The SBC Annual Meeting Is Useless … And What To Do About It.

April 14, 2015

Dr. Randy White | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Katy, TX

**This article was previously posted by Dr. Randy White HERE and is used by permission.

Anyone who follows my articles and tweets knows that I am a disgruntled Southern Baptist. If you ask me why, I would not really know where to begin. I don’t like the “moral communitarianism” of Russell Moore at the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (nor his “future kings and queens of the universe” theology, nor his “Christ is Israel” brand of replacement theology, nor his Kingdom-advance based ethic). I don’t like the church-planting strategy of the North American Mission Board, using SBC funds to put largely Calvinist and often rebellious church-planters who won’t give a plug-nickle to the denomination as soon as the check stops coming. I don’t like the IMB raise-the-dead and pray-for-visions method of evangelism, nor that there is little role for the preacher on the mission field. I’m no fan of what appears to be the “a good Baptist is a reformed Baptist” teaching that comes out of Southern Seminary. I have a disdain for the “we’ll sell it if you’ll buy it” philosophy of LifeWay, nor the “stick your finger in the air to determine the direction we should go” ministry of Ed Stetzer. Finally, I have grown weary of the entire church-growth movement of Rick Warren that has become so run-of-the-mill in SBC churches.  So, I’m clearly not the poster child for happy, go-along-to-get-along Southern Baptists.

That said, I may be far more the typical Southern Baptist than SBC leadership and wanna-be leadership would admit. I was born and bred a Southern Baptist. I was saved in an SBC church, committed to ministry in another SBC church, educated in an SBC college, trained for ministry in an SBC seminary (tuition paid, in large part, with SBC dollars). I’ve been a pastor who was involved in SBC work from the association to the state convention to the national denomination. My church consistently gives hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for SBC causes. Our church is always a top giver to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering. We give 10% to the Cooperative Program. Until recently, we used SBC literature in our Sunday School classes and participated in SBC promotions.

But I think the Southern Baptist Convention is broken. I am afraid that much of the brokenness is systemic in our culture and only reflected in the SBC. However, if there is a small population that has not been consumed by church-growth pragmatism and evangelical neo-conservatism, and if this small population can come together to bring change in the SBC, then it is too early to leave my SBC home.

Why the Annual Meeting is Useless

Much has been written about decline in the SBC, and in the struggle to get 5,000 messengers to the annual meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. I contend that much of the reason people do not attend is because the meeting is often useless. I’ll share four reasons, none of which can be proven and all of which are personal speculation more than scientific fact.

The outcome is increasingly pre-arranged

The officer, committee, trustee, and bylaw structure of the SBC has been used to its fullest to ensure that the desired outcome comes to fruition. No resolution will be presented that does not pass the scrutiny of the Resolutions Committee and no item of business will be allowed that does not pass the barrier of the Committee on Order of Business. Officers and insiders will have the advantage of working with these committees to ensure that their items are presented, but the common-folk will be left speechless as their resolution or motion is quickly dismissed with little chance of resurrection. If one of the agencies has business to present, it will receive favorable treatment and any negative remarks from the floor will receive swift rebuttal from those on the platform. In the end, it is often easy to determine the outcome of the convention long before the convention begins.

The agencies are unbelievably unresponsive

If the Southern Baptist Convention messengers feel strongly about something an agency is doing, they have no power, ability, nor legal grounds to change it through the annual meeting. LifeWay has repeatedly heard from messengers about the use of the gender-neutral NIV, yet defiantly uses it today. It doesn’t matter if 100% of the messengers want LifeWay to stop using the NIV, those messengers have no ability to give directive to the Trustees of LifeWay. While the legal boundaries may somewhat require such an arrangement, the agencies need a responsiveness of the will of the messengers, and the SBC needs an unhindered mechanism for the messengers to express their concern.

