Columbus, Ohio | For one whole year leading up to the 2015 Southern Baptist Convention, the meeting’s main issue was made crystal clear. It wouldn’t be theological differences or other debates. Not even denominational decline or cultural change.
Extraordinary, unified, visible, repentant, collective prayer.
Ronnie Floyd, elected to his first term as SBC President at last year’s meeting in Baltimore, immediately issued a “Call to Columbus,” rallying Baptists to come to the Midwest to cry out to God for the next great awakening.
On a Tuesday night in Ohio, they did. Nearly 7,000 people praying on their knees, on their faces, in small groups, and in quiet solitude. (More than 8,000 people joined them online.)
“Tonight is a moment that we pray you won’t forget for the rest of your life,” Floyd said at the beginning of the National Call to Prayer. “We hope it’s a moment in this generation.”
In Baltimore last year, an early end to a morning business session resulted in an impromptu prayer gathering. But many messengers had already left the convention hall. That wasn’t the case in Columbus, where Baptists prayed together for two hours on topics including racial reconciliation, spiritual awakening, and the persecuted church.
“Awesome and humbling service and God’s presence was obvious!” former Illinois director of missions J. E. Hail posted on Facebook after the Call to Prayer. “May God answer our prayers for revival and awakening!” – even if we’ve never actually seen it before.
Las Vegas pastor Vance Pittman’s voice broke when he said he’d heard and read about revivals of the past. “But I have never experienced that kind of an awakening where I live,” he said from the platform.
“And I don’t know where you are tonight, but I am hungry to not just read about it, and not just hear about it, but to experience a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit of God on our nation like we have never witnessed before.”
Don’t wish for Mayberry
Throughout the 2015 meeting, leaders outlined one big reason to pray: our swiftly changing culture. Similar to the last few Conventions, the Columbus gathering included several between-session presentations on how churches can meet sweeping social change with love from a firm, biblical foundation.
Perhaps because churches are facing ever more specific issues related to sexuality and gender, the meetings in Columbus offered practical advice on how to deal with a same-sex couple that comes to faith in Christ, or a transgender teen in the youth group.
Cultural change shouldn’t cause churches to panic, leaders said again and again. Instead, Christians should cling even more closely to the saving power of the gospel, which pulled them out of their own sin.
“We can’t be, as our mission field changes around us, pining for some day in the past when everything was easier,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, during his message at the Pastors’ Conference. “Mayberry leads to hell just like Gomorrah does.
“The message that we have is not, ‘Let’s get back to when everybody was better behaved.’ The message that we have is, ‘You must be born again.’”
The next challenge
SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page focused on another cause to pray in his report: fewer people coming to Christ through the ministries of SBC churches.
“We need to increase our evangelism like we never have before,” Page said. “Oh God, help us to be soul winners…”
Recent numbers from the Annual Church Profile (see page 5) paint a bleak picture: SBC churches lost more than 200,000 members last year, and baptisms fell below the level they were in 1948, Page reported.
“We’ve adopted society’s lie that people won’t talk to you about Christ anymore,” he said.
To jump start evangelism, Page introduced “Great Commission Advance,” a campaign to begin this year and run through 2025—the 100th anniversary of the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ chief method of supporting missions. Baptist Press reported the plan includes a 1% challenge in baptisms and in stewardship, similar to the challenge Page issued to churches in 2013 to increase giving by 1% of their undesignated offerings.
One big, redeemed family
Prior to this year’s meeting, many figured Columbus to be a hard sell for Baptists in the South and other regions. Would messengers really turn out for a Convention in a Midwestern city not known for its theme parks and family attractions? The final report on registered messengers Wednesday afternoon was 5,407, slightly above last year’s total in Baltimore.
While the focus on prayer seemed integrated into every part of the meeting, the business sessions were relatively quiet:
• All five SBC officers were elected unopposed: Ronnie Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, president; Steve Dighton, senior pastoral advisor at Lenexa Baptist Church in Lenexa, Kansas, first vice president; Chad Keck, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kettering, Ohio; second vice president; John Yeats, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention, recording secretary; and Jim Wells, strategic partners team leader for the Missouri Baptist Convention, registration secretary.
• Nine resolutions were affirmed, including measures on marriage, sexual purity, and religious persecution (see page 10).
• An amendment to the SBC’s Constitution regarding qualifications for churches sending messengers to the annual meeting was approved on a required second vote. Cooperating churches may now automatically send two messengers to the Convention. Article III of the Constitution, written in 1888, previously allowed for one messenger per church, with additional messengers allowed for every $250 contributed to Convention causes.
Under the new guidelines, the amount for additional messengers is adjusted for inflation to $6,000. The maximum number of messengers per church also increased from 10 to 12, Baptist Press reported.
One particular order of business related directly to events of the past year, and a key part of the Call to Prayer Tuesday evening. Messenger Alan Cross from Alabama asked that the Executive Committee be commended for its report on racial diversity in the SBC since 1995 (the year the denomination apologized for past racism). Cross had made a motion the previous year asking for information on ethnic representation in SBC leadership. This year, the Executive Committee said much progress has been made but “more can and needs to be done.” Messengers approved Cross’ commendation.
During the National Call to Prayer, Floyd called on Baptists to repent of racism and prejudice, bringing to the stage leaders of different ethnicities to pray for racial reconciliation.
Around the convention hall, people gathered in small groups, standing shoulder-to-shoulder or hand-in-hand as they prayed for unity. The leaders then worshiped together on the stage, as the band led those in the packed auditorium to sing, “I am redeemed. You set me free.”
“Tonight in Jesus’ name, we come together as one family,” Floyd said, “and we do it because of the blood of the Lamb of God who died for the sins of the world.”
Read more of the Illinois Baptist team’s coverage from Columbus in our June 29 issue, arriving online this week.