Tips on reporting from this week's annual Southern Baptist Convention meet
(COMMENTARY) If you decide last-minute to visit the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual extravaganza at Birmingham, Ala., June 11–12, you may need a hotel in Montgomery, if not Atlanta, since something like 10,000 “messengers” (please, never say “delegates”) will be cramming 37 local hotels. Whether in-person or from long distance, some coverage tips.
Media should recognize that alongside its vast Sunbelt flock, America's largest Protestant denomination claims, for instance, 42,000 adherents in New York State, 68,000 in Illinois, 76,000 in Indiana, 84,000 in Kansas-Nebraska and 206,000 in California. This influential empire has 51,541 local congregations and mission outposts, with $11.8 billion in yearly donations.
Long gone are the years when pulses pounded over high-stakes political machinations as hardline conservatives were winning SBC control. But news always abounds.
Notably, this is the first meeting since the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News blew the lid off SBC sanctity with data on 350 church workers accused of sexual misconduct with 700-plus victims since 1998. On the eve of the meeting, the Chronicle followed up with an investigation of molestation by foreign missionaries (behind pay wall).
That crisis reaches the floor Wednesday afternoon, June 12, when SBC President J.D. Greear’s sexual abuse study gets a ridiculously tiny 20-minute time slot. Greear’s address Tuesday morning may offer grist. And the June 10-11 convention of local and state SBC executives gets a proposed policy to protect minors (.pdf text here).
Another related effort was last month’s survey on perceptions of the abuse problem, which critics will think exposes naïve attitudes. Sources who monitor SBC depredations include evangelical blogger “Dee” Parsons of The Wartburg Watch and the 10 SBC victims and victim advocates featured in the current Christianity Today (behind pay wall).
Greear, a North Carolina pastor, is up for re-election Tuesday afternoon to a second year as SBC president. Should be automatic, though he’s under some right-wing fire for saying women can be speakers at Sunday worship despite the SBC’s 2000 “complementarian” stance that only men should be pastors. That 2000 platform also says “a wife is to submit herself graciously” to hubby. The Wednesday afternoon panel on “Indispensable Partners: The Value of Women in God’s Mission” may prove quotable onstage and in the hallways.
Alongside Greear, reporters should keep eyes upon Arkansas pastor Ronnie Floyd, the new Executive Committee president and CEO. That makes him the SBC’s permanent, full-time honcho whereas Greear’s denominational presidency is part-time and temporary. By the way: Floyd participates in President Donald Trump’s group of evangelical advisers.
Spot news often erupts when a committee brings resolutions to the floor. This year’s batch will certainly merit headlines if the committee addresses host Alabama’s new ban on most abortions. If needed, reporters can track past years’ pronouncements here.
Both Floyd and Greear have posted remarkable membership gains during their pastorates. However, the SBC over-all has seen a gradual statistical slide in recent times, specifics here. Though nowhere near the demographic implosion that liberal “mainline” churches have suffered, this spells trouble for other evangelical Protestants — especially those without strong work among blacks, Latinos and Asians.
Assorted side events include the June 9–10 Pastors’ Conference. Though news-free, this flavorful preach-a-thon is the place to spot up-and-comers.
Reporters have the benefit of two competing news services. The official Baptist Press reported that those statistics “declined slightly” in 2018. But the independent, anti-establishment Baptist News Global had this hed: “Southern Baptist baptisms at lowest level in 74 years.” Both statements are true, but you get the idea.