A week from today Southern Baptists from all over the world will convene in Baltimore, Maryland to stir one another up to love and good deeds, discuss business, and eat lots of food—probably seafood, this year. My family I will be some of them—unless an earlier-than-expected delivery arrives.
On Sunday, I shared, through our church newsletter, what the Southern Baptist is and why they should try to go to it at some point in the future. I share the same brief history with you and why (if you are a Southern Baptist) you should go to the SBC.
What is the Southern Baptist Convention?
A few years ago, when still in seminary, and before I’d been to a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), I asked a friend, whose father was at one time a seminary president: What is the Southern Baptist Convention like? Here’s what he said, “It is part business meeting, part revival, part circus.” Hmmm. Really?
Not knowing what to make of that comment, I went to my first SBC, where in the first day, Paige Patterson and Albert Mohler squared off to talk about Calvinism. That was somewhat of a circus. On the second day, I saw the election of Frank Paige as SBC president. At the time, that “business” decision was both unexpected and controversial. Since then, his election has effectively brought unity and cooperation among Southern Baptists. And on the third day, I sat in a basketball arena smelling popcorn and listening to another future SBC president, Fred Luter, deliver an unforgettable sermon.
In all, it really was part revival, part business meeting, part circus. And in the years that have followed, I have happily returned to the strange and wonderful meeting held every June. But in case you’ve never been, I want to share a brief history and overview of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Southern Baptist Convention in History
The Southern Baptist Convention dates back to before the Civil War. In a muddled-attempt to send slave-holding missionaries to continents like Africa, Southern Baptists convened for the first time in 1845. Because Northern Baptists refused to send slave-holders on the mission field, Baptist churches in the South felt a need to send their own.**
In the 1850s a growing need for seminary training united Southern Baptists again. Basil Manly, Sr. issued a call for a seminary in the South, because in the 19th century, most divinity schools required as a prerequisite a classical education. As a result, those few that qualified went to schools like Princeton or Brown. Others went without training.
This all changed in 1859 when James Petigru Boyce founded The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Greenville, South Carolina. Boyce was the son of a wealthy merchant in Charleston. And by the time he died in the 1888, he had spent most of his fortune establishing Southern Seminary.
In time SBTS moved to Louisville (1877) and five other seminaries would follow: Southwestern in Fort Worth; New Orleans in Louisiana; Golden Gate scattered across the West; Southeastern in Wake Forest, North Carolina; and Midwestern in Kansas City. Coupled with the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board, these six seminaries receive the bulk of Cooperative Program dollars.
The Cooperative Program (CP) was initiated in 1925 to fund missions and theological education. Each year the CP is divided among these SBC “entities,” along with the Executive Committee (the administration which organizes all things SBC during the year), the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU), and Guidestone Financial Resources. Another entity, LifeWay Christian Resources, which began as the Sunday School Board in 1891, actually contributes to the CP, as it draws revenue from its 186 LifeWay stores, its summer camps, and various conferences, etc.
All in all, it is the CP and the 13 entities that unifies the SBC. While SBC churches should affirm the Baptist Faith & Message, Southern Baptists are functionally united in their strategic employment of resources. And it is at the annual convention where reports are made by the entities and direction is given to those ministries.
Only Two Days a Year
Technically speaking, the SBC only exists two days a year. As its name suggestions it is the “convention” of Southern Baptists. And since it only ‘convenes’ for two days, it is necessary to fill those days with business, interspersed with song, preaching, and testimonies. During these two days a wide-range of Southern Baptists gather to discuss with reason and rhetoric the needs of the convention. This is why my friend outlined the convention as part business meeting, part revival, part circus.
Since no two Southern Baptist churches are the same, when five to ten thousand gather to do business, there are a variety of opinions. “Amens” and “Oh man’s” abound. But through it all the messengers work together to direct the organization known as the SBC to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. Of course, it is not perfect. Some motions made from the floor are foolhardy; some of the rhetoric is unhelpful; and some of the conversations seem tedious, but through it all, it is astounding to think of the impact made on the world in just two days.
Why I Go and Why You Should Go Too . . . When You Can
In the last decade, I’ve been greatly encouraged to see how the conservative resurgence has spurred revival in Great Commission urgency. More and more money has been funneled to reaching the nations and planting gospel-centered churches. While other denominations debate same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals, the SBC by God’s grace has debated subjects related to biblical doctrine and the best way to reach the lost.
In those ten years, the age of the denominational meeting has gotten younger. Passion for evangelism, prayer, missions, and healthy churches is evident. And though we have along way to go, the Southern Baptist Convention is worth attending for the way it provides biblical encouragement, strategic planning for missions, and a reminder that God works through all kinds of people. In this way, it is a “business revival circus” I wouldn’t want to miss.
I hope to see you there!
Soli Deo Gloria, dss
**You are right in your estimation if you wonder about the blindness of the first Southerners who sought to send missionaries to places where they enslaved Africans. Importantly, in 1995, on its sesquicentennial, the SBC issued an apology for its original stance on slavery. While it should grieve us that it took so long to make such an apology, we can see God’s patient mercy with Southern Baptists. It’s a reminder of how God uses our sin to accomplish his purposes (cf. Gen 38; 2 Sam 24).