What Kind of a Convention is the Southern Baptist Convention? Thoughts on My First Annual Meeting

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I have been a part of the Southern Baptist Convention for all of my life. But I don’t think I’ve ever known what it means to be Southern Baptist until this past week as I attended my first Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. Seeing its representatives, all 10,000 of them, together in one place afforded me a glimpse of the convention as a whole that I was unable to grasp before.

So what kind of convention is the Southern Baptist Convention?

We are a Diverse Convention

We are diverse in age, diverse ethnically (though still heavily white), geographically, politically, theologically,  and socially. We have strong opinions on both sides of multiple issues. Saying you know what a Southern Baptist is like because you have encountered a church in your town or one in the media is like saying you know what Americans are like because you’ve been to New York City. Don’t paint us in one box and leave all of us there.

We are a United Convention

Despite the differences between us individually, the SBC as a whole is united on the issues. While there were many opinions expressed, points that were argued, and several passionate exchanges on positions, I don’t know if there was a vote taken that was not easily decided by the majority. For better or for worse (and there are some issues where we are united for the worse…see below), we have agreement on the issues. There are some topics on which many vehemently disagree, but the messengers to the convention as a whole were on the same page on every issue where I saw them take action.

We are (largely…and sadly) a Political Convention

I once sat in a 4th of July service at a church where they had draped an American flag across the front, obscuring the cross that hung behind it. That’s what the convention felt like at several points.

Toward the beginning of the meeting, we were led in saying the pledge of allegiance. Why is being loyal to a particular nation a part of what it means to be a Protestant denomination? Does that not confuse who we are? That is not to say it is wrong to say the pledge…but why are we doing it here? It isn’t wrong to be proud of and seek the welfare of a nation you believe to be just and committed to good principles but it should not be a part of the identity of a people whose sole purpose is to preach the gospel of a better country that is to come, whose builder and architect is God.

What was more alarming was that we learned upon arrival that the White House had reached out and requested that we allow Vice President Mike Pence to speak to the convention. There were multiple motions raised aimed at preventing him from speaking but the messengers voted to accept the invitation. Those attempting to stop him from speaking were afraid that having him speak would strengthen the perception that to be Southern Baptist is a political designation and thus dilute the clarity of our identity as a gospel, not a political, entity.

Unfortunately, Pence’s speech was everything feared it would be. He declared that he was a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, which drew hearty applause. And I listened in horror as Pence spent the bulk of his address giving a full-fledged campaign speech, where he extolled the current administration and laid down one applause seeking accolade of it after another. Some in the crowd got his not-so-subtle point as they began chanting, “Four more years!” I spent much of the speech with my head in my hands.

We are a Gospel Centered Convention

Despite this unfortunate distraction, it is still clear that the greatest passion of the Southern Baptist Convention is to proclaim the good news of salvation and redemption in Jesus Christ. I don’t know if I heard a single resolution, motion, or discussion point that did not appeal to the gospel in some way. We are a convention that is united in the conviction that humanity’s greatest need in every nation is to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This was most displayed in what was, for me, the highlight of the convention. On Tuesday night we commissioned seventy-nine new missionaries. Before we met them, we cried out the names of people groups around the world that have not heard the gospel and then prayed, in unison, for God to send us forth to reach them.

Then we were introduced to the missionaries themselves; we heard their names and where they were going, from the Middle East to the Americas to the Far East and everywhere in between. They then spread throughout the room and thousands of us came around them, laid hands on them, and we cried out for God to empower, embolden, support, encourage, and equip them for the gospel work. There was a gravity in the room that was almost tangible as thousands and thousands of us were united in heart around the lostness of our world and the need to reach them.

Why I Proudly Remain a Southern Baptist

Ultimately, it is this gospel-centeredness that keeps me a part of the Southern Baptist Convention. I’m saddened by some of the distractions and short-sightedness of our convention. But the cooperation of 40,000 churches for the purpose of bringing the gospel to our country and to the ends of the earth is a thing of wonder and beauty. It is worth being united to an entity where a people so diverse can still unite around one Christ-centered, God-glorifying, Spirit-empowered mission. There are things to be fixed: there is too much misguided patriotism, racism, misogyny, and cronyism in the SBC. But we will work them out. Our mission is clear. The gospel will prevail amongst a people so committed to it. Of that I am unalterably convinced.

And it is because of this that I proudly remain a Southern Baptist.

 

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