One of the stories from this year’s Southern Baptist Convention was the low turn-out of messengers. Truth be told, I am much more concerned with the recent report of our declining membership and number of baptisms than I am the dwindling number of messengers showing up for a yearly business meeting. Still, I’d like to venture a few guesses about why the turn-out was so low.
1. Houston is hot.
Not hot as in “awesome city!,” but hot as in humid. All kidding aside… No one ever points to weather when addressing Southern Baptist attendance, especially since we’ll go in significant numbers to muggy New Orleans when we’re electing a president or to stifling Orlando when debating a structural change (thank goodness for our expired boycott of Disneyworld!). Seriously, though, several times this year I asked pastors if they were going to the Convention, only to receive this response: I’d rather be anywhere than Houston in mid-June.
2. The trade-off isn’t powerful enough to devote significant time and finances.
Now to the more serious reasons… I think this is the key to the declining attendance of Southern Baptist Convention over the years.
A generation ago, many pastors tacked a vacation alongside the Convention proceedings. The Convention provided an excellent excuse to get away, get refreshed, enjoy time with family, and escape the doldrums of summer. Nowadays, fewer pastors see the SBC as particularly refreshing. The pastor’s conference is nice, but business meetings bring up the specter of political rancor, and that’s what a lot of pastors are trying to avoid during the quiet days of summer.
Simply put, it costs a lot of time and effort to go to the SBC, and unless a pastor sees spiritual value in being there, he is likely to decline going. He is also less likely to send others from his church, which leads to a further decline in messenger numbers.
What’s more, a pastor is likely to funnel their travel and training budget to other conferences they consider especially life-giving. In all likelihood, there were more Southern Baptist pastors at Catalyst than messengers at the SBC this year. Next year, there could be more Southern Baptists at Together for the Gospel than at the Convention in June. Pastors are carefully considering what conferences are most beneficial and then making their plans according.
3. Things are going smoothly, which makes people feel their presence is unnecessary.
While some messengers stay away because of the possibility of a rancorous business meeting, other messengers stay away because things are so peaceful. Sure, we’ve had an ongoing discussions about Calvinism and the Cooperative Program and church planting. But none of these debates have led to divisive resolutions or polarizing elections.
There are several types of Southern Baptists (David Dockery lists seven), but the camps are not neatly defined into voting blocs (thankfully). Plenty of pastors consider it a good sign when their monthly or quarterly business meetings are poorly attended. It’s a sign things are well. Perhaps many pastors view the Convention this way, especially when we’re not electing a president.
4. The things we are most passionate about are not the things the annual meeting tends to platform.
On Monday of this year’s Convention, 3500 people attended the North American Mission Board’s “Send North America” luncheon on church planting. This is a staggering figure when you consider the fact that only 5000 messengers attended the Convention. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there were more messengers together for this lunch than for any of the actual business meeting proceedings.
What does this tell us? Southern Baptists are hungry for a meeting that casts vision and rallies our people around a great cause (and a free lunch!). They’re not necessarily there, first and foremost, to vote on resolutions.
Ronnie Floyd compares and contrasts the SBC with the Walmart Convention to make a point about the power of a story to unite and embolden people:
We should continually be evaluating how we conduct our time together annually, in order to more effectively communicate our story as the Southern Baptist Convention. We have a great story to tell and my desire is for all generations to know that story.
5. Younger guys underestimate the power of institutions.
My first visit to a Southern Baptist Convention was in San Antonio in 2007. I remember my initial shock at the small number of young people present. In 2013, the picture is different. More messengers dress casually than before, and there are more young pastors present than before.
But overall, the pastors of my generation have to be convinced of the relevance of participating in denominational life. It’s much more attractive to branch out into nimble networks or associations that have a certain “cool factor.” Unfortunately, this emphasis is short-sighted.
Here’s J. D. Greear reflecting on the need for institutions:
Recently I read Tim Keller’s Center Church, in which he discusses the interplay between movements and institutions. He points out something that is easy to ignore, that both need each other. It’s easy to see how institutions without movements quickly die (and, by “movement,” I mean that sense of shared excitement, led by charismatic leaders with a compelling vision) quickly die. What we often forget, however, is that movements without institutions lack both staying power and the teeth to accomplish their agenda.
So yes, it is easier for us to be involved in a movement without the messiness of institutions, but it is not nearly as effective.
What do you think? Why are fewer pastors inclined to attend the Convention? What can we learn from other denominations or conferences? Is there still value in a denominational meeting?