Baptists re-tool annual gatherings
Declining attendance, rising expenses and rapid advances in communications technology cause some to contend the Baptist annual meeting is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
This story was edited after posting to correctvan error.
By Vicki Brown
Registration for the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention in Houston closed June 12 with a total of 5,103 messengers, down from 7,874 last year in New Orleans and the second-smallest convention crowd since 1944. The last time the SBC met in Houston, in 1993, registration totaled 17,768.
Declining attendance, rising expenses and rapid advances in communications technology cause some to contend the Baptist annual meeting is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Not so fast, say others who believe the fellowship and sense of community such gatherings afford will hold the practice together at least for a while.
“There is a sense in which annual meetings nurture community in a way that other activities cannot,” noted Baptist historian Bill Leonard, the James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and professor of church history at Wake Forest School of Divinity.
In the past, the annual meeting has been the primary opportunity for cross-generational contact and discussions about missions, evangelism and theological dialogue. Ending the practice would be a “huge loss,” Leonard said, because no similar opportunity exists.
“When those sources of connection disappear, where do you nurture that sense of community?” he asked.
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter said nurturing community is practical in a changing world. “In a pluralistic, post-denominational culture, we can feel alone at church,” Paynter said. “Being together reminds us we are not alone.... We can do more together than one church alone.”
Some suggest that annual meetings no longer matter, because denominations themselves are dying. Others say denominationalism isn’t dying but changing, and that those groups flexible enough to change still need the community and networking conventions afford.
“We are living through the death rattle of the Protestant privilege,” said Leonard. “Most denominations will survive in some form but with much less prominence in American religious life than they have had before, and that’s across the denominational spectrum.”
The North American Baptist Fellowship, a Baptist World Alliance regional body, is looking for new ways to connect with members.
“Some will disappear, but I don’t think we will lose all denominations and affiliations,” noted NABF President Jim Hill. “I don’t think we are in a post-denominational era, ... but I think those that fail to connect in vital ways with their congregations will not last.”
Larger denominations may have the most difficulty adapting to cultural change. Leonard sees the Southern Baptist Convention as a “classic” case study of a large denomination’s struggle to remain viable.
“For a long time, they told themselves they were not declining and that because they are conservative, people would run to them,” he said. Instead, a growing number of SBC churches are dropping “Baptist” from their name.
“The SBC system is so cumbersome that it may not be able to change fast enough,” Leonard said.
Paynter agreed that “the era of the cruise-boat denominational structures is gone.”
“We live in the small-boat era,” said Paynter, who looks forward to her first CBF General Assembly since her election as chief executive in February June 26-28 in Greensboro, N.C.
CBF Moderator Keith Herron of Kansas City, Mo., who will preside, views the annual gathering as a picture of hope for the body’s future.
“[The General Assembly] keeps us together, keeps us informed and keeps us inspired,” Herron said. “Churches don’t do well as totally autonomous bodies, but rather need other congregations that are struggling or prospering in similar ways.”
“There is a unifying force of mission that stirs the imagination and the spirit of congregations when the pot of ideas and inspiration is stirred.”
The Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention holds a weeklong annual gathering in August that emphasizes strong personal and community connections -- a cultural necessity among African-American churches.
“Given the high value of relationship cultivation, personal and ministry networking, and the ‘family reunion’ aspects of Baptist communities of African-American heritage, the annual meeting remains essential to the life and work of these bodies,” noted David Goatley, Lott Carey’s secretary-treasurer.
American Baptist Churches USA, a 1.3-million-member group that meets every other year, also stresses community-building.
“In an age of high tech, we believe in high touch,” explained Leo Thorne, ABC-USA associate general secretary for mission resource development.
American Baptists gather June 21-23 in Overland Park, Kan. The group is taking a different approach this year. For the first time, its session will be conducted as a Mission Summit. In the past, the organization held separate conferences.
Rather than inviting an “expert” to share how to deal with certain issues or topics, the meeting will foster small-group discussions. Participants will “attend the group that meets their interests,” Thorne said. “Then they will be challenged to go back to their church, discuss what they learned and find ways to implement it.”
While some Baptist bodies stream parts of their annual sessions online, apparently none is conducting completely “virtual” meetings.
Goatley said the only organizations that would benefit from providing annual sessions solely in “virtual” format would be those that use the national meeting only for business. He added that those denominations would have to make certain they provide “good information that is clear and fair, rather than slanted in the direction of the authors of the distributed materials,” he said.
Groups that use national sessions to “cultivate relational capital” probably should remain with the current annual meeting concept,” Goatley said. “Virtual meetings cannot adequately nurture networks for people whose primary orientation is around helping people strengthen their relationships with Jesus,” he said.
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