The Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will hold their annual meetings in Birmingham, Alabama. Both groups met in Dallas days apart last summer as well. I don’t think there’s anything behind it, except, perhaps, they are looking for good rates on hotels and cheap prices to rent convention centers. From the perspective of significance, there is some, I guess, in the fact that while Southern Baptists are the largest Christian denominational group in the state of Alabama, by a wide margin, they’ve not had their annual meeting in the state in more than 50 years. In fact, the last time the SBC met in Birmingham, which was its last meeting in Alabama, it was 1941.
Ironically, Alabama ranks second in percentage of total state population belonging to a Southern Baptist church, at 30% and is the second most-shunned state in the South when it comes to the number of times the SBC has met within its borders. Mississippi has never hosted an SBC meeting, but it ranks #1 in total percentage of its residents who are Southern Baptists, at 31%. There are over a million Southern Baptists in Alabama, over 250,000 of them live in the greater Birmingham area. Among metropolitan areas in the United States, only Charlotte, NC, Jackson, MS and Nashville, TN have a higher percentage of Southern Baptists in their metro population.
As a convention city, Birmingham is, well, it’s no Orlando. It’s not Phoenix, either. Perhaps one of the reasons it’s not been a recent host of the SBC has to do with that. It has a relatively small convention center, which hasn’t been an issue for Southern Baptists in recent years, with just one hotel within walking distance. A perfect storm of issues has come together to create potential for making getting to and from the meetings a struggle. The main interstate highway through the city will be shut down for construction. Birmingham is not normally a city with major traffic jams, but I-20/59 through the heart of town carries thousands of cars of travelers just passing through and this kind of shutdown can back traffic up there for miles. Issues within the hotel connected to the convention center have left it without half of its rooms available for rent. So a good number of Southern Baptists will be driving to and from a convention center by alternative routes. The vast majority of Birmingham’s hotel rooms are off the interstate that is closed, at both the eastern and western end of the city.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the splinter group resulting from the effort by conservatives to gain control of the SBC’s trustee boards and committees, is also meeting in Birmingham about a week after the SBC has departed. It was the same scenario in Dallas last year. No one got hurt, I don’t believe. I don’t think anyone had to take a doctrinal shower to wash off the effects of the previous group meeting in the same city. The doctrinal, philosophical and church practice gap that has formed between these two groups over the past two decades has grown wide and deep, though most of CBF’s partnering churches also continue to support the SBC cooperative program to a lesser or greater degree, many of them tipping CBF on behalf of a handful of members. Alabama has not been friendly territory to CBF, only 18 churches in the state are affiliated, eight of them in the Birmingham metropolitan area.
Although CBF is made up of mostly ex-SBC congregations, or in fact, about 80% of its partnering churches are still dually affiliated with the SBC, the business of the two groups will be very different. Both groups are suffering from declining attendance, membership and the corresponding drops in revenue that accompany those kinds of statistics. I’ve heard the financial situation at CBF described as a “crisis” by individuals who are involved and have a good grasp of what is happening. The SBC’s venerable Cooperative Program is down, but only along the lines of the declines it has experienced in recent years, nothing drastic. But both groups are reeling from the effects of being broadsided by social issues and internal conflicts that they seem to be slow to come to grips with, so there will be a lot of speculation going on and many eyes focused on Birmingham just to see how the leadership handles the problems.
Southern Baptists have been beset by a stubbornly declining membership for almost a decade now, one that has only become worse as time passes on in spite of best efforts to arrest it. It’s leadership, a “conservative resurgence” that once claimed the SBC would be on the road to decline if moderate Baptists continued to allow creeping liberalism to run things, is at a complete loss as to what is causing it and even more ham fisted when attempting to find ways to deal with it. The convention was still growing when conservatives took control, within just a few years of securing complete control of all the boards and agencies, membership flatlined and then started its downward trek. More than a million members have been subtracted from the roll in a decade.
More recently, a clergy abuse scandal that has been going on for years came to the surface. Not only did the SBC find that several hundred pastors and church leaders were involved, but it reached into the administration of two of its seminaries. One of them, Southwestern in Ft. Worth, is also reeling from financial scandal caused by lack of full accountability. It’s hard to use lofty spiritual language and talk about ministry and missions when those things are on the business agenda.
CBF has had its own issues. Controversy over a hiring policy that did not allow for the inclusion of gays, lesbians or transgendered persons erupted. A new policy was included in the “Illumination Project” allowing for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons as employees, but not as missions appointees. More controversy followed, since the report did not require adoption at an annual meeting. There’s been little to no discussion, and no formal vote taken at a general assembly.
So did CBF just accept this, or have there been problems? Reports are that the contributions to CBF’s general fund are down considerably this year. Is there speculation that this might be the result of this annual research done last year or not? Hard to say, but I bet that it has something to do with it, even though CBF leadership has become expert at couching disaster in pleasant terms.
Another group of Baptists lives in Birmingham. These folks, mostly people of color, for the most part do not belong to the churches that either send messengers to the SBC or send members to the general assembly. They worship at places like the 16th Street Baptist Church, still there, renovated and bearing no scars from the explosions on those mornings long ago that caught four young girls heading to a Sunday School class by surprise. That these Baptists are, for the most part, not connected to those who will come to their city by the thousands this summer, is a testimony to racially fragmented Christianity. I had hoped, by this time in my life, that Christians would be more united around Christ than we are, but clearly we are not and won’t be for a while yet. Race, cultural boundaries, prejudice, yes all things that are products of individual selfishness still separate the church. So the biggest news out of Birmingham for both groups who meet there this summer will be decline in influence, service and evangelism.