The headline is inherently ominous: " Phoenix SBC attendance lowest since '44." Like most people, I was prepared to see a slight dip in SBC attendance, just because we were going all the way to Phoenix. But as the headline makes clear, the paucity of messengers in Phoenix cannot be explained by the vagaries of geography and political cycle that normally cause messenger count to oscillate: This was historic: Many of our churches could have hosted this annual meeting in their own facilities.
The proposed explanations are predictable. "It's too far away!"
But the last time we were in Phoenix we had 47% more messengers.
"It isn't a 'real' election year."
But in 2003, the last time we were in Phoenix, it was a re-election year (Jack Graham) just as it was this year. In fact, this year's elections were MORE contentious than they were the last time in Phoenix: all of the offices went unopposed in 2003, but not all elections were uncontested this year.
"It's the economy(, stupid)."
But the previous record was in 1944. The economy has not been waxing continuously since 1944. We've had more economic downturns in that span of years than I dare to count: Three that I remember myself.
"It's the bitter fruit reaped from that evil Conservative Resurgence."
<sarcasm>Yes, if only we could experience the robust growth of non-conservative Baptist groups like the BGCT or the CBF.</sarcasm> I'm willing to concede that controversy can drive people away from a group. For the sake of discussion, allow me to grant temporarily that we are declining in messenger count entirely because of the Conservative Resurgence. If so, then why would the blame fall only on conservatives? It takes two to tango. The Conservative Resurgence was caused by a century-long pattern of responding to grass-roots concerns about denominational liberalism with a disingenuous "There, there" mouthed by doublespeaking denominational bureaucrats. If the SBC apparatus had demonstrated some willingness to respond to messenger concerns in 1925, 1963, and 1970, then 1979 would likely have looked much different. We were headed down the same road as the ABC, compared to whom our messenger registrations totals look like Pentecost. I am not moved by claims that the Conservative Resurgence has killed our denomination.
"It's because our meetings don't reach out to 'younger leaders' in the SBC."
But this was THE 'younger leader' convention year, as the stereotypes go. This was the year of the Necktie Nazis. This was the year when there were more Acts 29 folks on the platform than Southern Baptists. A deliberate campaign is underway to woo a certain caricature of 'younger leaders' into our annual meetings.
Fact are our friends. The facts are coming in. The more that we bend over backwards to try to interest people who really aren't that interested in the SBC, the more that we accomplish two things: (1) We fail to bring in a category of people who are never going to be interested in the SBC (more on that below), and (2) we drive away people who really are interested in the SBC by showing them the backs of our hands. The SBC really needs to consider the old proverb about the bird in the hand.
This was the year that nobody came. I was cajoled in a friendly fashion on Twitter earlier this week (when I said that I would watch the live-feed while wearing a tie) to embrace "the new normal." Are sub-5000 messenger counts the "new normal," too? We're soon to be told how this was actually a good year of attendance, but the numbers say otherwise, unless you have an agenda to construe them.
Of all of the younger folks around us, why is it so hard to court the particular group for which our convention has such passionate, unrequited stirrings? By an unscientific analysis of tweets coming from the convention, I would highlight a few things:
Our Annual Meeting is going to be a hard sell to anybody who doesn't like congregationalism. It is the epitome of congregationalism, and that's not going away any time soon. People at our meetings are going to speak their minds. Some of them will speak their convictions about right and wrong without running it by a press secretary first.
Our Annual Meeting is going to be a hard sell to anybody who considers himself or herself "post-denominational." Although our structure is different from that of the more hierarchical, non-locally-autonomous groups, to a post-denominationalist, we certainly are a denomination.
The Southern Baptist Convention is going to be a hard sell to people who are ashamed of being Southern or ashamed of being Baptist. Or, if they are neither Southern nor Baptist, it is going to be a hard sell to those who despise Southern-ness and Baptist-ness. People want to change the name sometimes—I think that's a surrogate for changing the makeup of the convention. The name fits us pretty well, or at least it has done so. We have redneck roots. Some of us are proud of them; some people are mortified by them. But Just for Men has never manufactured enough dye to cover those roots up. That's who we are.
Pandering is unattractive. I don't like dye-jobs anyway. "Hey, Southern Baptists! I'm a younger leader. Who are you?" The correct reply is not "Who do you want us to be?" I'm not a star-studded analyst of the generations, but I think that younger people are not moved by disingenuous branding and marketing. I'd much rather that the SBC be a genuine something than a malleable, Potemkin anything.
I hope that this year was the nadir of the SBC. A nadir marks a bottom point from which you rise. Some very positive things are at work in our midst. I hope that we can go another 70 years of never hitting this low point again. I believe that our North American Mission Board needed a fresh start, and although my antennae are up against intermingling with Acts 29 (although I am working on an upcoming post about things we need to learn from Acts 29), I believe that Kevin Ezell is making some hard, healthy changes at NAMB. He has my prayers and my support. I am really excited about Tom Eliff at the International Mission Board. I look around me and see a rising coterie of good, dynamic, convictional Southern Baptists who are well poised to lead this family of churches into the coming decades.
Let's invest in who we have rather than pining for who we do not. Let's design our Annual Meetings with those in mind who are committed to attend them. Let us not make the mistake of trying to bring in those who don't come by driving away those who do. It would be far easier to succeed at the latter half of that project than the former, and it would be a shame to wind up entirely empty-handed.
Surely, we won't do that.