FARMERSVILLE, Texas (BP)–The Baptist Press headline was ominous: “Phoenix SBC attendance lowest since ’44.”
Like most people, I was prepared to see a slight dip in SBC attendance just because we were going all the way to Phoenix. But as the headline makes clear, the paucity of messengers in Phoenix cannot be explained by the vagaries of geography and political cycle that normally cause messenger count to oscillate. This was historic: Many of our churches could have hosted this annual meeting in their own facilities.
The proposed explanations for a sub-5,000 messenger count are predictable.
“It’s too far away!”
But the last time we were in Phoenix we had 47 percent more messengers.
“It isn’t a ‘real’ election year.”
But in 2003, the last time we were in Phoenix, it was a re-election year just as it was this year.
“It’s the economy!”
But the previous record low was in 1944. We’ve had more economic downturns in that span of years than I dare to count.
“It’s the bitter fruit reaped from that evil Conservative Resurgence.”
Controversy indeed can drive people away. For the sake of discussion, let’s grant temporarily that we are declining in messenger count entirely because of the Conservative Resurgence. The Conservative Resurgence was caused by a century-long pattern of responding to grass-roots concerns about denominational liberalism with a disingenuous “There, there” mouthed by doublespeaking denominational bureaucrats. If the SBC apparatus had demonstrated some willingness to respond to messenger concerns in 1925, 1963 and 1970, then 1979 likely would have looked much different. We were headed down the same road as the American Baptist Churches, compared to whom our messenger registrations totals look like Pentecost. I am not moved by claims that the Conservative Resurgence has killed our denomination.
“It’s because our meetings don’t reach out to ‘younger leaders’ in the SBC.”
But this was THE “younger leader” convention year, as the stereotypes go.
A deliberate campaign is underway to woo a certain caricature of “younger leaders” into our annual meetings. The more that we bend over backwards to try to interest people who really aren’t that interested in the SBC, the more that we accomplish two things: (1) We fail to bring in a category of people who are never going to be interested in the SBC and (2) we drive away people who really are interested in the SBC by showing them the back of our hands. The SBC really needs to consider the old proverb about the bird in the hand.
By an unscientific analysis of tweets coming from the convention, I would highlight a few things:
Our annual meeting is going to be a hard sell to anybody who doesn’t like congregationalism. It is the epitome of congregationalism, and that’s not going away anytime soon. People at our meetings are going to speak their minds. Some of them will speak their convictions about right and wrong without running it by a press secretary first.
Our annual meeting is going to be a hard sell to anybody who considers himself or herself “post-denominational.” Our structure is different from that of the more non-locally-autonomous hierarchical groups, but to a post-denominationalist, we certainly are a denomination.
The Southern Baptist Convention is going to be a hard sell to people who are ashamed of being Baptist. People want to change the name sometimes — I think that’s a surrogate for changing the makeup of the convention. The name fits us pretty well, or at least it has done so.
I hope that this year was the nadir of the SBC. A nadir marks a bottom point from which you rise.
Some very positive things are at work in our midst. I hope we can go another 70 years of never hitting this low point again. I believe that our North American Mission Board needed a fresh start, and although my antennae are up against intermingling with Acts 29, I believe that Kevin Ezell is making some hard, healthy changes at NAMB. He has my prayers and my support. I am really excited about Tom Eliff at the International Mission Board. I look around me and see a rising coterie of good, dynamic, convictional Southern Baptists who are well poised to lead this family of churches into the coming decades.
Let’s invest in who we have rather than pining for who we do not. Let’s design our annual meetings with those in mind who are committed to attend them. Let us not make the mistake of trying to bring in those who don’t come by driving away those who do. It would be far easier to succeed at the latter half of that project than the former, and it would be a shame to wind up entirely empty-handed.
This article is adapted from the blog of Bart Barber (http://praisegodbarebones.blogspot.com), pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, and a trustee of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.