By Bill Webb, Word&Way Editor
The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio earlier this month was significantly milder than the typical platter of Tex-Mex on the meandering River Walk. Messengers were only the third-largest crowd in the city this time around.
On the Sunday evening prior to the annual meeting, the San Antonio Spurs won Game 2 in their best-of-seven National Basketball Association Championship series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. After the game until well after midnight, revelers drove up and down the one-way downtown streets honking their horns in chaotic harmony, only to do it again on Tuesday evening when their team won the third game in Cleveland.
A Norah Jones concert — she’s a popular recording artist — at the same time the convention held its Wednesday night closing session likely drew more people, too, to the city of the Alamo.
A mere 8,618 messengers came to the meeting this year, low by contemporary standards and especially low considering the meeting was held in Texas. There were no food lines of any consequence when messengers flowed out of the convention center meeting hall at the end of morning and afternoon sessions.
Some have suggested that the waning attendance may be a sign that denominationalism is declining, even within the SBC. Others say that without “to-die-for” doctrinal, ecclesiastical or leadership matters at stake, fewer messengers are likely to bother with the time and expense necessary to attend.
What were the most significant matters to surface on the convention floor? That’s probably in the eyes of the beholder. Here are a few thoughts:
A motion calling for a registry of clergy sexual offenders. This motion was referred to the SBC Executive Committee. It calls for the SBC to study establishing a registry consisting of a database of ministers and church staff members “who have been credibly accused of, personally confessed to or legally been convicted of sexual harrassment or abuse.”
The database would be accessible to Southern Baptist churches and entities to help prevent future abuse. Presented by Oklahoma pastor and blogger Wade Burleson, the motion asked the Executive Committee to report its findings and recommendations no later than the 2008 convention.
Southern Baptists have no idea if the problem within the convention is widespread or not. But it does not have to be widespread to be serious. One attack is too many. One attack that could have been prevented is an indictment of the lack of a system of protection. The SBC, state conventions, local associations and churches must find a way to protect children and adults in affiliated churches.
Discussion on how to define the Cooperative Program. No, I’m not kidding. The Executive Committee brought this motion recommending a definition of the giving plan that has served the convention since 1925. Executive Board president Morris Chapman pointed out the need for a working definition, noting that no approved definition had ever been developed.
The proposal defined the Cooperative Program as “Southern Baptists’ unified plan of giving through which cooperating Southern Baptist churches give a percentage of their undesignated receipts in support of their respective state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention missions and ministries.”
The recommendation followed a measure on strengthening CP giving adopted by messengers a year earlier. From 1980 to 2006, the percentage of undesignated funds given through the plan by local churches dropped like a lead balloon — from 10.7 percent to 6.6 percent.
What was surprising was the spirited discussion about whether or not the definition should be approved by messengers.
Whether or not a CP definition has ever existed, what the Executive Committee presented was an accurate reflection of what CP founders did 82 years ago. The Cooperative Program is a cooperative partnership that includes individual givers, local churches, the state convention, the SBC and its related entities. The key word is “cooperative.”
By the way, messengers finally passed the motion establishing the definition.
The 300th anniversary of Baptist associations in America. One of the most significant anniversaries in Baptist life is the 300th birthday of local associations. Like most Baptist entities, associations and their leaders have over and over had to deal with the issue of relevence.
The Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Directors of Missions met prior to the SBC annual meeting and heard a challenge to stay in touch with churches lest their associations become “as obselete as a horse and buggy in a NASCAR world,” from retired pastor Jim Henry of Orlando, Fla.
While methodology has changed over the past 300 years in most associations, the need for close-to-home fellowship, joint ministry and training, and sometimes hammering out doctrinal and theological issues have continued to be the thread that runs through the fabric of 300 years of service to God through associations.
This is a Baptist anniversary worth celebrating. And it is a good time to give thanks for all the contributions of associations, directors of missions and their staffs.
The Baptist Faith & message: What it means and what it doesn’t mean. A recommendation regarding the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 statement stirred up as much debate and response throughout the meeting as one could imagine for a “consensus” statement of belief among Southern Baptists. The final vote on a recommendation for messengers to affirm an Executive Committee statement on its sufficiency carried, but the vote spread was 58 to 42 percent.
At issue was the highly publicized decision by the International Mission Board not to appoint anyone who practices a private prayer language — speaking in tongues — as an overseas missionary. The rap on the IMB board is that it makes a doctrinal issue of a practice that is nowhere referenced in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.
A number of Southern Baptists — many of them very vocal — don’t believe the IMB should be venturing beyond the official doctrinal statement in its hiring policies. Some fear than any limitation or requirement enacted by an institutional board that somehow appears to exceed the BF&M needs to be shut down in advance.
Entity trustees – whether they serve seminaries, mission boards or any other entities – are charged by messengers with the welfare of those entities. If they are good trustees, they will become thoroughly informed about the work of the entity to which they have been assigned. They will know more than the average SBC messenger about the specific needs and challenges of that entity.
They will likely make difficult – and most certainly – unpopular decisions in the course of their service. Qualified and dedicated trustees know this. Sometimes messengers – and sometimes the Executive Board itself – spend too much time trying to second-guess these entity trustees.
One might ask: When does a confession of faith cease to be just a confession of faith? The Executive Committee’s statement begins “The Baptist Faith & Message is neither a creed, nor a complete statement of faith, nor final or infallible....” For messengers to treat it as if it is any of those things is to violate the concept of a confession of faith and to run the risk of turning the statement itself into something it was not intended to be.
If the BF&M is not a “complete statement of faith,” then why were messengers even having this conversation?As multiple institution heads indicated, the statement does not cover every pertinent issue that arises in staff deployment and other policies.
The irony is that likely no one in the meeting hall disapproved of anything in the statement. But the issue of how to wisely use a confession of faith is hardly a settled issue among messengers. (06-28-07)