Convention Reflections: What is The Southern Baptist Convention?

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On June 11 and 12, my wife and I were sent as messengers from Slater Baptist Church to the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham, Alabama.

Unless you are very familiar with the way Southern Baptists operate, the sentence above probably does not make a lot of sense to you. Don’t worry, there are a multitude of members of Southern Baptist churches that would not understand what I mean by “messenger” or why I went to Birmingham, so you are in good company. To be honest, I’ve been a Southern Baptist for years (even went to a Southern Baptist Seminary) and I didn’t really understand what being a messenger to the Southern Baptist Convention would mean until I was one.

Over the coming weeks, Savannah and I would like to share what we learned from our experiences at the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention, but I thought it would be helpful to start by giving a picture of what the Southern Baptist Convention is.

One of the things that makes this discussion confusing is that there are two ways to define “Southern Baptist Convention.” Most of the time, when people talk about the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC for short), they mean “a network of like-minded, autonomous churches that cooperate together for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission.” The word “autonomous” is super important to that definition and I’ll explain why in a later blog. Southern Baptists are known for holding The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as a statement of their beliefs as well as giving to the Cooperative Program to support mission efforts. The Cooperative Program supports 11 Southern Baptist entities, including seminaries, the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, and the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission.

But there is another definition of “Southern Baptist Convention.” The second definition goes something like this: “the annual meeting of representatives from Southern Baptist Churches that come together to conduct the business of the Convention and hear reports concerning issues affecting all Southern Baptists.” When using this definition, the technical name is “Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting,” but I’ve never actually heard anyone say that. Everyone just says “Southern Baptist Convention.”

These representatives from Southern Baptist Churches are called “messengers.” The Southern Baptist Convention meets together once a year (during the month of June) for two days. During these two days, Southern Baptists vote on all of the business facing their network of churches for the entire year. Yes, you read that correctly. Southern Baptists only come together to vote on SBC business once a year, so they have to handle all the important matters facing the convention in just two days.

You might be asking, how does this work? Well, think about your church’s business meetings. At Slater Baptist, we hold business meetings about once every three months. At those meetings, members hear reports on what has happened in the past few months, share ideas on what the church should do in the future, elect church officers like pastors or deacons, and vote on any relevant items of business. In the time leading up to those meetings, a lot of work is done by the leadership of Slater Baptist Church to prepare proposals and update the church on what is happening. In many ways, the decisions made at our business meetings affect how the church is run after those meetings.

The Southern Baptist Convention is like a church business meeting on a grand scale. During the two day meeting, every institution that receives Cooperative Program funding gives a report to the messengers. Messengers have the opportunity to make motions and share their thoughts about what the SBC should do. Messengers vote for officers within the SBC, like president, vice president, etc. The leaders of various Southern Baptist entities discuss what they believe the Southern Baptist Convention should do in the future. And, lastly, messengers vote on items of business related to this particular network of churches.

The elected officers and items of business that are voted on can have a huge impact on the way the SBC operates year round. As an example, the election of officers and the voting of messengers over a number of years actually pulled the SBC out of liberalism in the 1980s and 1990s. Without the actions of the messengers at the Southern Baptist Conventions during those years, the SBC would not be the conservative denomination that it is today.

So, essentially, the Southern Baptist Convention is a business meeting for all the churches within the network of churches known as the Southern Baptist Convention.

So, let’s try this again. On June 11 and 12, my wife and I were sent as messengers from Slater Baptist Church to the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham, Alabama. And we are excited to share our experiences with you in the coming weeks!

David Watson