Plug-In: Southern Baptists brace for biggest annual meeting in a quarter-century

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The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting is a hot ticket once again.

Flash back to 1985: At the height of the battles between the denomination’s conservatives and moderates, 45,000 Southern Baptists flocked to Dallas. 

But by 2001 — when I covered my first SBC annual meeting for The Oklahoman — the typical number of “messengers” sent by local congregations had dipped below 10,000. I actually wrote a front-page story from New Orleans that year headlined “Baptists share united voice.”

For years, the meetings were a big draw for national and regional journalists who cover religion. But as Southern Baptists gathered in Orlando, Florida, in 2010, Cathy Lynn Grossman, then the religion writer for USA Today, asked, “Who’s watching Southern Baptists debate their future?”:

The wire services are walking the beaches of Pensacola with President Obama and religion reporters — what’s left of us — are hobbled by lack of travel budgets and the rigidly local focus of many media.

The Tennessean’s Bob Smietana, now with Religion News Service, was one of perhaps only two mainstream reporters (along with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Frank Lockwood) who flew to Florida for that meeting.

At the time, I opined that not just a lack of travel budgets — but a shortage of news woven through the lens of sex and politics — was to blame.

Not to fear: No such shortage of news exists anymore. (Thank Donald Trump. Or Russell Moore. Or if you prefer, Beth Moore.)

For the Southern Baptists’ upcoming June 15-16 meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, 14,000 messengers have signed up

That’s the most since 1995 in Atlanta when more than 20,000 registered. At that meeting, Southern Baptists first voted to apologize for past racism, as reported then by John Dart, the legendary Los Angeles Times religion writer.

Why the high interest in the 2021 meeting? Christianity Today’s Kate Shellnutt notes:

The Southern Baptist annual meeting tends to draw bigger crowds when held in southern cities, and Nashville, home to the denominational headquarters, is a major hub already.

It’s also a belated election year for the SBC, with a full slate of presidential hopefuls gunning for the position J. D. Greear held for a third year due to the 2020 meeting being cancelled.

And the SBC has been hashing out ideological divisions around hot topics like race, politics, abuse, and women in ministry, as a newly vocal conservative wing — the Conservative Baptist Network — warns the denomination about drifting leftward and getting entangled with critical race theory.

Besides Smietana, journalists planning to cover the meeting — in person — include the Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the Houston Chronicle’s Robert Downen, the New York Times’ Ruth Graham and The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer. 

Power Up: The Week’s Best Reads

1. Leaked Russell Moore letter blasts SBC conservatives, sheds light on his resignation: Have I mentioned the Southern Baptists yet? Here’s a scoop from Religion News Service’s Paul O’Donnell and Bob Smietana on a leaked letter written by the departing Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president.

Read the full letter, and see Smietana’s follow-up on sources claiming longtime Baptist leader Paige Patterson made an offensive comment (about a “Black girl”) cited in Moore’s letter. 

Also, RNS’ Adelle M. Banks reports that Moore is leaving the SBC personallyas well as professionally.

2. Caught in a culture war, this multiracial family navigates a predominantly White evangelical world: For a change of pace, here’s a story about Southern Baptists.

I kid. I kid. 

Joking aside, this is a really interesting — and insightful — feature from Austin, Texas, by the Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey.

CONTINUE READING: “Coming soon: Southern Baptist Convention’s biggest annual meeting in a quarter-century” by Bobby Ross, Jr., at Religion Unplugged.

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