Andi and I drove to Birmingham, AL this past week to attend the two-day Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. We arrived Monday evening, June 10th, in time to be blessed by the conclusion of the Pastor’s Conference and then were present for all four sessions of the meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday. I have attempted to provide a brief overview and a few highlights from this year’s meeting.
We arrived at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex just prior to the last session of the Pastor’s Conference (where various SBC pastors preach sermons on a theme for that year – this year the theme was the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount). First, a quick word about the Birmingham-Jefferson Complex…
The main arena where the General Sessions took place was just that – an arena. I prefer this over a gigantic convention hall room where typically the layout is incredibly wide but not very deep. Every seat in the Birmingham arena provided a nice view of the platform and it hearkened back to Conventions from years ago (unless I’m wrong, next year’s meeting will be back in a convention hall room in Orlando, meaning the room will be extremely wide where you seem so far away from the stage and speaker).
Apart from enjoying the arena itself, the complex was a train wreck. I have never been in a more confusing building where things were disjointed, far apart, and just difficult to find. When Andi and I arrived, we asked a few vendors for directions to the Pastor’s Conference and everyone was stumped. Even the SBC Information Desk balked in trying to provide directions for us! If it were not for floor decals that pointed the way to the sessions, we would still be looking!
The first speaker we heard was Andrew Brunson, who appropriately spoke on “Blessed are those who are persecuted…” Andrew was wonderful to listen to and learn from, and a significant reason why was due to his incredible humility and meekness. Andrew openly admitted and confessed that his confinement and persecution did not elicit in him the kinds of feelings that one might expect. He thought being in prison would make him feel empowered by the Holy Spirit and confident in the Lord and thankful for his persecution and overwhelmed by the feeling of God’s grace. But alas, he felt none of those things. He discussed an “unfelt grace” where he knew the grace of God was with him but was unable to feel it. He admitted to thinking a lot about himself, his own safety and his own release. He even admitted that he thought more about himself than his own church when asked during a panel discussion if he was concerned about his flock while in prison. That is the kind of honesty that makes me listen. If we were in Andrew’s shoes, all of us would be tempted to come out on the other side and act as if we had all the answers about persecution and that we clung to this powerful experience of grace and that our hearts were broken for the people in our church. But no. Andrew was transparent about his struggles and his feelings. It was a powerful picture of real life and real people clinging to the presence of the Lord even when we are unable to feel his presence.
The final preacher to speak at the Pastor’s Conference was Jimmy Scroggins. Pastor Jimmy discussed being “salt and light” and focused on the concept of salt needing to “make contact” in order to be effective. He then went on to describe a host of issues where Southern Baptists must be willing to make contact in a way that is winsome, biblical, and promotes unity among our churches. His repeated phrase for the sermon was, “It may not be your fault, but it’s your responsibility.” Topics he hit head-on were racial reconciliation, complementarianism, women’s leadership in the local church, social justice, and more. It was an effective word to begin the two-day meeting where these issues would be prominent.
After the conference, the ERLC hosted a panel called Sexual Abuse and the Southern Baptist Convention. Russell Moore, Beth Moore, Susan Codone, Rachael Denhollander, and J.D. Greear spoke at the panel. Susan’s testimony, her first in public, was difficult to hear but an inspiration to see her strength and trust in the Lord. Rachael Denhollander spoke with a kind of surgical use of her words, precise and powerful. The panel received overwhelming support and it seemed to me and Andi that the messengers were ready to do whatever it takes to not only accept responsibility and seek repentance for the abuse crisis but also to take the necessary steps to prevent further cases of abuse in our churches.
Andi and I finished the night by picking up a pizza from a local place called “The New York Pizza.” It was one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten.
TUESDAY, JUNE 11
Andi and I arrived at the complex for the morning session and were thrilled to run into our friend and church member Susan Bryant. We enjoyed sitting together for the morning session.
An appropriate if not more subdued recognition of the United States was offered with specific prayer for the many devoted chaplains across our Convention. This was a welcomed contrast to the arrival of Mike Pence at the 2018 Annual Meeting in Dallas, which served as a significant distraction.
The motions presented from the floor this year were fairly innocuous; nothing too extreme or out in left field. Which, in a sense, was disappointing! Perhaps the most important was a motion by Phillip Bethancourt for all SBC entities to provide an update at the 2020 SBC Annual Meeting as to their efforts to address abuse. A couple of motions addressed a desire for the SBC to provide electronic means of nominating and even voting for SBC officers. The former is a possibility. The latter is not.
The morning session wrapped with a powerful word from Convention President J.D. Greear. He called on messengers to put the gospel above all (the theme of the meeting this year) and boldly warned pastors to avoid aligning with a political party from the pulpit so that the “other side” would not be alienated from the mission field. I especially appreciated this aspect of his address and have previously written on the danger of political speech from the pulpit, especially as it applies to the Johnson Amendment.
In the afternoon session, a panel called “Undivided: Your Church and Racial Reconciliation” was provided for the messengers and I was introduced to a sociologist and professor named George Yancey. After the panel, I was able to talk with Professor Yancey and we spoke about the possibility of him speaking at Graefenburg Baptist. His perspective was one of the most helpful and comprehensive I have heard in the realm of race relations. The panel helpfully addressed common retorts from church members when addressing race, such as, “If we talk about race, it will make things worse” and “I don’t see race, I just see humans.”
The IMB report and sending celebration is probably the highlight of the entire convention. The Convention was able to pray over 26 new missionaries who are being sent all over the world, including regions of intense persecution, to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every SBC church member should attend a sending celebration at some point in their life. This is the core reason why the SBC exists.
The Tuesday sessions ended with new Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd confidently and movingly letting the Convention know that he was committed to the critical issues facing the churches of the SBC. The EC would be bringing a motion to establish a permanent Credentials Committee that would have the authority to address whether a church was in friendly cooperation with the SBC based on their handling of potential sexual abuse issues or racial issues. The motion would be overwhelmingly affirmed by the messengers. You can read more about the vote here.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 12
J.D. Greear was elected to another year of serving as the President of the SBC and the messengers also heard from the 6 seminary presidents, all of whom were passionate about their seminary, their students, and their mission.
The ERLC presented a beautiful report on their work alongside the Sexual Abuse Advisory Committee that was organized last year under J.D. Greear’s leadership. A powerful time of lament, repentance, and worship preceded the report. Churches are being strongly urged to take the Caring Well Challenge and follow through on 8 steps to address the abuse crisis within the Convention. At Graefenburg Baptist, we have been working for months in two key areas related to this topic. First, we developed a strong Security Ministry Team that is working in tandem with our children’s ministry leadership and children’s ministry policies to ensure the safety of our youngest to our oldest. Second, the children’s ministry leadership has worked to review, address, and tighten our policies to make our church an even safer place for the gospel to be taught and modeled.
Having said that, Graefenburg Baptist will be following through with the Caring Well Challenge since the scope of this initiative is more comprehensive than just children. The team will be assembled over the next few weeks and the launch of our Challenge will be August 25, 2019.
Finally, an interesting and powerful range of resolutions was presented by the Committee on Resolutions (chaired by Kentucky Baptist Curtis Woods!). Among these resolutions was one on sexual abuse and, to my surprise, one on critical race theory and intersectionality! You can read a simple synopsis of the individual resolutions here.
The best part of my trip to the Annual Meeting in Birmingham? Being with my beautiful wife, Andi. The time away is an opportunity for us to be renewed and refreshed, and we did just that.
I am proud and thankful to be a Southern Baptist. There is much work to be done. Let’s move forward together.