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Largest SBC gathering in 25 years spurred by first-time messengers, geographical proximity to Nashville

Photo by Karen McCutcheon

NASHVILLE (BP) – Last week’s 2021 SBC Annual Meeting was the largest since 1995, and much of that had to do with the location and the involvement of first-time messengers to the convention.

A survey conducted of those in attendance showed that nearly 80 percent of messengers drove to the June 15-16 meeting in Nashville. The Music City’s proximity to a large number of Southern Baptists was a main reason for the capacity crowd of 15,726 messengers, not counting guests, exhibitors and others present at Nashville’s Music City Center (MCC).

However, it wasn’t just people from the South who attended. For the second consecutive annual meeting, messengers represented all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Don and Lanail Hamilton from Veer Church in Kansas City, Kan., register June 13 for the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting. Photo by Abbey Sprinkle

Another reason for the increase in messengers was the number of first-time messengers in attendance. Two out of every five messengers (38 percent) were attending their first SBC annual meeting, and most of them came from churches that had not previously sent messengers. The 2019 Annual Meeting in Birmingham saw just 3,428 churches send messengers. The messengers in Nashville represented 5,570 churches, a 62.5 percent increase in the number of churches engaged.

While the messenger count was the highest since the 1995 meeting in Atlanta, the addition of 3,856 guests and 1,892 exhibitors meant the crowd officially numbered 21,474 – one of the largest gatherings in Nashville since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Music City Center did an amazing job hosting our messengers and guests,” said Jeff Pearson, SBC Executive Committee CFO and convention manager, in a statement. “When we began conversations with the Music City Center, we discussed the possibility of 10,000 to 12,000 attendees. When the time for the annual meeting arrived, we had more than 20,000 in attendance.

“The Music City Center made the adjustments necessary to meet the needs of all who attended, including allowing food trucks to accommodate the growing demands. We are grateful to [MCC President/CEO] Charles Starks and his staff for their flexibility, hospitality and professionalism as they hosted the largest SBC annual meeting since 1995.”

The 2019 meeting was the first in 20 years to feature messengers from every state, and this year’s meeting continued that trend. Five states even sent more than 1,000 messengers. Tennessee, the host state, led the way with 2,012 messengers, followed by Georgia (1,596), Alabama (1,151), Texas (1,125) and Kentucky (1,040). North Carolina (984) and Florida (981) came close to breaking the 1,000 mark as well.

Puerto Rico was represented by 27 messengers – one of its highest ever – and next year’s host state, California, saw 294 messengers come to Nashville – the strongest showing for a non-South state other than Ohio (304).

As expected at an SBC annual meeting, messenger makeup was largely church staff and pastors. Forty-one percent of messengers serve their church as senior pastor. Another 15 percent were on church staff. Four percent of attendees were on staff with local associations and 3.2 percent were employed by national SBC entities.

Though nearly 40 percent of messengers attended for the first time, the age breakdown of messengers was typical of an SBC annual meeting. Thirty percent of messengers were over the age of 60, while 24 percent were under the age of 40. Forty-five percent of messengers were between the ages of 40 and 60.

Even with the large crowds from all over the country, messenger registration was as smooth as ever.

“Even when the registration line went outside the door and down the hallway, I was told the wait was still only 30 minutes,” said SBC Registration Secretary Don Currence. “Most messengers said their wait was more like 10-15 minutes. The registration team had a great attitude and never complained about what task they were assigned or the lack of breaks especially on Sunday and Monday. They all came with a servant heart and it showed in Nashville.”