the room”—an issue that wasn’t openly discussed, but was blatantly obvious. This year, beyond the buzz concerning the Calvinism report and the Boy Scouts resolution, the elephant in the room was what wasn’t in the room—namely, messengers. Attendance to the 2013 Annual Meeting approached all-time lows, despite being held in Houston (!)—near the buckle of the Baptist Bible belt. Nathan Finn predicts the trend will continue.
I’m the elephant. I didn’t attend the Annual Meeting. I weighed the pros (fellowship, connections, staying in the loop, and a sense of duty) and cons (busy schedule, time away from family, teaching online summer courses), and chose not to go. I’m doubly conflicted—pondering my own choice not to attend and wondering why so many others also declined. The meeting is very important. Put simply, no group of people, large or small, will cooperate effectively or accomplish anything without meeting together. The larger the effort, the more important the meeting, and Southern Baptists embrace the unspeakably large effort of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. The meeting is really, really important. I have some thoughts on the attendance problem, and they revolve mainly around perceived attendance drainers and potential attendance gainers.
We sometimes try to pinpoint a single reason for low attendance, but the SBC attendance problem is complex and includes at least three factors.
- Technology provides accessibility and connectedness without physical attendance. I watched a good portion of the proceedings online, from the comfort of my home, while completing other tasks (grading papers, preparing sermons, even rotating tires on the minivan). Minus voting privileges, I really feel as though I attended. I was “present” for Ed Stetzer’s piercing statistical analysis, Russell Moore’s introduction as the new ERLC president, the Calvinism report, the resolutions and motions debates, the seminary and mission board reports, and rousing sermons by Fred Luter and Danny Akin. I even “attended” some of the auxiliary sessions outside the main hall—a conversation about the Cooperative Program with Kevin Ezell and leaders from the Kentucky Baptist Convention, a Baptist 21 panel, etc. So, I don’t feel out of the loop whatsoever concerning SBC 2013. And, this connectedness through technology exists year-round. Through social media, blogs, Google hangouts, and the like, staying up to speed on—and having a voice in—SBC issues no longer requires showing up for a 3-day meeting.
- A trustee-based system of governance for our agencies and sound appointees on committees mitigate deliberation on the floor. Voting is important, but Southern Baptists generally trust their agency heads and entrust these agencies to trustworthy trustees. Furthermore, they trust the president’s committee appointments, and the committees generally report on their work ahead of the convention. Resolutions and motions notwithstanding, the need is small to approve agency reports and committee recommendations with overwhelming numbers. A simple quorum will do. In this way, low convention attendance can actually be a sign of health. It’s no secret that the most well-attended meetings of the past were embroiled in controversy, and the controversy was what fueled the large attendance. We must not return to the days when controversy provided the gravity for big numbers.
- Pastors and church leaders strategically choose how to spend conference funds. Instead of attending what is largely perceived as a gigantic, multiday business session, pastors and church leaders commonly choose to spend funds on conferences that focus on equipping and/or encouraging. Conferences like Send North America, Exponential, and Together for the Gospel offer clear agendas with tangible benefits—training in church planting, missions, preaching, leadership, et al.
So, what’s a convention to do? I’m no convention insider. I’ve never served on an SBC committee or as an entity trustee. So, I confess my naivety regarding the planning and execution of the SBC Annual Meeting. Tim Brister, Paul Chitwood, Ronnie Floyd, J.D. Greear, and Trevin Wax have each offered helpful insights. My thoughts focus on the flow and content of the convention meeting itself.
- Let mission provide the gravity and tell a compelling story. When the SBC was contemplating the Great Commission Resurgence proposals for renewing the Cooperative Program, “compelling vision” became a common refrain, even a rallying cry. Southern Baptists needed to reformulate and recast a vision that would compel local churches to give. Increasing attendance at the annual meeting will require something similar. Plan the meeting in a way that will compel churches to send messengers. Craft the reports and components to work in concert to present a grand narrative that portrays the big picture of the SBC. Make sure each messenger leaves the convention hall knowing exactly why the SBC exists, what is the main goal of its efforts, why each church and church member matters, and how every person can get on board. The Send North America Luncheon captured this dynamic well, garnering some 3,500 attenders.
- Provide equipping opportunities. What if the Annual Meeting looked more like Exponential or the Send North America Conference? Southern Baptists have some of the best educators and equippers on the planet, and the Annual Meeting is a perfect time to put them to work and on display. Breakout sessions could expose messengers to the SBC’s very best, allowing messengers to leave the convention with tangible benefits to take back to their churches. Baptist 21, 9 Marks, and other events outside the main hall have already scratched this itch. I realize this entails a massive logistical effort, not to mention funding (more on that below). Yet, moving the meeting beyond a mainly informational/business format (this will always be part of the meeting) toward a transformational/equipping event might better serve Southern Baptists and lend new life to a grand, historic event.
- Shorten the whole event to two days. Start on Monday morning and end Tuesday evening. Yes, I know I’m suggesting that we add an element to the program and shorten it, but hear me out—let’s eliminate the pastor’s conference (gasp!). Weaving equipping opportunities into the event itself fulfills the purpose of the current pastor’s conference. The funds currently used for the pastor’s conference could support the breakout sessions, and what is now the president of the pastor’s conference could become the lead facilitator for the equipping component of the convention.
Now, the gut check: If SBC 2013 had implemented something similar to the “gainers” described above, would I have been in Houston? I can’t recalibrate the past any better than I can predict the future, but it certainly would have tipped the scales in favor of heading to Texas. Even if circumstances prevented it, I think I would have missed being there even more than I already did.
I love the SBC Annual Meeting. I believe it is important for sustaining our Great Commission effort—important enough to merit reimagining and reinventing before we’re left grieving its demise.
Dr. Chuck Fuller comes to Anderson University with 13 years of experience in pastoral ministry, serving churches in Kentucky and Indiana. He holds a BA in Christian Studies from Campbellsville University, and an MDiv and PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. His primary field of study for the Ph.D. was in Christian preaching, with additional studies in systematic theology and philosophy. Before arriving at AU, Dr. Fuller was pastor at Bethany Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and adjunct professor of Christian preaching at Boyce College of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Additionally, Dr. Fuller has served on committees and boards of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
Married to Jessie, Dr. Fuller and his wife have two children–Kaylen Marie and Ian Charles. Jessie holds a Bachelor of Bible from Ozark Christian College, with a concentration in deaf ministry. Currently, Jessie works as a stay-at-home mom and brilliant culinary artist.
Homiletical theology comprises Dr. Fuller’s primary research area, as demonstrated in his recent book, The Trouble With “Truth Through Personality”: Phillips Brooks, Incarnation, and the Evangelical Boundaries of Preaching. Dr. Fuller also presented a paper, titled “The Pulpit at the Precipice of Heresy,” at the 2010 meeting of the Evangelical Homiletical Society.