I arrived home on Thursday afternoon after having spent several days at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Phoenix. 2011 marked my fourth time to attend a Convention (2007, 2009, and 2010 being the other three Conventions). The schedule was busy for me, as most of my time was taken up with meetings. Still, this SBC turned out to be my favorite of the four I’ve attended, and I’d like to offer a few reasons that explain why:
1. A Unified Convention
When it comes to SBC politics, the Phoenix convention was much quieter than last year’s meeting in Orlando or 2009 in Louisville. Everyone expected Bryant Wright to be reelected as president for another year. The drama stirred up by the GCR recommendations is now in the past, and the conversation has shifted to the how of implementation rather than the debate over the recommendations themselves. Furthermore, the attendance was lowest since 1944, an indication that points to harsh economic realities, the lack of intense debate this year, and the significant cost for many pastors to travel to Phoenix.
I wondered if there would be any debate about last year’s GCR report. A handful of SBC blogs have given the impression that the Convention is deeply divided over a number of significant issues. Some bloggers openly question the Southern Baptist credentials of people who don’t line up with the details of an unwritten, unspoken confession of faith (which goes well beyond the Baptist Faith and Message). The atmosphere at the Convention was, thankfully, much less rancorous than the comment streams on some blogs, where a culture of threat and intimidation appears to rule the day.
There are many types of Southern Baptists, and there are many views expressed by many Southern Baptists. But the Phoenix convention was an indication that, underneath our differences, we really are united by our confession of faith and motivated by our passion to fulfill the Great Commission. A highlight for me was the 9Marks at 9 event on Monday night, in which Paige Patterson and Mark Dever had a frank and open conversation that exhibited the way we as Southern Baptists should treat one another always.
2. The Pastor’s Conference
I was unable to attend most of the sessions of the pastor’s conference, as I had several meetings on Monday that precluded my attendance. Still, when I was able to spend some time in the Convention hall, I was encouraged by the variety in worship music and preaching. Not everything about the music or preaching was to my liking, but that happens to be the reason I liked it. The variety was a reminder of the expansiveness of God’s kingdom, the numerous ways that people express their heart to God in worship, and the power of the gospel that transcends our cultures and preferences.
The fact that a traditional pastor like Bob Pitman can bring us a Christ-centered message on Sunday night (and who will forget Pitman’s journey through the Apostle’s Creed – “Preach myself? I cannot preach myself!”) and a contemporary pastor like Rick Warren can challenge us toward church planting on Monday night is a sign of health. There are many types of Southern Baptists, and we heard from many of them in Phoenix. My personal favorite was the bold and gracious message delivered by Afshin Ziafat. I’m grateful for Vance Pitman’s leadership in putting this conference together, and I’m glad to see that all the Convention messages are available online.
3. The NAMB Luncheon
On Monday, more than 1,000 people gathered for a luncheon called “Send North America.” The luncheon served as the official unveiling of the North American Mission Board’s new strategy for church planting. The excitement in the luncheon room was palpable. Whenever I was in the exhibit hall, I saw people gathered at the NAMB booth asking for more information. I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm for the ministry of NAMB.
The new president of NAMB, Kevin Ezell, has his share of critics. There are some who question the legitimacy of doing anything differently than we have in the past. But considering NAMB’s history, how could we not try something else? I’m praying for Kevin Ezell as he leads, and that this ambitious new vision would succeed for the glory of God and the good of our continent. We need a resurgence of church-planting and church revitalization as we seek to take the gospel to our neighbors and to the nations.
Despite the slump in attendance, I noticed a considerable amount of diversity in Convention messengers, especially in comparison with previous years. After attending my first Convention in 2007 (San Antonio), I commented to friends about how few young people and minorities were present. We still have a long way to go, but Phoenix was a sign of progress. I met more than a dozen young pastors who were attending the Convention for the first time. Many were saying, “It’s amazing what we have here!” It’s clear to me that the older generation has sought out the next generation, and I believe many young pastors are beginning to realize the great value of being part of this Convention of churches.
Ethnic representation is increasing too. At breakfast one morning, a pastor told me that as he traveled with his family to the Convention in the 1970’s, his family could easily pick out other Convention attendees – just by the way their cars looked and by how they were dressed. The SBC was culturally monolithic. Everyone looked alike. Things have changed today. He said, “Like it or not, there’s no going back to that cultural cohesiveness.” I understand that many Southern Baptists have nostalgia for those days, but I also understand that even the nostalgic Southern Baptists recognize the importance of the Great Commission and the need to diversify in leadership as we seek to reflect the increasingly multi-cultural society we live in. We were once monolithic in order to reach the culture of the late 20th century. We will have to be multi-ethnic in order to reach the culture of the 21st.
I’m grateful to be part of the Southern Baptist Convention. We are a passionate people who are committed to fulfilling the Great Commission. I love – not only the Convention sermons and the proceedings – but also the ability to catch up with friends and fellow laborers in the kingdom. It’s encouraging to be part of a Convention that sends out thousands of missionaries every year. May we continue to seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness.