Religion

The Southern Baptist are meeting in Indianapolis. Here’s why it matters.


INDIANAPOLIS (RNS) — More than 11,000 Southern Baptist Church members, known as messengers, will gather in Indianapolis this week for one of the largest, and sometimes noisiest, religious meetings of the year.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual gathering is part family reunion, part business meeting and part church service, mixing singing and sermons with business reports and elections — quotes from “Robert’s Rules of Order” are as common as Bible verses.

With organized religion on the decline and fewer Americans putting faith in churches and their institutions, a denominational meeting may seem passé — a relic from the past that no longer matters.

Still, here’s why you might want to pay attention.

Southern Baptists remain a powerful faith community  

Though it has fallen on hard times in recent years — with membership in decline and an ongoing abuse crisis — the 12.9 million-member SBC remains one of the most influential faith groups in the country.

Through its six seminaries, the denomination trains more pastors than any other faith group in the country. Even pastors who aren’t SBC go to Southern Baptist seminaries, giving the denomination the opportunity to shape the message delivered in all kinds of churches. Its publishing arm, Lifeway, produces Bible studies and kids’ curricula used in churches nationwide. The SBC also runs one of the nation’s largest disaster relief volunteer forces that plays a key role in helping communities recover when tornadoes or other disasters strike. And its thousands of missionaries influence how the Christian faith — or at least the Protestant variety — is spread and practiced around the world. 

Other non-denominational churches often follow where the SBC leads — especially its pronouncements about social issues, theology and church life.

Messengers vote during the first day of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, June 13, 2023. RNS photo by Emily Kask

Messengers vote during the 2023 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in New Orleans, June 13, 2023. (RNS photo/Emily Kask)

Southern Baptists vote

Donald Trump made a virtual appearance during one of the side events in Indianapolis. His former VP, Mike Pence, will also be there. While the two are no longer on the same page, they both know that Southern Baptists remain a vital part of the GOP’s evangelical voting bloc. 

The meeting where Trump spoke was sponsored by the Danbury Institute, a new group that seeks to promote “Judeo-Christian values as the proper foundation for a free and prosperous republic.” Among other speakers was Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler, one of the denomination’s most influential leaders — who once denounced Trump and swore never to support him and then backed his 2020 run for office. (Mohler once tweeted “Never. Ever. Period” about Trump, a pledge that did not last long.)

Southern Baptists are also eager to shape public policy — they backed the fall of Roe v. Wade, have advocated for restrictions on in vitro fertilization, want to see immigration reform and support aid to both Israel and Ukraine.

This year, they will consider resolutions on several issues: condemning IVF; calling on their leaders to be more ethical; defending the war in Israel; and condemning the use of NDAs “that oppress or harm individuals, promote unnecessary secrecy, or deter accountability.”



Earlier this year, Baptist leaders wrote to House Speaker Mike Johnson — who is a member of an SBC church and was a trustee of an SBC agency — and urged him to support aid for Ukraine. 

Southern Baptists might be one of the few religious denominations that has the clout, confidence and influence to convince millions of churchgoers to shape politics and culture. 

Southern Baptists will make a key decision about women leaders this week

Southern Baptist churches have long relied on women to teach Sunday School, lead outreach ministries and do all the behind-the-scenes work to keep their congregations running smoothly. Southern Baptists also raise hundreds of millions of dollars every year in the names of legendary missionaries Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. But they have also banned women from the pastorate — especially serving as senior pastor of a church. 

Now they may go further. A proposed constitutional amendment would ban churches where any woman has the title of pastor, even in a supporting role such as working with kids or music or women’s groups. The SBC kicked out five churches last year — including Saddleback Community Church, one of the nation’s biggest churches — that had women in senior leadership roles. Passing this new rule, known as the “Law Amendment,” could lead to hundreds or thousands of churches leaving the SBC.   

The potential fallout has led some church leaders to oppose the amendment. While they believe only men should be pastors, these leaders, including several running for SBC president, say it is unneeded and could have unintended consequences. 

Southern Baptists will make key decisions about abuse reform 

Two years ago, after a major investigation showed denominational leaders had mistreated abuse survivors and sought to downplay how often sexual abuse happens in churches, Southern Baptists voted in a series of key reforms designed to help churches prevent abuse and respond better when it happens.

Those reforms and the crisis that prompted them made national headlines and led to promises that things had changed. But the reforms have stalled, and, two years later, a task force charged with implementing reforms has made little progress

At the Indianapolis meeting, the messengers will once again get to have their say. Will they press their leaders to make reforms stick or let them fall by the wayside? And will Southern Baptists find the money and resources needed to address abuse over the long term or will they decide the cost is too high? 

The Southern Baptists’ annual meeting runs June 11-12 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis. 



 



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