Upwards of twenty-thousand attendees are expected to gather in Nashville, Tenn., this week for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) – an annual denominational meeting dating back to 1845 when 293 representatives first convened in Augusta, GA.
Baptists first arrived in the American colonies in the late 1600s, emigrating from England. The formation of the “Southern Baptists” stemmed from a desire for strong, regional unity, with an emphasis on missions. Many of the Baptist churches in the South played key roles in mobilizing support for the American Revolution, believing political and religious liberty were inextricably linked.
By the late 1840s, Baptists in the South split with their brothers and sisters in the North over slavery – a painful episode in the denomination’s history and one they’ve since apologized and sought forgiveness over.
Controversy is still never very far from any denomination these days and especially one as large and as influential as the SBC. So perhaps the latest headlines heralding this year’s highly anticipated event should surprise few:
“Southern Baptists Meet to Grapple with Race, Gender Equality and Sexual Abuse,” NPR reported.
The New York Times added an even more dramatic flair, declaring, “Conservatives Aim to Commandeer Southern Baptists.”
Secular coverage of a spiritual event always invites the potential of media missing – whether inadvertently or intentionally – the nuances and foundational principles at play. In fact, it’s been my experience working with secular media that the majority of reporters covering religion are culturally illiterate about the very faith groups they’re tasked with writing or broadcasting about.
The casual consumer of news would be forgiven if they likened the Southern Baptist Convention to something akin to a papal conclave – the Roman Catholic gathering of the College of Cardinals convened to elect a pope.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
While the faithful of the country’s largest Protestant denomination will select a president by week’s end, Southern Baptist churches are autonomous congregations. Yes, they may partner with other congregations and financially and prayerfully support national programs and missions, but the Southern Baptist Church in your neighborhood ultimately doesn’t answer to the larger denomination.
Many of the hot-button issues on the agenda inside Nashville’s Music City Center deserve a thorough and robust conversation. The intersectionality of culture and faith is a reality, and all Christians should filter the world through the lens of scriptural truth. We don’t just need to know what to believe – but why what we believe is true.
Mainstream media is drawn to honest and subjective disagreements within the Church almost as much as moths are to flames. So, brace yourself for lots of stories designed to accentuate or magnify differences between believers. What you’ll notice is that few, if any, of the disagreements will be “salvation” issues but instead tactical or strategic. In other words, good people seeing the same thing but from a different perspective.
Christians of other denominations or no denomination at all may dismiss the SBC as something of a side show – maybe even a distraction. But doing so would be a mistake.
A strong, robust and, most importantly, biblically centered Southern Baptist Convention is important and good for the entire Body of Christ. If a rising tide really does lift all boats, a group of believers who are rooted in the Gospel promise to provide the best hope in fulfilling the Great Commission.
Photo from Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC/REUTERS