The Spirit of St. Louis: What This Year’s Annual Meeting Can Teach Us About the SBC

The Southern Baptist Convention ended a week ago, and SBC pastors and messengers have now settled back into our churches and lives all across America. But there are several things that we all took away from St. Louis. In general, this year’s convention gave a great display of who we are as a denomination – all of our glory and all of our warts – and a few critical moments captured the essence of this display.

First, the central moment of this year’s meeting was the election of a new president. The president of the SBC is allowed to serve two consecutive one-year terms, and Ronnie Floyd’s second term was expiring. We had three nominees heading into the annual meeting: David Crosby, senior pastor of First Baptist Church New Orleans, Steve Gaines, senior pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, and J.D. Greear, senior pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, this election began to represent a growing tension in the SBC. Greear represented a growing group of young, energetic, more theologically reformed leaders in the denomination. Gaines represented the older, more traditional group of Southern Baptists. And, perhaps, even Crosby represented the group of Southern Baptists that find themselves in neither camp.

After the first ballot, Greear and Gaines went into a runoff receiving 45 and 44 percent of the vote respectively. And in something I have never seen before, the runoff (between only two candidates) failed to produce a winner. Roberts Rules of Order say that while all ballots may be used to calculate a majority, only legal ballots (meaning they were filled out properly) are eligible to count for a candidate. In the runoff vote, Gaines received 2,410 votes or 49.96 percent, and Greear received 2,306 or 47.80 percent with 108 illegal, or improperly filled out, ballots. The election was heading for an unprecedented third ballot the next morning when J.D. Greear humbly and graciously bowed out. Greear’s resignation from the race brought a standing ovation from all who were in attendance — an enormously unifying moment for all Southern Baptists.

This election tells us so much about our denomination of churches. First, it tells us that there really is a divide in the SBC between the “young, restless, reformed1” Baptists and the older “traditional2” Baptists. Even ten years ago, this more reformed group in the SBC was thought to be a small minority, but now as this election proved, it represents about half of all Southern Baptists. Second, this election showed that at least 2.23% of Southern Baptists aren’t very good at listening to instructions, even simple “fill in the circle” instructions. But third, and most importantly, this election showed us that our unity in the Gospel and for the Great Commission is stronger than our differences. In the end, I believe God’s kind providence prevailed, and, despite our differences, the messengers left St. Louis more unified than ever.

A second telling moment in this year’s Southern Baptist Convention was the passing of a resolution to renounce the display of the Confederate Battle Flag. The Confederate Flag certainly gained a lot of attention in the summer of 2015 after the horrible, racially-motivated shooting of nine churchgoers in Charleston, SC. In response, many SBC leaders spoke into the Take It Down movement. This resolution passed overwhelmingly — a great moment of solidarity and repentance for a denomination with a past marked by racism. This resolution reminded us of the incredible, transformative grace that God gives through repentance and faith. It signaled the power of the Gospel to change, correct and heal.

As complicated as the SBC is, we praise God for enabling us to send more resources to missions, plant more churches, and train more pastors and missionaries than ever before. The International Mission Board reported that the 2015 Lottie Moon Christmas offering was over $165 million, nearly $12 million more than the previous record.

I pray that moving forward, God would continue to give us grace to move forward by opening our eyes to sin. I am so grateful to be connected with so many people who are passionate about the word of God and the advance of the Gospel. I left the convention with a sense of gratitude for all the work that is being done, but I also left with a greater sense of urgency for the work yet to be done. I look forward to next year’s convention in Phoenix and pray with expectation that God will do immeasurably more in my heart, in our convention, and around the world.

[1] Collin Hansen coined this phrase in his 2008 book and in other articles.  It has come to describe the revival of reformed theology among younger evangelicals.

[2] In 2012 Eric Hankins published “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” in response to the growing movement of reform theology in the SBC.