In some circles this is going to be a controversial assessment of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting held this week in Birmingham. I admit that. My first venture to the SBC in-person last year was quite the eye-opener. Though I knew there were a lot of Southern Baptists, but seeing so many of them in person sent some messages to me, positive messages about the direction of our Convention
That perspective was solidified in Birmingham.
In her first trip to the SBC, my wife Amy traveled along as well. We didn’t go through the process in time of getting her registered as a messenger, but as a guest, she had access to sit in on all panels, general meetings, and other events. At the end of each day when we met back up – I from the newsroom and her from the general session – I was eager to get her perspective. She’s a redhead, so I had no doubt as to her honesty.
She and I both agreed that the IMB Sending Celebration was the highlight of the meeting. I had seen these online, but there’s something different to being in the room with these missionaries as they take the stage and tell you where he or she/they/they and their kids are going to be serving. These individuals receive a well-deserved nod of respect no one on the platform gets. That’s how it should be and something for which I’m very thankful to see.
Not too far behind them, in my view, are the young families at the SBC with kids in tow. I’m a father of four and can’t imagine handling those logistics while attending the events you want to catch. Yes, I’m sure the childcare options help tremendously, but I know they can’t watch your children all the time. You moms and dads amaze me.
Associational mission strategists are also some of my favorite people. This was solidified Tuesday when my wife and I stared at an hourlong wait for lunch. Two Arkansans, Joe Burt of Red River Baptist Association, and Mike McCoy of Black River Baptist Association, offered to share their table with us to avoid the wait.
Regarding what is often the most entertaining part of the meeting, you can imagine my wife’s amazement regarding the time for new motions and discussions.
“So, they just put live microphones out there for anyone to use?”
“Doesn’t that get awkward?”
Oh yes. But that’s one of the things I love about Southern Baptist polity. Any messenger has the opportunity to speak directly to an entity head in front of thousands of people. Sure, it appears messy sometimes and the secular media can have a field day with it, but I wouldn’t change it and hope it never does.
I and my wife were also delighted at the amount of diversity at the annual meeting. It’s not just something for headlines, either. This development is once necessary for reaching the world with the Gospel and more accurately reflecting God’s kingdom.
The image lends one to picture younger people of different skin tones, but I hope we understand the importance of also including those with a few more wrinkles and gray hairs. At 45 I’m still clinging to this “younger” demographic,” but with every 80s reference that brings a blank stare I know I’m getting older.
On Monday afternoon I was granted the honor of coffee with several long-time Southern Baptist evangelists (story to come). I heard their heart for wanting to see a great revival. These men are very much invested in reaching the next generation by all means (1 Cor. 9:22).
I mean that metaphorically and literally – they use their own money to develop products and materials for more effectively sharing the Gospel. If Southern Baptists are truly serious about evangelism, they must use the spiritual gifts provided only through evangelists.
Georgia Baptist Susan Codone, a member of Ingleside Baptist Church in Macon, bravely shared her story of abuse at Monday night’s panel discussion on the topic. As a teen in Birmingham, Susan was abused by her youth pastor and pastor.
“I knew I was in the presence of evil,” she said, but felt she had no recourse to escape. Susan thought no one would believe her. Plus, she was manipulated by her youth pastor through being told it was her fault or she had lost her salvation. Her pastor threatened to kill her. Neither men were brought to acknowledgement of or punishment for their crimes against her.
And while there was much to be happy about at the SBC, the lament over sex abuse remained. The steps being taken to address it are not easy, and they shouldn’t be. Susan urged those watching the panel in person and on live-stream to understand it’s going to take all of us to fight it and protect the vulnerable.
You know how when you’re walking around church you’ll ask someone how they’re doing and they’ll say they’re doing good? Or you’ll be asked and say you’re doing good? We know about 90% of the time that answer can be, “Well, there are some things I’ve been working through.”
That wasn’t really the intent of the question, though, was it? We tend to want to get the credit for checking in without having to actually deal with the mess that is life.
The SBC is at a point where we’re getting honest about the mess staring at us. At the same time, there are a lot of good things happening. Real change takes place when we look in the mirror honestly. And the only way to truly address both the warts while celebrating the positive is within the framework of keeping the Gospel above all, the theme of this year’s meeting.
My final responsibility this year was attending the press conference following the last general session (see it here on our Facebook page). Afterwards Amy and I walked back along the hallway that overlooked the main exhibition floor. With a pause in our conversation I thought I heard a familiar voice and looked over my shoulder.
There was J.D. and a few others also walking back to the hotel, #SBC19 now in the rear-view mirror. I said hi, introduced myself (We’ve talked before but I don’t think I’m at that place where he recognizes me yet.), and said I actually had one more question.
I wouldn’t blame him if he let out a Godfatheresque “Just-when-I-thought-I-was-out-they-pull-me-back-in” sigh. But he didn’t. He immediately said, “Sure.”
He probably didn’t expect this one, but my questions had been answered at the press conference and I was legitimately curious. “Just how long do you think you’ll sleep once you get home and can relax?” I asked.
He said that actually, he felt fine. We chatted the rest of the way across the walkway to the Sheraton, talking about our kids (he’s also a father of four) and the wisdom, or not, of having a family pet (We have two dogs while the Greear household has none, and I assume much fewer messes and no chewed-up deck furniture.).
The Southern Baptist Convention is on a path to being a greater influence in our culture for the Gospel. It begins with that honest look in the mirror and builds over conversations with coffee (my preference) and a genuine desire for all of us, myself included, to better reflect Christ. If you followed the SBC only on Twitter or Facebook, trust me, you didn’t get an accurate reflection of being there.
Pain brings clarity, but so does the Gospel itself. To borrow Susan Codone’s plea, to keep this path going it’s going to take all of us.