Southern Baptist descended on Phoenix in record numbers: our smallest since 1944. This has caused significant concern for some. However, this was not surprising to me personally given 1) the distance from the SBC heartland, 2) the cost for travel we are experiencing and 3) the fact that there was no major issue anticipated (e.g. GCR report, presidential election, or hotly debated cultural issue). I thought we would have about 5,000 messengers and I was in the ballpark.
Still, this was a significant Convention that may have historic ramifications as Southern Baptists move forward (and not backwards!) into the 21st century. Good things did come in a small package. What were some of the highlights?
First, in spite of some pretty harsh criticisms, Vance Pitman put together a fine Pastor’s Conference that was uplifting and challenging. The election of Grant Etheridge, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Hampton, VA, assures us of another year of excellent leadership when we meet in New Orleans in 2012.
Second, as is always the case, there were other extra Convention gatherings that characterize our meeting. I had the honor of participating in both a Baptist 21 forum as well as a 9Marks at 9 gathering. Both meetings in attendance, spirit and passion give me great hope for our future as we seek to extend the work of the gospel and build up the church of the Lord Jesus. Many young men and women are on fire for King Jesus and determined to make His name famous.
Third, the spirit of our actual meeting was one of harmony and unity. Oh, we had a few “interesting cousins” show up at our annual family reunion which is always the case. But, they are family and we will continue to love them even as we wish that they might spend a little less time at the mic! Much of the credit for the sweet spirit of this convention goes to the excellent leadership provided by both Bryant Wright and Frank Page. And, in that context, words are not adequate to express my thanksgiving to God for the gift Frank Page is to the Executive Committee, Kevin Ezell is to NAMB, and Tom Elliff is to the IMB! In giving us these 3 men for major leadership positions in the SBC, our Lord has indeed been good to our convention of churches.
Fourth, the reports by NAMB and the IMB were outstanding and inspiring in every way. It was great having both put the responsibility back on local churches to accomplish the tasks of evangelism and missions, and to make it clear that our mission boards’ assignment is to assist and support local churches in fulfilling the Great Commission. Kevin Ezell has a heart and plan to reach North America with the gospel and I sense that Southern Baptists are ready to get on board and join him in this awesome task. Tom Elliff has brought new energy to the IMB and his challenge to churches to adopt and reach the 3800 unengaged people groups of the world was met with an outpouring of people flooding the isles saying “Yes!”, we will help. Dr. Elliff said the 2011 SBC was from beginning to end one long sermon about missions and taking the gospel to the nation. He was right! Punctuated by the powerful challenges of Bryant Wright in his presidential address and David Platt in his convention sermon, Southern Baptists left Phoenix aware of the biblical command and ready, I believe, to answer the biblical call to go and reach the nations.
Fifth, Southern Baptists made it clear we wish to chart a future that will cause our convention of churches to look like the church gathered around the throne of the Lamb in heaven (Rev. 5, 7). We pledged through the adoption of an Executive Committee report to be intentional and proactive in becoming a racially and ethnically diverse family. This will include positions of leadership. Perhaps the clearest signal of this was the election of Pastor Fred Luter as 1st V.P. of our convention. And, it should not go unnoticed that the only person to run against him was a wonderful brother of Chinese ethnicity! Further, momentum is rapidly building for the hoped for election of Fred Luter as president of the SBC when the convention meets next year in his home town. Personally, I without hesitation declare my support and endorsement for both his running and election. It is the right time. It is the right thing. He is the right man. His election as the first African American to be president of our convention would speak volumes as to where the SBC has come and, more importantly, where it intends to go. Many of us have longed and prayed for this day, and by God’s grace we will see it come to pass next June. That alone would be reason enough for Southern Baptists to descend in large numbers on New Orleans next year. Add to that our desire to show our support for a recovering New Orleans, and we have ample reason to flock to the Crescent City to share the gospel, encourage the hurting and elect Fred Luter as our next president.
Sixth, I had the joy of informing our alumni and the messengers of our 2011 Convention of the continued blessings of God on SEBTS. We have had a 2nd year of record enrollment breaking the 2700 barrier for the first time in our history. We continue to have a growing number of students committed to both the North American and International Mission fields. And, I was given the opportunity to make clear that Southeastern Seminary has only one agenda. We call it the Great Commission.
Now, I want to extend a personal challenge to the younger generation to get involved at all levels of SBC life with the same commitment and faithfulness as those who have gone before them, and who have laid such a firm foundation doctrinally and financially upon which we now stand. This is the fruit, especially of the Conservative Resurgence, and also the Great Commission Resurgence. Now is the time to act. A few years back you asked to be heard and the SBC listened. Now you need to see the SBC as family, your family, own it, support it and in the process honor those who labored sacrificially before you. Anything less is to display an attitude of ingratitude. It is unworthy of those who claim Christ as Lord and have benefited from and been blessed by a people called Southern Baptists.
LifeWay recently released numbers that reveal a continuing decline in membership and baptisms in the SBC. Should we be concerned? Yes. Should we despair? No! Turning the SBC is like turning a massive aircraft carrier. It takes time. However, once it is turned and fine tuned, it can move ahead with great speed and efficiency. I sense this is happening, thought it has just begun. However, above and over all, we have the promises of God. He will hear our cries for revival and there is no question: we do need reviving. He will see our repentance and brokenness and forgive. He will reward our faithfulness with His blessings. He will receive our radical surrender to His Lordship and show us His greatness. He will welcome our passions for His glory in all things. And, He will keep His Word now and forever.
The future is as bright as the promise of God. That future is brilliant beyond measure for His people who are called by His Name! Phoenix was wonderful in 2011. I can’t wait for New Orleans in 2012.