Why Are Fewer Messengers Attending the SBC Annual Meeting?

Southern Baptists are a denomination of more than 15 million people — the largest non-Catholic body in the nation. Our annual meeting has been called the largest deliberative body in the world, and yet the number of messengers attending our annual meeting is less than half of what it was 25 years ago. Why?

The answer may not be possible to know, but there are some factors that may have influenced Southern Baptists.

Following 12 straight years of conservative SBC presidents (1979-1990) during the conservative-moderate battle, moderates basically withdrew from the annual meeting. By 2011, 1,900 churches had created what was called “a denomination within a denomination” — the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship — which has its own annual meeting. This has created a loss of messengers at the SBC annual meeting.

Also, during the same time period, the Internet was growing rapidly, revolutionizing culture — including evangelicals. Up until the early 2000s, the Internet was basically stationary. Then the tremendous advance of mobile technology further enhanced the communication revolution. Today, PEW Research estimates that as many as 95 percent of Americans own a cell phone, and 63 percent of adults use their smartphones to connect to the Internet. Landlines in homes continue to decrease, while more people choose to watch television through mobile devices rather than a television! This also can be a contributing factor in fewer messengers. It is easier, more convenient, and less costly to simply watch the streaming live broadcast of the annual meeting. The downside is that you can’t participate in the proceedings, have in-person fellowship with people, or vote on matters presented to the body.

In 2009, SBC president Johnny Hunt appointed a Great Commission Resurgence Task Force to reach more people. Ronnie Floyd was named chairman. The recommendation of that committee was voted on at the 2010 annual meeting in Orlando (which was the last meeting where more than 10,000 messengers attended). The issue was controversial and divisive. One seminary president who opposed the recommendation said he did so “because there is nothing wrong with the Great Commission.” The adoption of the report signaled a change in the structure of the convention.

Churches in America are declining, and the SBC is no exception. Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, stated a few years ago that he was “grieved we are clearly losing our evangelistic effectiveness.” The continued decline in annual baptisms in SBC churches has led many to conclude that the GCR was a failure and was more divisive than unifying.

The location of the annual meeting is another reason given by many as a reason for lower messenger attendance. We have never had large crowds in Phoenix (2003, 2011, 2017), but we seem to attract larger crowds when the meeting is held in the South. The stated reason for having the meeting in large cities that are more unchurched is that it will expose Southern Baptists to more people and result in our reaching more people and planting more churches. Thus far, we are planting more churches, but we are baptizing fewer people.

All of these facts, and more, contribute to lower messenger turnout.

Molly Worthen, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, wrote an article in 2014: “Did the Southern Baptist ‘Conservative Resurgence’ Fail?” In her conclusion, she writes: “Christianity has been around for 2,000 years. Over the centuries, the faith’s center of gravity has shifted many times: from Palestine and Northern Africa to Rome and Byzantium; from Western Europe to America. The Southern Baptist experience is more proof that Americans’ term at the helm of Christ’s ship may be nearing an end, and the sailing more squally than ever.”

If she is right, we have bigger problems than messenger attendance at our annual meetings. Attendance may be a reflection of the experiences I mentioned earlier. It could also reflect the interest and commitment of Southern Baptists to the mission God has given us. If that is the case, the 2018 Dallas convention could be evidence of our continued demise — or an indication of our revived sense of mission.

Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting Attendance (Registered Messengers) Over the Last 50 Years

1967 Miami Beach – 14,794

1968 Houston – 15,071

1969 New Orleans – 16,678

1970 Denver – 13,692

1971 St. Louis – 13,153

1972 Philadelphia – 13,153

1973 Portland – 8,871

1974 Dallas – 18,190

1975 Miami Beach – 16,421

1976 Norfolk – 18,637

1977 Kansas City – 16,271

1978 Atlanta – 22,872

1979 Houston – 15,947

1980 St. Louis – 13,844

1981 Los Angeles – 13,529

1982 New Orleans – 20,456

1983 Pittsburgh – 13,740

1984 Kansas City – 17,101

1985 Dallas – 45,519

1986 Atlanta – 40,987

1987 St. Louis – 25,607

1988 San Antonio – 32,727

1989 Las Vegas – 20,411

1990 New Orleans – 38,403

1991 Atlanta – 23,465

1992 Indianapolis – 17,956

1993 Houston – 17,768

1994 Orlando – 20,370

1995 Atlanta – 20,654

1996 New Orleans – 13,706

1997 Dallas – 12,420

1998 Salt Lake – 8,585

1999 Atlanta – 11,608

2000 Orlando – 11,959

2001 New Orleans – 9,584

2002 St. Louis – 9,609

2003 Phoenix – 7,015

2004 Indianapolis – 8,600

2005 Nashville – 11,641

2006 Greensboro – 11,639

2007 San Antonio – 8,630

2008 Indianapolis – 7,277

2009 Louisville – 8,795

2010 Orlando – 11,075

2011 Phoenix – 4,852

2012 New Orleans – 7,874

2013 Houston – 5,103

2014 Baltimore – 5,298

2015 Columbus – 5,407

2016 St. Louis – 7,321

2017 Phoenix – 5,018 (unofficial)