The Southern Baptist Convention has outgrown its meeting space for 2023.
In a move reminiscent of days of controversy in the 1980s and 1990s, attendance at SBC annual meetings has been on the rise since 2018 — after settling down to much smaller numbers after conservatives consolidated their hold on the denomination around the year 2000.
The nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination set an all-time record for annual meeting attendance in 1985 in Dallas, when 45,519 messengers showed up for a showdown over a presidential election that was pivotal to the success of the so-called “conservative resurgence.” Conventiongoers created a traffic jam in downtown Dallas that is remembered by locals to this day.
Previously, messenger registration at SBC annual meetings had been fewer than 20,000 people. That memorable Dallas meeting drew well more than double the 17,101 messengers who voted at the previous year’s meeting in Kansas City.
Attendance remained high in 1986, when 40,987 messengers came to Atlanta. Then the numbers fluctuated — although all still above historic norms — for the next six years.
The next biggest spike came in 1990 in New Orleans, when 38,403 messengers registered for what in reality was the last hurrah of SBC moderates trying to fend off the conservative takeover. Later that same summer, several thousand disaffected Southern Baptists gathered in Atlanta for another meeting that over the following year gave birth to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
After 1990, annual meeting attendance dropped well below 20,000 most years, reaching a modern-era low of 4,852 in 2011 in Phoenix.
Then the sudden return to much larger meetings happened, once again, in Dallas. This time the year was 2018, and 9,600 messengers registered. That was only one-fourth of the 1985 convention crowd in Dallas, but it also was double the 5,000 who had attended in 2017 in Phoenix.
But SBC annual meetings don’t just attract official messengers from churches across the nation. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of other guests, exhibitors and media show up. For example, total 2018 attendance in Dallas clocked in at 16,032 when everyone was counted.
Convention attendance dipped a bit in 2019 when 8,183 messengers and 13,502 total attendees came to Birmingham, and then the 2020 meeting was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Attendance came roaring back in year two of the pandemic, when 15,726 registered messengers and 21,474 total attendees gathered at Nashville’s Music City Center. That was the largest messenger registration at an annual meeting in 20 years.
By historic standards, this summer’s SBC annual meeting should draw a smaller crowd because it is happening on the West Coast, far from the home base of the majority of SBC churches. However, current projections are for more than 10,000 people to show up.
This summer’s SBC annual meeting should draw a smaller crowd because it is happening on the West Coast, far from the home base of the majority of SBC churches. However, current projections are for more than 10,000 people to show up.
The meeting will take place within walking distance of Disneyland — a family friendly pull even for conservative Southern Baptists who once boycotted Mickey Mouse — and there’s a highly contested presidential election again and a major report on sexual abuse.
Convention observers tie the increased attendance since 2018 to increased interest in the politics and leadership of the denomination. Once again, a conservative group seeks to gain control and save the SBC from perceived liberalism.
This corresponds with national political trends inspired by the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, and conservative pushback against social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and what ultra-conservatives call “woke” ideologies. Today, some far-right groups in the SBC are accusing the more traditionally conservative powers that be of succumbing to “woke” ideas.
Convention officials prefer to portray the increased attendance as a sign of increased interest in the mission and ministry of the SBC. But whatever the cause, the increased numbers present some logistical challenges.
On April 19, Jonathan Howe, vice president for communications at the SBC Executive Committee, announced that this renewed interest in attending annual meetings had created a huge problem for 2023. The SBC already had committed to meet in Charlotte, N.C., but the convention center there can accommodate only 8,000 people.
“Several conversations have taken place with meeting organizers and city officials in Charlotte over the past few months,” Howe reported. “Our team visited the city in February to see if any workable solution could be found. Ultimately, we were unable to find a way to keep the meeting in Charlotte — there simply was nowhere for us to hold the meeting as needed in the Queen City.”
On short notice, finding another host city for such a meeting in the peak travel time of summer presented another problem, he said. “We inquired of every major city and convention center in the southeast United States. In the end, only one city was able to meet our four major needs for 2023: geographic proximity to Southern Baptists, hotel availability, available dates and available space. That city is New Orleans, La.”
There’s some good news in this problem, Howe said: “A new generation of Southern Baptists has engaged with the convention, and attendance at our annual meetings has ballooned.”
To address this needed change of venue, members of the SBC Executive Committee will hold a virtual meeting April 28 to give necessary approvals. A notice for that meeting, which will not be livestreamed, says committee members also will receive financial updates, legal updates and personnel updates.
The Executive Committee currently is functioning with an interim president and is awaiting the release of an independent investigation into allegations of mishandling of sexual abuse cases. That report should be released around May 14.
Official messenger registration (not including guests) at SBC annual meetings by year:
- 1979 Houston – 15,947
- 1980 St. Louis – 13,844
- 1981 Los Angeles – 13,529
- 1982 New Orleans – 20,456
- 1983 Pittsburgh – 13,740
- 1984 Kansas City – 17,101
- 1985 Dallas – 45,519
- 1986 Atlanta – 40,987
- 1987 St. Louis – 25,607
- 1988 San Antonio – 32,727
- 1989 Las Vegas – 20,411
- 1990 New Orleans – 38,403
- 1991 Atlanta – 23,465
- 1992 Indianapolis – 17,956
- 1993 Houston – 17,768
- 1994 Orlando – 20,370
- 1995 Atlanta – 20,654
- 1996 New Orleans – 13,706
- 1997 Dallas – 12,420
- 1998 Salt Lake – 8,585
- 1999 Atlanta – 11,608
- 2000 Orlando – 11,959
- 2001 New Orleans – 9,584
- 2002 St. Louis – 9,609
- 2003 Phoenix – 7,015
- 2004 Indianapolis – 8,600
- 2005 Nashville – 11,641
- 2006 Greensboro – 11,639
- 2007 San Antonio – 8,630
- 2008 Indianapolis – 7,277
- 2009 Louisville – 8,795
- 2010 Orlando – 11,075
- 2011 Phoenix – 4,852
- 2012 New Orleans – 7,874
- 2013 Houston – 5,103
- 2014 Baltimore – 5,298
- 2015 Columbus – 5,407
- 2016 St. Louis – 7,321
- 2017 Phoenix – 5,018
- 2018 Dallas – 9,600
- 2019 Birmingham – 8,381
- 2020 No meeting due to COVID
- 2021 Nashville – 15,726