‘Tis the season for Baptist state conventions to meet to approve budgets, elect leaders and draw lines. I’ve not done extensive research into attendance figures, but there seem to be (in most cases) smaller numbers showing up at such events.
In Missouri, where the more-moderate Baptists encountered the “Unwelcome” mat years ago, the much smaller crowd of ultraconservatives stayed in conflict. This year, the hard-core conservatives defeated the harder-core conservatives who have had the reins since tossing out the moderates.
Of course, state conventions are not on the brink of extinction. However, they may be reflective of a larger decline in denominationalism.
The bottom line is that a lot of people who used to go to state conventions — and care about what happens — don’t anymore. For some, like me, the parameters of participation have narrowed so much that I not only feel excluded but am often embarrassed as a Baptist by the narrow-minded expressions and actions often coming out of such meetings.
Like the larger Southern Baptist Convention, many of these state groups have an ongoing effort to tighten the circle of participation.In response, a growing number of those who don’t feel welcome stay at home.
Then you can add in those of a very conservative nature who simply consider such bureaucratic dinosaurs to be less relevant to the kinds of ministry they are doing.
State conventions can and often do become internally focused. The emphasis seems to shift from cooperative ministry to preserving the institution and keeping the pool of participation doctrinally pure.
For example, when is the last time a gathered state convention spent serious time wrestling with how to minister to the changing pluralism within their state or other great ministry opportunities?
No, the focus is generally on how to keep out perceived heretics or anyone else who resists control. And, of course, to rally support for funding the institutional machine in the name of missions and ministry.
But where is the real focus — inward or outward?
Arkansas Baptists affirmed their Landmark tendencies that claim only Baptists can do authentic baptisms. Florida Baptists want to assure no agency trustee ever has wine with dinner. North Carolina Baptists aren’t going to fund those uppity WMU women who won’t work under the state convention’s control.
The new Baptist concept of “unity” seems to be rooted in a continual reduction in participation until everyone in the room — regardless of the small number — is in full agreement or at least in compliance with the convention’s power brokers.
Year in and year out, Baptist-related schools are looking for escape routes from this kind of narrowing mentality that inhibits their mission of Christian education.
Does this suggest that Baptist state conventions support no worthy ministries or have no future? No, but it sure looks like an inward focus and an ever-narrowing circle of participation can create an environment where a lot of those who used to participate and care no longer do so.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.