Evangelical Churn: Being “In the Room” for #SBCAM18

Evangelical Churn: Being “In the Room” for #SBCAM18 June 14, 2018

The more I read about the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting, the more I wanted to tell you about how this whole event feeds into evangelical churn. Remember that dude Nathan Akin who seriously wanted young people to attend these functions to have a say in their denomination’s future? Here’s why his suggestion was disingenuous at best–and outright dishonest at worst. No, there’s not reallay a way for a young SBC whippersnapper to be in the room. Here’s why.

Downtown Dallas, 6/26/2010. (skys the limit2, CC.)

“Be In The Room.”

Nathan Akin had a variety of suggestions to offer young people in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). One of his central ideas was for them to “be in the room.” By this odd phrase he meant that young people should attend state and national conventions to cast votes on the SBC’s various agenda items.

One commenter, Donna in Texas, thought he might be riffing off of a similar phrase in the musical Hamilton. Now that I’ve heard it, I agree.

Here are some lyrics of the song in question, “The Room Where It Happens” —

No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in
The room where it happens.

Aside from a February post by a British journalist using the same phrase and meaning, “we must be in the room” doesn’t appear much of anywhere else. It’s not a Christianese saying, though it sure feels like one! So Hamilton might be where Nathan Akin is drawing from for his idea of being in the room.

The room is “where the sausage gets made” and “where the game is played.” People who aren’t in the room don’t get to help decide any of that. The doings of the people in the room do not get communicated adequately to those outside the room. Their decision-making process is opaque, not transparent. Only the people actually in the room will ever know how the group arrived at whatever decision they’ve made.

I am not sure at all that this is a great comparison for the SBC to make, if that indeed is what Nathan Akin had in mind. But it’s definitely an accurate one. That’s exactly how the SBC works.

If someone isn’t “in the room,” then they will have zero influence on the denomination.

(But–I whisper subversively–being there sure doesn’t give them much more influence, as we’ll see.)

Getting TO The Room.

The first problem with Nathan Akin’s suggestion to be in the room is that it’s disingenuous in the extreme. It’s difficult for a young person to gain entrance to the SBC’s national convention.

I ran across this commentary, by an SBC pastor. It outlines this difficulty in stunning clarity.

Bobby Gilstrap relates that some years ago, he wanted to go to the annual convention. At the time, his church was very small, but they’d still cobbled together many tens of thousands of dollars to donate to the SBC’s Cooperative Program (CP). The Cooperative Program funds, among other things, worldwide missionary activity. The SBC ties support of this program to eligibility to attend their national convention. (My opinion of that requirement is NSFW.)

So Mr. Gilstrap’s church’s generosity opened the door to allow some of them to attend the national convention. But wait! There’s a lot more involved here before he could park his bottom in one of those stadium seats.

Money Makes the Room Go ‘Round.

Click to embiggen the scam alert found on their convention site’s front page.

First, whoever goes needs to pay for the trip and hotel costs. That cost alone was simply too high for many potential attendees to afford. In fact, it’s such a high cost that the SBC event site felt it necessary to warn people about scammers seeking to swindle innocent Southern Baptists looking for super-cheap hotel rooms. And they put that warning front and center on their convention’s official site, right on the front page under the map of the area!1

Let’s reiterate here. Mr. Gilstrap had seen to it that his church had given to the Cooperative Program till it hurt. They’d donated so much to the CP that they literally couldn’t afford to get there in order to attend the meeting where they might get a small say in how their money would be used.

And not to put too fine a point on things, but even after coming up with travel and housing money, the money grabs never stop coming. Every year, the convention offers a number of other activities. Many of these extra activities cost money. This year, attendees could attend various other conferences and workshops–for an additional fee ranging from $15-20 for the pastors’ wives’ luncheon all the way up to $99-$109 for the Conference of Associational Leaders.

Faced with a terrible choice, Mr. Gilstrap decided to pay his own way there. It wasn’t an awesome experience, but he was glad he went. He tells us in his post that he’s had to miss the meeting a few times, almost always because of financial constraints.

Money Talks.

Bobby Gilstrap raises a question in his post: considering how difficult it is financially for small churches to scrabble enough money together to attend the annual convention, why can’t the SBC offer satellite feeds so people can watch the meeting remotely?

Southern Baptists have asked that question many times. It’s almost a “beating a dead horse” question by now, it seems. The Executive Committee of the SBC has debated the question almost a dozen times starting in 1988. Simply put, they don’t wanna. They’ve got a lot of excuses for why they don’t wanna, and all of them sound ridiculous.

Probably the most hilarious of their ridiculous excuses: it’d totally divert money from missionary work to even study the feasibility of allowing SBC members to attend virtually. Yes. This is the denomination that was all set to build Paige Patterson a USD$2.5-million-dollar retirement cottage. They fretted about misusing funds to study a problem facing the entire denomination. Well, they didn’t seem super-worried about wisely stewarding their money back then.

Maybe they’ve grown and matured in wisdom since those early, heady days of May 30th.

So if someone wants to have any input regarding the SBC’s decisions, they must haul their cookies to the convention site itself.

A Lesson About Power.

Of course, once a participant gets to the meeting, they’re going to discover quickly another Principle of Power:

Power guards itself.

After successfully establishing a totally lopsided power dynamic, leaders in the broken system hold ALL the power in the group. They make all the decisions for the group, in addition to holding unilateral power over the actions of and future direction for individual members. Someone lacking power will never be able to make any meaningful changes to the group, because leaders can easily nullify, invalidate, or simply ignore followers who agitate for change.

