Baltimore Oracles: Small numbers, big impact

Meredith Flynn —  May 29, 2014

COMMENTARY | Eric Reed

Editor’s note: Leading up to the Southern Baptist Convention in Baltimore June 10-11, the staff of the Illinois Baptist will preview the annual meeting in “Baltimore Oracles,” a series of columns about SBC elections and key issues.

When there was but one candidate for SBC president, attendance at the Baltimore gathering seemed of little consequence in the outcome of the proceedings. The analysts would comment on the demographics and decline.

But now, with three candidates in the running, the convention promises a bit more of a horserace. And the headcount becomes more important.

The 2011 annual meeting in Phoenix is the lowest-attended in recent history, with only 4,814 messengers registered. Many would attribute the sad nadir to distance from the Southern-states home base – faraway conventions are rarely well attended.

And since 1985’s peak of 45,519 messengers in Dallas when Charles Stanley was elected president, there hasn’t been a political debate or theological wrestling match to draw ordinary church members in large quantities. Only the stalwarts have continued to make the annual trek, no matter how far from home the host city may be.

Attendance has declined steadily over the past two decades. When 7,484 registered in New Orleans in 2012, Fred Luter’s election as the first African American SBC president was the big draw and debate over renaming the convention received second billing. The following year, when it was thought the simmering dispute about Calvinism might boil over, only 5,103 showed up in Houston.

If the proponents of Reformed theology had put forth a candidate this year, then location and attendance could have significantly swayed a genuine two-man race. Location and attendance were big factors in Stanley’s win, when busloads of messengers from nearby states traveled to Texas to raise their ballots and secure conservative control of the denomination.

But after Southern Seminary president Al Mohler said he would nominate megachurch pastor Ronnie Floyd, it appeared there would be no duel over theology and no need to rally support from the Reformed bases near Baltimore. Convention attendance, except as a measure of personal investment,
wouldn’t be an issue.

Now, however, attendance becomes a factor with the announcement by Jared Moore that he will run against Floyd. With registration expected to be near record lows, a relative unknown running on a “small church” platform could muster a respectable showing when ballots are raised. And the late entry of Maryland pastor Dennis Kim makes every vote – cast in his home state – even more important.

It’s been a long time since the convention elected a president who wasn’t the pastor of a megachurch. Mississippi businessman Owen Cooper served two terms starting in 1973 with a win in Portland, Oregon, and only 8,871 messengers registered.

With the denomination’s recent voting history, such a dark-horse win seems unlikely. But the race for SBC president just became interesting.

Meredith Flynn

Posts

Meredith is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.