I’m not going to lie: I half expected it to be a colossal waste of time. And my wife was less than enthused about farming out the four kids just to go sit through business sessions for three days. However, SBC Voices partnered with the Pastor’s Conference to provide a $1000 scholarship so a small church guy like me could go to the big dance and see what the fuss was all about.
I’m so glad they did.
I left Phoenix with eyes wide open, convicted, and prouder than ever to be Southern Baptist. This is more than a simple summary. I want to reflect on some trends I noticed and give whatever perspective a first-timer mooching off someone’s generous buck can be trusted to give. You’ve been warned.
A Tale of Two Cities.
Surrounding the actual convention–which took place Tuesday and Wednesday–are a bunch of suckerfish ministries that take advantage of the fact that thousands of SBCers are already planning to assemble. TGC, 9Marks, and ERLC all hosted various events before or during the convention. The largest of these was the SBC Pastor’s Conference, attended by well over a thousand pastors, which met from Sunday evening until Monday evening.
This year, the SBCPC intentionally featured pastors from smaller churches, and over the course of four sessions these 12 men preached consecutively through the entire book of Philippians. Much of the theology and practice was obviously influenced by Reformed convictions. Additionally, Getty Music led worship.
Things swung the exact opposite direction on Tuesday morning as the convention began, heavily featuring megachurch pastors. Several dug in hard on the importance of “soul-winning”. Featured guest Greg Laurie even walked through how to give an effective altar call. A praise band/worship team led using modern worship music mixed with old-time hymns.
The contrast was obvious. On the one hand, our denomination teems with young alums from institutions like Southern and Southeastern who are filling our pulpits with expository sermons, emphasizing history hymnody, and serving small congregations. On the other hand, we find many megachurches led by dynamic, evangelistic preachers, filled with programming and CCM inspired worship among our ranks.
To be honest, I was encouraged. The fact that churches of such different size, philosophy of ministry, and conviction regarding Reformed theology can come together for the sake of missions and the Kingdom is a testimony to the Spirit’s work. What is more, as a guy who identifies more with the Reformed small church crowd, many blindspots in my ministry and preaching were exposed by the impassioned plea for evangelism and prayer coming from the convention stage.
My favorite sermon was Roger Spradlin’s defense of expository preaching from 2 Timothy 4. It was emboldening to watch a seasoned pastor push all of our denominational buttons–the tendency to rely on programming, music, ambience, and seeker-sensitive services. Instead, he pushed for a total reliance on the Word and the gospel to draw all men to Christ. (Favorite line: “If you can talk men into the gospel, you can also talk them out of it.”)
Southern Baptists know how to build institutions. Reports from the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board, the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, and all of our seminaries made me grateful. As I listened to David Platt, Kevin Ezell, Russell Moore, Daniel Akin, and Albert Mohler, I thanked God for placing men of character and Gospel zeal at the helms of our institutions.
Several of our seminaries have furthered a missionary mindset through institutional advancement. Some are taking advantage of online education to train pastors from the nations with the intention of founding new indigenous seminaries. Healthy seminaries are essential to the future of our denomination, our churches, and our mission efforts–something many other denominations are realizing too late.
The IMB commissioning service on Tuesday night was worth the $600 plane tickets on its own. As my wife and I listened to young voices share about their love for the nations, I was brought to tears. These are our heroes. Ordinary men and women willing to forsake everything because millions are dying without ever hearing the name Jesus. I pray for the day when I look up at that stage and see faces I recognize and the words “College Street Baptist Church” under their names.
I was blown away to find Getty Music at the Pastor’s Conference. I was…unsurprised to find what I found at the convention itself. I grew up attending Southern Baptist megachurches, and the program music was par for the course. I tried my best to participate in the singing during the sessions–because I wanted to worship with my brothers and sisters–but by the final session I was exhausted.
There’s a reason why “Victory in Jesus” is a Southern Baptist favorite. As a denomination, we have a penchant for triumphalism. Every song has to explode with applause at its conclusion. We are the winners. We are the winners. We are the champions of the world. Whether a traditional hymn or modern worship song, this is the constant drumbeat. It is true: we are more than conquerors through Christ. But where is the space for confession? Contrition? Sorrow? Repentance?
The SBC program was probably an accurate display of congregational singing across the denomination. Half of the songs were completely unfamiliar to me–but looking around that was not the case for others. I suspect this is because Southern Baptist hymnody is less and less codified in the Baptist Hymnal but more and more in the CCM radio catalogue.
This makes me sad. It was ironic to hear Keith Getty’s Q&A about the do’s and don’ts of congregational singing on Monday night, only to find all of his recommendations transgressed on the same stage on Tuesday night.
There have been countless articles written about Resolution #10. Suffice it to say, when I sat down for the opening session on Tuesday and flipped through the Book of Reports and saw “ON THE ANTI-GOSPEL OF ALT-RIGHT WHITE SUPREMACY: Declined”, I thought: “This is not a good look.” Sure enough, less than 15 minutes later, a screenshot was circulating and the rest is history.
Looking back, this is my perspective. Normally, resolutions are proposed and ratified without so much as a second thought. I doubt even 15% of messengers normally read a single resolution from the Book of Reports. But because we totally fumbled this one, it was given focused attention throughout the entire convention. It was printed as a special handout. Seminary presidents were condemning the Alt-Right from the stage. Convention President Steve Gaines multiple times emphasized the importance of stomping out racism. This doesn’t forgive the error–or sin if this was intentional–but it does illustrate how God works even the evils and mistakes of men to bring about His good (Genesis 50:20).
Southern Baptists are an interesting breed. We are autonomous churches. The convention has no authority in any of the local churches. And no local church has authority over another. I know racism and white supremacy are still a problem in our churches. We are foolish to think that some convention resolution will magically change that. That’s not how it works.
However, I saw intentionality on the stage last Tuesday and Wednesday to platform minorities. The Pastor’s Conference featured sermons from several minority pastors. H.B. Charles was elected its new president and preached at the general convention. Promotional videos featured black and brown faces. Jose Abella and Walter Strickland were elected as Convention Vice-Presidents.
All to say, we have a long way to go. We are stumbling, fumbling, and sinning along the way. We are stumbling back into bad habits, making blunders, and trying desperately to recover. But I am hopeful. I pray that black, hispanic, asian and other minority brothers and sisters will continue to forgive us when we are unintentionally patronizing, slow, and blockheaded in our approach. I pray they will continue to speak out with courage when we are intentionally discriminatory, hateful, and ungodly.
To conclude, this is my heart as I depart Phoenix: “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation” (Hebrews 6:9).