By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
Southern Baptists came to Nashville in droves for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in mid-June and they were a welcome sight for a city and state still trying to recover from the economic shutdown caused by COVID-19 in 2020.
If you walked anywhere in the downtown area, you saw people lined up outside, waiting to get into restaurants. And, for the most part, those waiting didn’t seem to mind. It gave them added opportunity for fellowship with friends they had not seen since the Birmingham annual meeting in 2019.
The 2021 annual meeting is historic in one note. The 15,726 messengers who attended made it not only the highest attended convention since 1995, it also represents the highest total of messengers in the 21st century. The messenger count for annual meetings had yet to pass the 12,000 mark for the first 20 years of this century until this year.
Nashville was a good host city for the first annual meeting since COVID.
First, Nashville is within a six to 10-hour drive for thousands upon thousands of Southern Baptists, not only in the South but in states such as Ohio and Indiana. When I plan trips, that’s the limit I want to drive in a day’s time without spending the night along the way somewhere.
Second, the leaders of the city of Nashville need to be commended for making the event happen. Just two months ago, the annual meeting was close to being moved from the city of Nashville due to COVID-restrictions still in place at the time. The meeting originally was to be held at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Conference Center, but was relocated to the Music City Center downtown which provided more room to socially distance.
One negative is that even with the larger space, social distancing was near impossible, both in the meeting facility and the exhibit hall. Masks were few and far between. Hopefully, we won’t have a COVID outbreak across the nation that can be traced back to Nashville. The media would have a field day.
Speaking of media, there were more secular media in Nashville than in years past, waiting to see how Southern Baptists would respond to several issues that could be divisive, such as allegations of cover-up of sexual abuse by the SBC Executive Committee, Critical Race Theory (CRT), the drama around the resignation of Russell Moore from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and more.
Southern Baptists handled the issues well. They elected a new president, Ed Litton, who won a run-off election with Mike Stone by four percentage points. Messengers came to town determined to have a voice and, for the most part, they were heard.
Many Baptists left town unhappy that CRT was not mentioned specifically but Southern Baptists adopted a strong resolution that noted “any theory or worldview that denies that racism, oppression, or discrimination is rooted, ultimately, in anything other than sin.”
Resolutions continue to be a source of divisiveness among Southern Baptists. There was a lot of debate on several of the resolutions that were approved, some with amendments from the floor. A resolution on abortion that was not brought to the floor was “resurrected” from the floor by a two-thirds vote by messengers. That rarely has happened in the past couple of decades. What’s more, the strongly worded resolution was approved.
Messengers brought forth a number of motions. Many were referred to the appropriate entity for further study while some were ruled out of order. Again, messengers were heard. A motion from Murfreesboro pastor Grant Gaines that the new SBC president appoint a task force to oversee a previously announced investigation of alleged Executive Committee mishandling of sexual abuse claims was referred to the EC by the Committee on Order of Business, but messengers overturned the ruling by a two-thirds vote and overwhelmingly adopted the motion. Again, that is a rare event at annual meetings.
Three motions that piqued my interest that were referred included one to discontinue resolutions, make Nashville the permanent meeting site and change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Ending resolutions would be a good move in my book but it won’t happen. Resolutions, however divisive they can be, provide a means for Southern Baptists to express their views.
While making Nashville the permanent meeting site would be good for the city and state, it puts an added burden and pressure on Baptists responsible for making it happen. People will never know the amount of hours spent making sure the annual meeting would take place with minimal “hitches.” Kudos to every Tennessee Baptist who served as a volunteer, including many staff members of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. It was truly a team effort of the SBC, TBMB and Nashville Baptist Association.
As to officially changing the name of the SBC to the Great Commission Baptist Convention, I have opposed it before and will continue to do so. I consider myself a Southern Baptist by choice and a Great Commission Christian because that is what Jesus commanded His followers to be.
Overall, the annual meeting went well. Messengers had the opportunity to be heard and though there are still differences of opinion, they handled business in the appropriate manner. What’s more, both messengers and the city left with hope that the effects from COVID are beginning to diminish.
Now, it is time to deal with the business that matters most — sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with a world that desperately needs a Savior.