The SBC’s leadership is happy to take money from their followers. They even allow a few of those followers to “be in the room” where the sausage gets made and the game gets played. But it’s going to be exceedingly difficult for those powerless followers to have much impact on their powerful leaders.

A Productive Half Hour.

Messengers raised 20 different motions during two count them TWO 15-minute segments allowed for that opportunity. So during that cumulative half hour out of two solid days of meetings, attendees could make suggestions.

Of the 20, 12 motions will go to the Executive Committee. They’ll study them all very, very hard with top men (TOP. MEN.) and report back during the 2019 Jamboree. Three motions went to other committees to study for the coming year.

The denomination’s leaders ruled five of the remaining motions as being out of order. One of them was a demand that all messengers–meaning attendees of the annual convention–had to be “engaged in pro-life issues.” Another wanted “focus on the John 3:16 Gospel.” (Context is for for the weak.)

Here’s one reaction that made me laugh:

The Big Kahuna.

One of the big news items from the convention was that someone made a motion to dismiss the entire Executive Committee of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. That’s the one that had everyone on Twitter just hopping.

Tom Hatley, the messenger who suggested this radical action, disapproved of the committee’s firing of Paige Patterson. He felt they’d acted with “haste, lack of proper investigation,” and hadn’t allowed Patterson time to respond to accusations. Hatley wanted to reprimand the seminary’s Executive Committee, basically.

But Southern Baptists all over were shocked by the motion. Many saw it, rightly I think, as not simply a retaliation against the seminary committee but also a statement about how seriously their peers, especially in leadership, took violence and abuse against women. They saw support for the motion as a sign that their fellow Southern Baptists cared more about abusive and abuse-condoning leaders than about the many (mostly female) victims of those leaders.

The motion failed. We don’t know the exact tally of votes because apparently they do it by people raising paper ballots in the air, but one attendee said it was “not that close.” That said, a few attendees expressed surprise that it’d gotten as far as it had.

SBC Explainer tweeted an assessment of the internal politicking involved in the motion:

More like a ravening wolf, but sheep can’t be expected to notice distinctions in those wishing to devour and fleece them.

In essence, the entire motion to reprimand the people who’d fired Paige Patterson backfired badly. The messengers themselves ended up indirectly affirming the firing. Ouch.

Churn, Churn, Churn.

As important as Nathan Akin makes it sound to “be in the room,” more and more Southern Baptists appear to be deciding that maybe they can sit it out. Here are the past attendance rates for this shindig. In the 1980s, they hit 45,000 messengers. But attendance has declined since then. Since 2006, they’ve broken past 10,000 messengers once.

The Florida Baptist Convention predicted 14,000 messengers at the 2018 convention. However, the stadium they’re using doesn’t even have 10,000 seats. So I seriously doubt they managed to break 10k this year. An event right before theirs, Crossover Dallas, claimed 35,000 attendees–but it used a whole other stadium, one that seats 80,000.

If they can’t figure out a way to make young people want to give them the time of day again, they’re going to be holding their Annual Tight Ass Club Jamboree in a hotel ballroom in just a few short years. (“You guys, hey, you guys–wrap it up. We’re here until 9:20, and then a Zumba class needs to set up.”)

But I don’t think the leaders of the SBC particularly care about seeing more people show up to their convention. If it were a priority, they’d be making it easier to participate, not harder. I strongly suspect that the people who go there are largely sympathetic to these leaders’ desires and behavior–remember, they’re only coming from churches who contribute heavily to the SBC’s missionary fund.

Get A Load of THIS Denomination.

Sure, their leaders can try to airily dismiss any hints of worry. This guy sure did. Our Get-A-Load-of-THIS-Guy Cam caught this WTF moment: “As a leader, a part of my role is defining reality.”

But I suspect that these proclamations fool fewer and fewer people.

We’re still waiting for the full 2018 report–it’ll probably come out in a couple of days. But we can read between the lines of the bit they’ve released already:

  • They know that they need 1200 churches opened a year to offset the 900 SBC churches that close every year.
  • But they’re not opening anywhere close to 1200 churches a year. (2016: 732 opened)
  • They’re also not even close to keeping up with population growth, in terms of members.
  • They’re still dealing with their many-years-long baptism drought.
  • Many of their existing churches are deteriorating in membership.

The SBC has also released some initial figures regarding baptisms and donations. Baptisms declined–again–and the ratio of baptisms to total members declined–again. Some forms of donations declined, while others jumped a bit. I’m not surprised by any of it. We’ll cover the report later on.

So ultimately, “being in the room” might not be easy, but at least it’s also largely thankless and meaningless. 

NEXT UP: A quick swerve onto something that’s become topical of late: loneliness. You’ll all be very happy to know that a Christian has totally solved our problems there. Then we’re plunging into complementarianism. See you next time!


Endnotes.

1 A number of commenters, starting with Lambchopsuey, speculated that the SBC might have listed their preferred vendor for a far less savory reason:

SUUUUUURE they did. It couldn’t possibly be that they’d negotiated a sweetheart deal with their “approved” vendors to get a cut of the top-tier prices that the attendees would be paying to be in that room. AND this also limits WHO will get to be there in the first place. Money’s what talks, within churches and within the organizations that control churches. It’s all and always about the MONEY. The riffraff need not attend, and CERTAINLY not via staying in cheaper hotel rooms!

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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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