I’ve been active in monitoring the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting for 15 years now. When watching it live online became possible, I felt like I was there, while of course, not being there.
With the SBC meeting obviously being a major part of our annual coverage at The Index, my responsibilities dictated I stay behind in Georgia to maintain our production schedule, first for print and then, in recent years, online. Thus, 2018 became my first year to experience the gathering in person.
The size of it
I’ve been to church business meetings. Watching essentially the same thing with over 9,000 people was a sight, especially when all the ballots went up together on cue. I’d never seen that many people in one room where a sporting event or concert wasn’t involved.
For anyone who noticed the guy walking through the exhibit hall with his head on a swivel, that was me trying to take it in. When I say “exhibits,” don’t think of the one table holding a few pamphlets, a banner for your group, and a bowl of candy. These were complex backdrops. Many areas having sitting chairs for discussing their school/product/service. An entire LifeWay store sat in the middle of it all.
The crowd wasn’t what I expected
I’d been hearing how the SBC meeting had trended younger the last few years. That considered, there were more families and strollers than I thought. I understand many pastors roll their family vacations on to the end of the annual meeting, so it makes sense in that respect. Still, I asked a friend who has been going to the SBC for a long time and he confirmed that youthful trend continues in degree every year.
In addition, while the SBC continues to be majority Caucasian, the number of our brothers and sisters who are people of color encouraged me. Their voices and views are crucial for Southern Baptist efforts toward the Great Commission. Not giving due diligence to those voices weakens our work in spreading the gospel, and to be honest, makes me question our sincerity to do so.
Fellow members of Baptist Communicators Association were going to be there, but I also got to meet and talk with some secular journalists. Their perspectives on the meeting interested me, as did ours to them. It was a good exchange. However, it reminded me that we all can get our terminology mixed up when we’re new to an environment. I may never, ever get the chance again to correct a Harvard graduate, but did so with a Washington Post reporter. Right after, some secular sources referred to “moderates” in the SBC. I don’t know if those writers are aware of how incorrect that term is considering Southern Baptist history and the fact that today’s Convention leaders are the offspring of the Conservative Resurgence, very conservative and still ardent defenders of the Bible.
I expected Monday through Wednesday to go very quickly in a whirlwind, and I was right. Getting photos, interviewing, posting social media updates, writing, editing – it all kept me going fairly late each night starting with the Harvest America crusade at AT&T Stadium. The Index began posting stories during Crossover and haven’t stopped. That doesn’t include other stories coming from events at the annual meeting I couldn’t attend because there aren’t two of me.
Yes, I was encouraged. For all the dissension that could be found, whether from the run-up to Vice President Pence’s visit and his actual address to controversy over the ERLC and former Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson, I still felt good about the meeting.
From the newsroom I could work while watching a feed of the proceedings in the (very) big room up the escalator from where I sat. I caught testimonies of how various Southern Baptist entities spread the gospel. I listened to Kie Bowman deliver a great Convention sermon. I witnessed Steve Gaines handle difficult situations with the help of that parliamentarian wizard, Barry McCarty.
But several times I slipped into the convention hall and just watched, sat, and eventually got lost in being a Southern Baptist at our annual gathering. Be in there during worship and try to keep the mindset I was there to work? Forget it, not with the caliber of musicians and singers we have. I joined in when by myself; I joined in when standing among the press pool before the vice president’s message.
Conflict doesn’t have to be bad
Consider your normal-sized family reunion. Chances are, there are going to be at least some who don’t see eye-to-eye. Now, consider a group of 9,700 and toss in a bunch of live mics. See if you don’t get some conflict.
I’m speaking of the type of conflict when two sides agree on 97% of things, but have areas where they don’t. Preconceived notions and distrust can get in the way of wonderful partnerships.
SBC President J.D. Greear touched on this in his press conference. I asked if this election signaled a change in the “face” of the SBC. His first point wasn’t one of agreement, but clarification.
“I don’t think it’s accurate to say this reflects some kind of ‘passing of the baton’ where the older generation fades into the sunset,” he asserted. “We all move forward together.”
It’s a sentiment I’ve long felt gets lost when generations, whether intentionally or not, seem to get pitted against each other. I’m 44, a year younger than J.D. However, even after my predecessor at The Index retires in December I’ve made it clear to him he better not think he’s finished. He has wisdom I don’t. Over the last 14 years we’ve discussed steps he’s made as editor, fires he’s squelched, and responses he’s given. It’s been an education.
But, I tell him, if he’s not wanting to receive the occasional phone call for advice after the end of the year, he shouldn’t have given me his number. (smiley face emoji here)
The SBC meeting was a positive one for me, overwhelmingly so. We have a big tent, and no needs to ride into the sunset. In fact, I hope they don’t.