PHOENIX — Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) messengers
meeting in Phoenix June 14-15 adopted an historic report encouraging ethnic
diversity, witnessed dozens of leaders standing together in support of a
landmark unity pledge, and saw hundreds of pastors and laypeople volunteer to
lead their churches to embrace one of the world’s 3,800 unengaged people
It was the lowest-attended annual meeting in 67 years, with just over 4,800 in
attendance, but the substance of the meeting led plenty who attended to argue
it shouldn’t be judged on numbers.
“I do believe it could prove to be the most spiritually significant convention
over the last 50 years,” Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright,
who was re-elected to another one-year term, told Baptist Press (BP) after the
Phoenix gathering. Wright pointed to the sluggish economy and to the travel
time from most SBC churches as possible reasons for the low attendance.
From beginning to end, messengers heard biblical pleas for Southern Baptists to
join the church planting movement in North America and to adopt an unengaged
people group around the world. And messengers responded. More than 1,000
pastors and their wives packed a North American Mission Board (NAMB) luncheon
to learn about the entity’s new Send North America church planting strategy. On
the final night of the convention, hundreds of messengers flooded the front of
the convention hall at the end of the International Mission Board (IMB) report,
having signed cards pledging to lead their church to embrace an unengaged
people group. An IMB representative will contact them later.
Each mission board report also featured a commissioning service, with Southern
Baptists meeting their newest missionaries.
“Coming back to the authority of scripture was a correcting point that had to
take place (in the SBC), but the mission is to fulfill the Great Commission,”
Wright said. “I think this was the most unified convention around the Great
Commission that I have experienced. People came here with anticipation of that
Wright practiced that unity during his press conference, inviting the
presidents of NAMB, Kevin Ezell, IMB, Tom Elliff, and the Executive Committee,
Frank Page, to sit on the platform with him and participate. It was the first
convention as president for all four men, and each one had a unique emphasis
during his respective report to messengers. Ezell highlighted church planting
and Elliff emphasized the unengaged, while Page introduced an “Affirmation of
Unity and Cooperation” pledge that was signed by entity leaders, state executives
and ethnic fellowship leaders. The document had five core points, with the
heart of it a pledge to “walk in unity as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
During the Executive Committee report, the leaders stood on stage together.
“Our convention is fracturing into various groups, some theological, most
methodological,” Page told messengers. “Sometimes there is an honest difference
of opinion, but often there is self-centeredness that frequently mirrors our
“Christ-like selflessness is our only hope,” Page said.
Page also urged Southern Baptists to take the “1 Percent Challenge” — leading
their church to increase gifts to the Cooperative Program by 1
percent-of-budget point. Doing so would lead to $100 million more for Southern
Baptist ministries and worldwide missions, including funding for 380 more IMB
missionaries, Page said.
The Executive Committee’s landmark report on ethnic diversity was the focus of
national media attention, as was the election of New Orleans pastor Fred Luter
to first vice president. He is the first African American to hold that post.
The report’s language encourages the SBC president, when he makes his various
appointments, to “give special attention to appointing individuals who
represent the diversity within the Convention, and particularly ethnic
diversity.” It also encourages the committee in charge of the annual meeting to
reflect the ethnic diversity of the convention in the meeting program. A motion
that would have struck the ethnic diversity language was defeated by a margin
of 3-to-1. The Executive Committee report, delivered after a two-year study,
cites the “need to be proactive and intentional in the inclusion of individuals
from all ethnical and racial identities within Southern Baptist life.”
During a press conference, messenger Paul Kim, who made the 2009 motion that
led to the report, urged ethnic Southern Baptists to get more involved in the
convention in this “history-making moment,” saying, “This is the time.”
Ethnic diversity, Wright told BP, is “vitally important to the future of the
church in America.”
“We have not reflected what is happening in America in both the makeup of our
churches but especially in the leadership in our convention,” Wright said.
The convention’s resolutions — which express the sentiment on often hot-button
theological and cultural issues — once again made news. In a surprising move in
the convention’s final session, messengers overruled the Resolutions Committee
by at least a 2-to-1 margin and voted to consider a resolution — promoted by
messenger Tim Overton — highly critical of the NIV 2011 Bible translation. The
resolution passed nearly unanimously.
The resolution’s text says that because
of “inaccurate gender language,” messengers “cannot commend the 2011 NIV to
Southern Baptists or the larger Christian community.” It “respectfully request(s)
that LifeWay” not sell the new NIV in its retail chain.
Messengers also passed resolutions:
- supporting the Defense of Marriage Act.
- affirming the historical, biblical concept of hell in a resolution that
mentions Rob Bell’s Love Wins book.
- condemning the actions of those who protest funerals, burn the Koran, and
pray for the deaths of public officials.
But a resolution on immigration and the gospel, coming at a convention partially
focused on ethnic issues, had the most floor debate. By a 4-to-1 margin,
messengers adopted the resolution, which includes key language asking “our
governing authorities to implement, with the borders secured, a just and
compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures,
for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country.” That sentence
was nearly struck but survived on a ballot vote, 51-48 percent. The resolution
gained more support when the Resolutions Committee proposed adding a sentence
that says the resolution “is not to be construed as support for amnesty for any
undocumented immigrant.” Mostly overlooked in the controversy was the rest of
the 22-paragraph resolution, which calls on churches to take the gospel to all
people, “regardless of country of origin or immigration status.”
The main focus of the convention was on fulfilling the Great Commission — both
in North American and around the world.
“With less than 4 percent of our (Southern Baptist) churches directly engaged
in church planting, we’ve got to do better,” Ezell said at the NAMB luncheon. “We
must do better. We are going to do better.”
Churches — and not NAMB — plant churches, Ezell emphasized, adding that over
the next couple of years, NAMB will develop church-planting coalitions in 25
urban areas around North America. He said the coalitions will be made up of
local pastors, church planters, representatives of local state conventions and
associations, along with partnering pastors and state convention leaders from
elsewhere. The coalitions will develop local strategies for planting new
churches in their area.
“It’s a new day,” Ezell said. “It really is. Pastor, we’re not going to make it
harder for you. Associations and states, we’re not (going to make it harder on
you either). We’re going to make it easier. We’re going to make it easier for
you to engage in missions and to pray and partner. We can do this together.”
Birmingham, Ala., pastor David Platt preached the convention sermon, quoting
statistics on the world’s unreached and telling messengers, “This is not a
problem for the International Mission Board to address. This is a problem for
every pastor and every local church to address.” Other convention speakers —
including several during the Pastors’ Conference and Wright himself during his
sermon — made a similar point.
Elliff, in his report, spotlighted the need to embrace unengaged people groups,
but said, “This convention has been one long sermon…. There is not one thing
I could say” that messengers have not already heard. A lost world, Elliff said,
needs churches who consider it unacceptable that there are people groups “who
do not have somebody deliberately” trying to engage them with the gospel.
“Really, all there’s left for me to do is to give the invitation,” Elliff said,
moments before hundreds of messengers came forward holding cards that said, “I
will lead my church to embrace an unengaged, unreached people group.”
The Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation pledge — signed at the Executive
Committee meeting June 13 and presented to messengers the next day — includes
five key “pledges.” In summary, they are:
- “We pledge to maintain a relationship of mutual trust …
- “We pledge to attribute the highest motives to those engaged in local church
ministries and those engaged in denominational service in any level of
Convention life …
- “We pledge to affirm the value of cooperative ministry as the most effective
and efficient means of reaching a lost world …
- “We pledge to embrace our brothers and sisters of every ethnicity, race, and
language as equal partners in our collective ministries to engage all people
groups with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
- “We pledge to continue to honor and affirm proportional giving through the
Cooperative Program as the most effective means of mobilizing our churches and
extending our outreach as Southern Baptists ….”
In other matters:
- More than 1,100 Arizonans made professions for Christ during the
pre-convention Crossover 2011 evangelistic effort.
- Paul Thompson, one of the 10 Baptists held in a Haiti jail in 2010, appeared
before messengers during the Executive Committee report, telling them, “I have
never been so proud to be a Southern Baptist as I was in the 19 days in a
lonely but yet God-filled prison cell in Haiti.”
- Ezell promised that, under his watch, future financial stewardship at NAMB
will demand “accuracy, transparency, effectiveness and efficiency — not smoke
and mirrors.” He then clarified and put into perspective some oft-quoted NAMB
statistics — for instance, that Southern Baptists planted 769 new churches in
2010, not the 1,400 to 1,500 a year usually reported in the past. “When the old
NAMB counted church plants, they didn’t ask for church names or addresses or
planter names. The new NAMB is asking and only counting churches for which
those details can be obtained.” Ezell generated laughs and applause when he
said, “If Walmart can track how much toilet paper it sells every hour, we
should be able to track how many churches are planted each year.”
- Wright, pastor of the Atlanta-area Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, was
re-elected president over Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church
in Buena Park, Calif., who nominated himself. The vote was 2,274 (95 percent)
to 102 (4 percent). Luter, senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in
New Orleans, was elected first vice president over Rick Ong, a member of First
Chinese Baptist Church in Phoenix. Luter received 1,558 (77 percent) votes to
Ong’s 441 (22 percent). In three elections without opposition: Eric Thomas,
senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., was elected second vice
president; John Yeats, director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist
Convention, was re-elected recording secretary; and Jim Wells, director of
missions for the Tri-County Baptist Association in Nixa, Mo., was re-elected
- There were no night sessions.
Next year’s meeting will be June 19-20 in New Orleans.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. With reporting by
Mickey Noah, Barbara Denman and Mark Kelly.)