An advertisement for a trip to Hawaii in 2022

When messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention gathered in Phoenix last week, the 4,800 souls present represented the smallest attendance in 67 years. That’s a long time, and a long way from the days when tens of thousands converged every year.

The meeting was not without some excitement: Fred Luter was elected as first vice-president, the first African American to be so honored; a report calling for greater ethnic representation in leadership was adopted; and messengers surprisingly passed (after heated debate) a motion supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Other actions were more predictable: messengers affirmed the doctrine of hell (an obvious response to Rob Bell’s popular Love Wins), rallied around missions, promised to plant more churches, proclaimed their unity, and were urged to give more money to the Cooperative Program.

So, why has Convention attendance continued to fall? SBC president Bryant Wright, who was elected to a second one-year term, suggested that economic doldrums and the distance to Phoenix were primary culprits, and there’s no doubt those things contributed — but attendance has been on a sharply downward trend for years.

The same trend has been true of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which will meet later this week in Tampa: in recent years, except for predictable bumps when the meetings are held in North Carolina or Texas, attendance (and giving) has been increasingly anemic.

I think we have to recognize that the predictions of a “postdenominational age” are largely coming true, and the trend is no respecter of theological dispositions. People, in general, are far less enamored with denominations than they were 50 years ago. Controversy has played a part in that, as many churches chose to self-focus rather than get involved in the fight.

But conflict is not the only factor. Aside from general societal trends toward decentralization, the reality of instant information and social networking through the Internet allows those who want to be “plugged in” to be as involved as they like (with the exception of voting) without taking the time or spending the money to travel to convention meetings. When pastors can follow denominational doings every day and keep up with all the friends they care to keep through Facebook and email, there’s less incentive to attend the annual gatherings.

And, I wonder if the increasing involvement of individual churches in mission partnerships (both domestic and international) isn’t having an affect, as well. There was a time when mission involvement largely came through learning about denominational missionaries and sending money to support them. Now churches are more likely to raise money and excitement for their own mission teams. They find great fulfillment in that, and feel less of a need to support denominational programs.

Do you have other ideas regarding the whys, whats, and wherefores of declining attendance at denominational meetings? Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts … unless, of course, you’re still unwinding from Phoenix or packing for Tampa.

[Photo by Van Payne for Baptist Press]

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