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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  1. Rick Thompson   •  

    I think that there are couple of things that account for the drop in numbers other than the lack of care.

    1. The upgrade in technology in the last 10 years. Our members can keep up on a daily (if no hourly) basis with all the happenings at the convention. i.e. We can listen/watch the sermons online.

    2. The drop in many churches giving amounts. It is getting harder and harder for many pastors to ask for funding to go to the convention when many churches are have to cut programs.

    3. I’m not sure of the stats over the years or throughout our denomination, but I know here in Missouri that over 50% of our pastors are bi-vocational. (As an upfront, I am bi-vocational.) Many of those have a hard time to get time off/vacation time during the summer. I myself have a fight with over 100 guys scheduling vacation time.

    Just a thought, while I believe the fall in numbers is an indication of a problem, I don’t believe it’s as big a problem as the numbers indicate.

    Pastor Rick Thompson
    Cornerstone Baptist Church, Nevada, MO

  2. Dwight McKissic   •  


    Thanks for sharing with us your thoughts on SBC ’13. Look forward to part 2.

    It would be helpful though, as a critical thinker regarding Baptist life and history, if you would share your thinking as to why the participation and decline is in a “free-fall” state. Please consider sharing some of your thoughts on this question in part 2. Thanks for your consideration.

  3. Danny Daniels   •  

    Nathan you asked for opinions about the attendance drop. I was surprised on 5100 in Houston. That’s 300 more than were in Arizona two years ago. The excuse for the 4800 in Arizona was that it was in the west, too far away for most of the constituency. 5100 in Houston, I’m shocked.
    Reasons, other than general decline is that there is no fight, other than “points of tension,” etc. When there is a major fight, attendance is higher, ala the height of the “Conservative Resurgence” when every vote may have mattered.
    The perception is that everything is already a done deal, so why go and “vote” anyway. I also wonder if the “young turks” of SBC are not participating in mass. One reason,I think, is that my generation of SBC pastors were both kingdom men and denominational men. Now, younger pastors are not really denominational men, but only kingdom men.
    Look forward to reading part 2.

  4. David   •  

    Dr. Finn, I really appreciate your reporting on the convention for those of us who couldn’t attend. We are blessed to have a historian like yourself taking time and energy to share your experiences and thoughts. I know your space is limited but surely the geographical location of the convention is a huge variable that must be considered. I love the idea of holding the convention further west, I hope to be involved in helping plant in Sacramento and am hopeful God will use the sbc in a tremendous way to win souls in the west. However the attendance will likely be lower, but this may not be the highest priority. And Orlando? most of my friends who went to Orlando were taking kids and grand kids to see the mouse. Thank you so much again for all you do.

  5. Justin   •  

    Danny, I agree with you that one of the reasons for decline has been the lack of fighting issues (Note Orlando’s high attendance). Im curious what age group you fall in. As a young (Early 30’s) pastor, I was surprised by the number of young pastors present. It actually seems like the number of younger and older (60 +) participants were on par with each other this year.

  6. Andrew   •  

    I think another reason for the decline of messengers may be that their are many other conferences for pastors to attend and they have to choose, based upon their churches budget, which one they will attend.
    I receive in the mail almost daily another conference to attend but I always choose the national and state conventions because I have a great love for the SBC. But I also no several others who love the SBC but would rather go to the Desiring God conference or another conference.

  7. Bart Barber   •  

    Hey, if somebody needs to start a fight to spike attendance back up, you all know where to find me! :-)

  8. Stuart   •  

    Orlando is a destination. Phoenix is far. Houston…meh. Baltimore participation should be similar to Louisville, Indy, and Nola.

  9. Daniel   •  

    The attendance data also reflect the long-standing trend that meetings of the SBC held in odd-numbered years have a lower number of messengers than the even-numbered years in which a new president is elected. (In odd-numbered years, the sitting President is generally unopposed and re-elected). The only two exceptions to this rule are 2005 and 2009, years in which the meetings were held in cities where SBC agencies/affiliated groups are located.

  10. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Didn’t you already try to do that at SBC Voices?

  11. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    I plan to address it in the near future. I just didn’t want to spend so much time on that question right now that it distracts from the overall reflections on the SBC. Thanks for pushing me on this.


  12. Luke   •  

    This was my first convention, and I wondered if drops in attendance had something to do with preaching. Meaning, I know pastors used to go because it was a chance to hear good preaching, and get refilled and refreshed. Now, I can hear Martyn Lloyd-Jones when I work out, and I don’t have to go to somewhere to get new ideas or hear good preaching. I can do it anywhere.

    I enjoyed your thoughts. Looking forward to part 2

  13. Justin   •  

    One thing I believe is being overlooked on the declining attendance is the rise of conference offerings. For years the Convention was the place to hear great preaching, discover the newest offerings at the expo as well as do the work of the convention. Now there is a new conference offering 2/3 choices every month. I don’t think the decline is indicative of the conventions health just the times. Also, while the decline in baptisms is troubling I don’t think it is a fair gauge. The problem is we are comparing numbers to a time when membership was desired and fulfilled. I wish you could compare the baptism rate of 1950’s (By Active Membership) to the Baptism rate of today (By Active Membership) I think the real problem is unregenerate Church members and our failure to address them.

  14. Jon   •  

    I appreciate you posting your thoughts here. I agree the attendance is down in part because of the ability to watch the proceedings online. I am a pastor in my mid 30’s and this was the 8th convention I have attended.

    Over the past 10-15 years, we have heard convention leaders and seminary profs (I am a ’04 grad of SEBTS) talk about the need for regenerate church membership. I have heard men like Mark Dever talk about closing the front door of the church and opening the back door. I have heard others talk about the danger of rushing a new believer into the baptistry. These biblical principles make sense and should be taken seriously. Now after a few years, some of these same leaders talk about the declining numbers of members and baptisms. Could it be that we are taking membership more seriously and that we are not as quick to baptize new believers? If so, we should expect these numbers to be lower than in the past.

  15. Bob Cleveland   •  

    1) Attendance: This would be expected were it true that the older disciples are dying off and we’re not making enough new ones. Check out overall membership vs attendance, Convention-wide.

    Years of lax membership standards, low (or no) expressed expectations of new members, failure to even educate members on what it is that makes Baptists Baptists.. add it all up and what can we expect? Country Club Churches? That would certainly explain annual meeting attendance.

    2) Great Commission Baptists? Nice vision, but unless we’re that, or willing to change how we do things, we’re not going to BE that. I cannot fathom a Southern Baptist … particularly one in any position of authority … standing before God and boasting “We were Great Commission Baptists”. With 2/3 of our members not even bothering to come to church on any one Sunday?

    Of the denominations of which I’ve been a part, we do, however, claim the top spot in on category.


  16. Pingback: Reflections and Ruminations on the SBC and Her Future – Part II (by Wm. Dwight McKissic, Sr.)

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