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.

(Image credit)

GCRTF Report Challenges to all Southern Baptists (5): Challenges for LifeWay, ERLC, and Guidestone

GCRTF Report Challenges to all Southern Baptists (5): Challenges for LifeWay, ERLC, and Guidestone

By Danny Akin and Ryan Hutchinson

The Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCRTF) has challenged LifeWay, GuideStone Financial Resources, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) to never forget their service to the local church. Each one of these ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention, whether receiving Cooperative Program (CP) funds or not, all stand in the place as a form of a parachurch ministry to serve the churches cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Two of the entities, LifeWay and Guidestone, represent that largest financial components of Southern Baptist’s national ministries, and do not receive any CP funds. Total assets for these two organizations combined are approximately $8 billion based on their 2008 financial statements. Therefore, Southern Baptists have made significant commitments to both of these organizations even without the support of CP dollars. While LifeWay & GuideStone represent the largest national ministries, the ERLC represents the smallest financially, but not the smallest as the voice of Southern Baptists to the leaders of our nation.

While Lifeway has many different areas of ministry, the GCRTF focuses on their core efforts of the development of materials for use by the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. The challenges regarding the development of materials do not represent a call to create new avenues of material focus, but the strengthening of what already exists. The challenges focus on materials for Sunday School/Bible Study, growth in personal evangelism, growth in understanding of the Great Commission’s worldwide call, and for Christian schools and homeschoolers. LifeWay has the ability through the materials they develop to greatly impact the biblical and theological knowledge of the people sitting in Southern Baptist churches. One way that LifeWay could enhance these materials is to closely examine the reasons why some Southern Baptists make a conscious decision not to use their materials in these arenas. We all can find testimonials of people that love us, but we can often times learn more from the people that are our detractors.

GuideStone has a unique relationship with Southern Baptists since a vast number of pastors and staff members, both active and retired, have their retirement investments with GuideStone. The GCTRF’s challenge to GuideStone does not focus on better management of funds, the expansion of investment options, or assuredness of competitive insurance programs. Instead the GCRTF challenges GuideStone to engage those receiving retirement benefits to not retire from Great Commission ministry. Too many times after someone’s retirement from a church staff or a denominational post the retiree transitions to “me” or “us” time. It is time to travel, time to see the world, time do the things we always wanted to do but active ministry kept us from accomplishing. It is not that a retired minister shouldn’t be able to do things like travel, but imagine the impact for the Great Commission if the retired minister and his or her mate did not view the event as retirement, but a transition into a new phase of personal ministry. Therefore, the challenge to GuideStone is to utilize their unique access to the retired ministers of the convention to encourage them towards an even stronger personal commitment to the Great Commission both at home and abroad.

The ERLC is challenged to call the people of the convention towards Christlikeness in their interaction with the lost world around us. The challenge also calls for an emphasis on teaching the people in the pew the importance of preserving religious freedom. A belief in and stand for religious freedom is one of the hallmarks of Baptists. Therefore, Baptists should be at the forefront of not just preserving the rights for Southern Baptists to have religious freedom, but for anyone to not experience persecution for or restraint from their personal beliefs regardless of their religion. Through these efforts we can not only support religious freedom, but use the opportunity in standing for others to communicate why salvation through faith in Christ is one’s only hope for the forgiveness of their sins and hope for eternity in Heaven.

The challenges from the GCRTF to LifeWay, GuideStone, and the ERLC are calls for a renewed emphasis on existing efforts. However, it is not just to continue existing efforts, but to serve Southern Baptist by helping them understand the vital role of each and every person in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. These are worthy challenges worth heeding.