Southern Baptist Convention messengers meeting in Phoenix June 14-15 adopted an historic report encouraging ethnic diversity, witnessed dozens of leaders standing together in support of a landmark unity pledge, and saw hundreds of pastors and laypeople volunteer to lead their churches to embrace one of the world's 3,800 unengaged people groups.
It was the lowest-attended annual meeting in sixty-seven years, with just over 4,800 in attendance, but the substance of the meeting led plenty who attended to argue it shouldn't be judged on numbers.
"I do believe it could prove to be the most spiritually significant convention over the last fifty years," Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright, who was re-elected to another one-year term, told Baptist Press after the Phoenix gathering. Wright pointed to the sluggish economy and to the travel time from most SBC churches as possible reasons for the low attendance.
From beginning to end, messengers heard biblical pleas for Southern Baptists to join the church planting movement in North America and to adopt an unengaged people group around the world. And messengers responded. More than 1,000 pastors and their wives packed a North American Mission Board luncheon to learn about the entity's new Send North America church planting strategy. On the final night of the convention, hundreds of messengers flooded the front of the convention hall at the end of the International Mission Board report, having signed cards pledging to lead their church to embrace an unengaged people group. An IMB representative would contact them later.
Each mission board report also featured a commissioning service, with Southern Baptists meeting their newest missionaries.
"Coming back to the authority of Scripture was a correcting point that had to take place [in the SBC], but the mission is to fulfill the Great Commission," Wright said. "I think this was the most unified convention around the Great Commission that I have experienced. People came here with anticipation of that unity."
Wright practiced that unity during his press conference, inviting the presidents of NAMB, Kevin Ezell, IMB, Tom Elliff, and the Executive Committee, Frank Page, to sit on the platform with him and participate. It was the first convention as president for all four men, and each one had a unique emphasis during his respective report to messengers. Ezell highlighted church planting and Elliff emphasized the unengaged, while Page introduced an "Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation" pledge that was signed by entity leaders, state executives, and ethnic fellowship leaders. The document had five core points, with the heart of it a pledge to "walk in unity as brothers and sisters in Christ." During the Executive Committee report, the leaders stood on stage together.
"Our convention is fracturing into various groups, some theological, most methodological," Page told messengers. "Sometimes there is an honest difference of opinion, but often there is self-centeredness that frequently mirrors our own culture.
"Christ-like selflessness is our only hope," Page said.
Page also urged Southern Baptists to take the "1 Percent Challenge"—leading their church to increase gifts to the Cooperative Program by 1 percent. Doing so would lead to $100 million more for Southern Baptist ministries and worldwide missions, including funding for 380 more IMB missionaries, Page said.
The Executive Committee's landmark report on ethnic diversity was the focus of national media attention, as was the election of New Orleans pastor Fred Luter as first vice president. He is the first African American to hold that post.
The report's language encourages the SBC president, when he makes his various appointments, to "give special attention to appointing individuals who represent the diversity within the Convention, and particularly ethnic diversity." It also encourages the committee in charge of the annual meeting to reflect the ethnic diversity of the convention in the meeting program. A motion that would have struck the ethnic diversity language was defeated by a margin of 3-to-1. The Executive Committee report, delivered after a two-year study, cites the "need to be proactive and intentional in the inclusion of individuals from all ethnic and racial identities within Southern Baptist life."
During a press conference, messenger Paul Kim, who made the 2009 motion that led to the report, urged ethnic Southern Baptists to get more involved in the convention in this "history-making moment," saying, "This is the time."
Ethnic diversity, Wright told BP, is "vitally important to the future of the church in America."
"We have not reflected what is happening in America in both the makeup of our churches but especially in the leadership in our convention," Wright said.
The convention's resolutions—which express the sentiment on often hot-button theological and cultural issues—once again made news. In a surprising move in the convention's final session, messengers overruled the Resolutions Committee by at least a 2-to-1 margin and voted to consider a resolution—promoted by messenger Tim Overton—highly critical of the NIV 2011 Bible translation. The resolution passed nearly unanimously. The resolution's text says that because of "inaccurate gender language," messengers "cannot commend the 2011 NIV to Southern Baptists or the larger Christian community." It "respectfully request[s] that LifeWay" not sell the new NIV in its retail chain.
Messengers also passed resolutions:
• supporting the Defense of Marriage Act.
• affirming the historical, biblical concept of hell, mentioning Rob Bell's "Love Wins" book.