The trend toward spiritualization of the convention

It would seem, on surface, like the way to increase participation in the SBC Annual Meeting is to make the meeting a spiritual mountaintop experience. If messengers went to the SBC and had a revival experience, they would go home and recruit more for next year, right? I am not convinced this is true. The Annual Meeting is designed for the business of the convention. The more revivalistic the meeting becomes, the less opportunity for dealing with the business at hand. Agency heads can wax eloquent on spiritual matters as a means of avoiding practical issues of agency operations. I believe that more time should be given for questions, motions, and deliberations. This would require a longer meeting or shorter worship times.  The danger of spiritualizing the convention is that it becomes (even more than it already is) a public relations brochure for agency ministries rather than a business meeting of Southern Baptists.

What to do about it 

In 1979, when the Conservative Resurgence began, the convention was in terrible shape. It was, in many ways, far more liberal than it is today. The solution then was the election of a President, who would then use the nomination process to slowly change the system. It worked, through the blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of normal Baptists who believed the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.
In 1979, Baptist news was controlled by Baptist Press. Messages were sent by telephone or by use of a 15 cent stamp. To broadcast the message to a nation-wide audience took thousands of dollars (or more) and many weeks or even months. Bypassing “the system” took an almost miraculous effort. But we don’t live in 1979, and we have a far more effective tool: public pressure. Using blogs, social media, and text messaging, we can but intense public pressure on SBC officers and agencies in a matter of hours, if we work together.

The strategy of traditionalists–this label used for lack of a more definitive word–within the SBC should include the following:

  • Start by gathering a database of the names of 100 pastors who want to see change in the SBC. These 100 pastors can literally change the denomination. In 1979 it took far more men to get the word out. With today’s media resources and internet, the voice of 100 is magnified many times over. This group does not have to be highly organized, deeply secret, or closed to others, but it needs 100 pastors to get the work going. I’ll be the first to add my name to the list.
  • Continue by gathering the email address, texting number, and social media addresses of as many thousands of SBCers as possible. We need a way to communicate, fast.
  • Be ready to insist on increased time for questions to entity heads. The adoption of the agenda presented by the Committee on Order of Business should be a major point of debate for messengers gathered at future conventions. The agenda is typically adopted without question or debate, but the messengers have to use this opportunity to restructure the business of the convention to suit them, not to suit the agencies. At this year’s convention, Russell Moore received two questions and spent 6 minutes and 41 seconds before the familiar announcement,  “the time is expired for questions.”  LifeWay’s President received two questions and spent less than 11 minutes giving answers. With this system, a keen agency head (that’s all of them) can talk without saying anything long enough to run down the clock. Those who want change need to know how to make the agenda work for them.
  • The traditionalists should use their database to inform hundreds of Baptists of the questions that need to be asked, and how to ask these questions. These individuals should line up at mics well before the time for questions. If the mics are full, messengers should make a motion to amend the agenda to add more time, and be prepared for a 2/3 majority to do so. When messengers are unable to answer questions, they should write, blog, email,  call, and tweet their questions until they get an answer, then they should write, blog, email, call, and tweet that answer to their friends, who may want to make a follow-up response to the agency heads. Messengers should not underestimate the difficulty of getting more Q&A time in the agenda.
  • Traditional Baptists should employ, for the convention, a messenger’s parliamentarian. This parliamentarian should be available to consult messengers on proper wording of motions, proper manner of using points-of-order, and effective use of the system to their advantage. I can understand why the president wants a parliamentarian at his side (as the convention has provided for many years). As a messenger, I also want a parliamentarian by my side, and traditional Southern Baptists can work together to provide one.
  • A clear set of motions should be prepared in advance of the convention. These motions need to be “lawyered up” in order to force the Committee on Order of Business to allow the motions to be addressed by messengers at the current convention. With meticulous planning, messengers can craft motions that will force the convention toward a more responsive position.

Some would say, “Why did you just publish this strategy to the whole world?”  I do it because I think that those who want change should work in the open. Our agenda, our meetings, our plans, our dreams…all should be available for all to see. If they stand the scrutiny of the masses, they will stand the scrutiny of the messengers.