Summer is for vacations, and for many pastors, denominational gatherings. The Southern Baptist Convention is no exception. This year, we’re meeting in Columbus, Ohio, the fifteenth largest city in the U.S., one that is well outside of the Southeast where most of our churches are based.
In the past decade, though the attendance at the annual meeting has risen and fallen in conjunction with the location and the major topic of conversation (or controversy), the overall trend has been a dwindling of messengers. This isn’t surprising, considering the loosening of denominational loyalty and the variety of good conferences a pastor can attend.
But Columbus might buck the decline. Here are three reasons I’m particularly excited about this year’s annual meeting.
1. The annual meeting is trending younger.
In Baltimore last year, we saw a 10-year high of younger messengers involved in the Convention proceedings. Baptist Press reported that “nearly one-fourth (24.68 percent) of attendees were younger than age 40. That surpassed by more than 4 percentage points the previous best for the age group, recorded in 2013.”
My first visit to a Southern Baptist Convention was in San Antonio in 2007 as a 25-year-old associate pastor. I remember my initial shock at the small number of young people present. Recent years have seen an upswing in younger Southern Baptist engagement, a reality that is especially surprising when considered alongside the millennial generation’s diminishing enthusiasm for institutions in general. What this tells me is that the annual meeting is beginning to show signs of becoming a vibrant network, not just a report on denominational infrastructure.
2. The schedule of the annual meeting has been reworked in order to highlight the things we are most passionate about.
Few people get excited about a business meeting. Most messengers admit they come to network and see friends, not sit through every session of the SBC. But this year will be different, thanks to a reworking of the schedule under the leadership of the SBC’s president, Ronnie Floyd. For example, all the missions agencies will present on Wednesday morning, and it won’t just be a time of reports, but also commissioning of missionaries.
There are already more than 7,000 registered to attend the Send North America conference in Nashville (the North American Mission Board), a staggering figure when you consider the fact that only one Convention since 2010 has come close to that number.
What does this tell us? Southern Baptists are hungry for a meeting that casts vision and rallies our people around a great cause. They’re not necessarily there, first and foremost, to vote on resolutions.
But resolutions matter. And so does our business. As Southern Baptists, we should care about the annual meeting, and we should care about this meeting because we care about the kingdom of God. Business meetings come and go, with their moments of boredom and hilarity, awkwardness and quiet power, and yet in these moments, decisions are made, courses are set that define our cooperative work the rest of the year. It’s not glamorous, but the work of the kingdom rarely is. This year, however, features a streamlined schedule that emphasizes what we’re there for.
3. We will pray for God to awaken His church to the opportunities before us.
The Tuesday evening meeting will be time of prayer and worship, a pleading with God to revive His people and empower our witness. It is easy to bemoan the moral decay of our culture, the encroaching limits to religious liberties, and the difficulty of evangelism in a relativistic society.
But we shouldn’t miss the opportunity here. By cherishing once-common things, such as marriage between a man and woman for life, and core Christian doctrines, such as the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, we have the opportunity for our ordinary obedience to shine even brighter in a pluralistic world that bows to Aphrodite. The annual meeting gives us the opportunity to lay aside our differences, unite around our common confession, and lock arms for the cause of Christ and His kingdom.