• condemning the actions of those who protest funerals, burn the Koran, and pray for the deaths of public officials.
But a resolution on immigration and the Gospel, coming at a convention partially focused on ethnic issues, had the most floor debate. By a 4-to-1 margin, messengers adopted the resolution, which includes key language asking "our governing authorities to implement, with the borders secured, a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country." That sentence was nearly struck but survived on a ballot vote, 51-48 percent. The resolution gained more support when the Resolutions Committee proposed adding a sentence that says the resolution "is not to be construed as support for amnesty for any undocumented immigrant." Mostly overlooked in the controversy was the rest of the twenty-two-paragraph resolution, which calls on churches to take the Gospel to all people, "regardless of country of origin or immigration status."
The main focus of the convention was on fulfilling the Great Commission—both in North American and around the world.
"With less than 4 percent of our [Southern Baptist] churches directly engaged in church planting, we've got to do better," Ezell said at the NAMB luncheon. "We must do better. We are going to do better."
Churches—and not NAMB—plant churches, Ezell emphasized, adding that over the next couple of years, NAMB will develop church-planting coalitions in twenty-five urban areas around North America. He said the coalitions will be made up of local pastors, church planters, and representatives of local state conventions and associations, along with partnering pastors and state convention leaders from elsewhere. The coalitions will develop local strategies for planting new churches in their area.
"It's a new day," Ezell said. "It really is. Pastor, we're not going to make it harder for you. Associations and states, we're not [going to make it harder on you either]. We're going to make it easier. We're going to make it easier for you to engage in missions and to pray and partner. We can do this together."
Birmingham, Alabama, pastor David Platt preached the convention sermon, quoting statistics on the world's unreached and telling messengers, "This is not a problem for the International Mission Board to address. This is a problem for every pastor and every local church to address." Other convention speakers—including several during the Pastors' Conference and Wright himself during his sermon—made a similar point.
Elliff, in his report, spotlighted the need to embrace unengaged people groups, but said, "This convention has been one long sermon.... There is not one thing I could say" that messengers have not already heard. A lost world, Elliff said, needs churches who consider it unacceptable that there are people groups "who do not have somebody deliberately" trying to engage them with the Gospel.
"Really, all there's left for me to do is to give the invitation," Elliff said, moments before hundreds of messengers came forward holding cards that said, "I will lead my church to embrace an unengaged, unreached people group."
Urging messengers to embrace a spirit of Christ-like selflessness as the foundation for our cooperative missions, Page introduced the Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation pledge—signed at the Executive Committee meeting June 13 and presented to messengers the next day—that includes five key "pledges."
In other matters:
• More than 1,100 Arizonans made professions for Christ during the pre-convention Crossover 2011 evangelistic effort.
• Paul Thompson, one of the ten Baptists held in a Haiti jail in 2010, appeared before messengers during the Executive Committee report, telling them, "I have never been so proud to be a Southern Baptist as I was in the nineteen days in a lonely but yet God-filled prison cell in Haiti."
• Ezell promised that, under his watch, future financial stewardship at NAMB will demand "accuracy, transparency, effectiveness, and efficiency—not smoke and mirrors." He then clarified and put into perspective some oft-quoted NAMB statistics—for instance, that Southern Baptists planted 769 new churches in 2010, not the 1,400 to 1,500 a year usually reported in the past. "When the old NAMB counted church plants, they didn't ask for church names or addresses or planter names. The new NAMB is asking and only counting churches for which those details can be obtained." Ezell generated laughs and applause when he said, "If Walmart can track how much toilet paper it sells every hour, we should be able to track how many churches are planted each year."
• Wright, pastor of the Atlanta-area Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, was re-elected president over Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, California, who nominated himself. The vote was 2,274 (95 percent) to 102 (4 percent). Luter, senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected first vice president over Rick Ong, a member of First Chinese Baptist Church in Phoenix. Luter received 1,558 votes (77 percent) to Ong's 441 (22 percent). In three elections without opposition: Eric Thomas, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia, was elected second vice president; John Yeats, director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, was re-elected recording secretary; and Jim Wells, director of missions for the Tri-County Baptist Association in Nixa, Missouri, was re-elected registration secretary.
• There were no night sessions.
Next year's meeting will be June 19-20 in New Orleans.
Michael Foust is a member of Hermitage Hills Baptist Church in Hermitage, Tennessee, and is an associate editor of Baptist Press. With reporting by Mickey Noah, Barbara Denman, and Mark Kelly.