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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.

COMMENTARY | Meredith Flynn

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.

Leaders of smaller Southern Baptist churches will be watching closely in June as the SBC Executive Committee considers a change to the denomination’s constitution. The article in question (Article III) governs how many voters – known as messengers – individual churches may send to the Convention’s annual meeting.

Here’s how Article III stands now:

  • Churches in friendly cooperation with the SBC can send one messenger to the annual meeting, as long as the church contributed any amount to SBC causes the previous year.
  • Additional messengers may be sent for every 250 members, or for each $250 given to Convention causes.

Under the proposed changes:

  • Churches may send a minimum of two messengers, provided they meetthe guidelines for friendly cooperation (including undesignated, financial contributions either through the Cooperative Program, toward Convention causes, or to Convention entities).
  • Additional messengers are based on contributions (one for every $6,000 or full percent of the church’s undesignated receipts, whichever results in more messengers).

Whew. What does all that math actually mean for churches? In the March issue of SBC Life, Executive Committee Chairman Ernest Easley explained the thinking behind the changes: The new version adjusts for inflation. The $250 figure was adopted 126 years ago. And the proposed wording is an opportunity to “lift up Cooperative Program as the preferred model of giving to Convention work.”

But what about smaller churches, some asked. Won’t the new giving standards make it more difficult for them to send additional messengers?

“…If the perception is that it will hurt small churches, this is DOA,” Executive Committee President Frank Page told EC members at their February meeting. “My heart is with small churches, and I don’t want anything that even seems to be in some way pejorative toward their involvement.”

The EC meets just prior to the Convention and will decide whether to bring the amendment to messengers for a vote during the meeting June 10-11.

Any debate surrounding the proposal, especially if it makes it to the convention floor, could have some bearing on the race for SBC president. Ronnie Floyd pastors a megachurch, while Jared Moore is from a smaller, rural congregation. Dennis Kim’s Maryland congregation of around 1,700 is somewhere in between.

If the conversation about messenger representation swings the momentum in favor of smaller churches or those in regions with fewer Baptists, Moore or Kim could gain some extra visibility at the Convention. If the measure doesn’t come up for a vote or passes without much debate, Floyd would remain the better known candidate with the most SBC leadership experience.

Math may make a difference when Baptists meet in Baltimore.

Previous Baltimore Oracles columns:
The Southern Baptist Convention’s new ‘traditionalists’
What a single-candidate election could mean for the SBC
Why geography matters